Take it From a Former FBI Hostage Negotiator It Takes a Team to Close a Deal


By Andy Smith

The image of the ‘lone-wolf’ hostage negotiator might make for great drama, but the reality of hostage de-escalation is a world away from Harrison Ford, a pulse-pounding soundtrack, and a flop-sweating villain with a bomb, says former FBI hostage negotiator Chip Massey.  

Massey has led many lives. He’s been a minister, an FBI hostage negotiator, and now, a consultant who trains growing businesses FBI-style listening and negotiating techniques as partner in the When and How Agency, based outside Washington, D.C.

“I was with the FBI from 1996 through 2004. My work often focused on espionage, as well as fugitives, drug cases. and victim witness cases,” he says.

The Art of Forensic Listening

Talking with Chip, you often hear him refer to “Forensic Listening,” a term he coined for the process when a trained negotiator bonds with a hostage-taker, or an entrepreneur learns to intuit a client’s needs. 

Forensic Listening involves absorbing not only what the other person is saying, but also their tone, body language, and other aspects of their ‘unspoken narrative.’ On another level, it involves a tremendous amount of research into the person’s (read ‘prospects’) background. Research makes it easier to mirror the prospects interests and fears. The whole process helps build trust, essential to strong business relationships, Massey says. 

A key point: “When someone repeats something, they really want you to hear it. So, listen.”

Adapting FBI Techniques for Small Business

It takes a team to de-escalate a hostage situation. Most FBI cases involve months, even years, of hard work. From busting a drug ring to hostage negotiation, it’s a team effort. The team for a negotiation usually includes:

  • The Negotiator on the phone.
  • The Coach who sits next to the negotiator handing them notes throughout the call
  • An Intel person, who spends time writing on a board with colored markers—red for danger, green for good and black for “standard pedigree information.”
  • An Investigator who will follow up on leads generated during the conversation, and
  • An overall Team Leader.

A hostage negotiation call is a well-oiled machine. Massey and Cehrs train clients – like a NY-based tech accelerator – to approach important calls/meetings with the same intensity. While an FBI-level team may not be doable for solopreneurs or small startups, it’s important to include as many people as possible in the sales call process. 

The CEO might be on the line, with an assistant/intern sharing notes while someone else does real-time research to address the prospect’s concerns to help the CEO engage the client, allay their fears, and build trust.

A Few Tips for Becoming an Effective Negotiator

Once a negotiating call begins, here are a few of Massey’s tips for the person on the line, adapted from his FBI training:

  • It’s about Trust, not Friendship. “The goal of your initial conversations isn’t to try and be your prospect’s best friend. It is simply your goal to establish yourself as someone they can see themselves trusting eventually.”
  • Learn to modulate your voice. “When negotiating, everything is at play including the pitch, tone, and cadence of your voice. Even the slightest hint of agitation can make it possible to lose a deal.” 
  • Establish an even playing field from the start. “Even if you are the one pitching the business, you can still position yourself on equal footing by telling your prospect you are evaluating them as much as they are evaluating you. Being disarmingly honest can often create positive tension that will help you gain authority,” and
  • Use ‘open-up’ questions to uncover their key goals and unstated narratives. For example: “Tell me more about what you were thinking when that happened” or “If you knew you could do anything and not fail, what would it be?”

What do Catching spies and Landing Prospects Have in Common?

A lot, Massey believes, including the importance of developing long-term relationships.

“Espionage involves years of diligence, team coordination and hard work. Catching a spy is like landing a prospect,” he says. “It’s a bedrock skillset you have to develop. Especially toward people who are going to come forward and put their lives in your hands.”

And trust is built on “the little things.” “Whether you’re building a relationship with a Mafia source or trying to get a prospect to take a chance on your small business. Be consistent and follow through on the small stuff,” he advises. Always be on time for meetings, deliver on promises, and be consistent in the quality of services you deliver. “You’re selling the invisible:

  • Trust
  • Reliability, and 
  • Follow-Through.”