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Former FBI negotiator Chris Voss shares travel advice

  • MASTERCLASS / NEW YORK TIMES
                                Chris Voss, a former lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI, applies empathy, bargaining and other tactics in landing travel perks, avoiding travel penalties and more.

    MASTERCLASS / NEW YORK TIMES

    Chris Voss, a former lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI, applies empathy, bargaining and other tactics in landing travel perks, avoiding travel penalties and more.

When Chris Voss showed up at his hotel in Los Angeles recently before the official check-in time, the clerk informed him there would be an early check-in fee. Minutes later, he left the reception desk with the fee waived and a key to an upgraded room.

A former lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI, Voss is an expert in negotiation, and not just at hotels. He successfully negotiated the surrender of hostages during the 1993 Chase Manhattan bank robbery in Brooklyn. He has taught business negotiation at Harvard University and written about the art of persuasion in his book, “Never Split the Difference.” His new online MasterClass details the use of body language, speech patterns, empathy and bargaining — tactics he believes can be applied, from requesting a raise to landing travel perks and avoiding travel penalties.

The following interview, on Voss’ approach to managing travel hurdles, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Question: Are there basics to negotiation, like controlling your voice?

Answer: It’s great there are so many demanding travelers who raise their voices. It makes it easier for the rest of us. Start out friendly and playful. The idea is to convey “I like you and want you to enjoy this interaction.” It will come out in your voice and impact them positively before you finish your first sentence. The adage is: Never be mean to someone who can hurt you by doing nothing. If you’re good, they’ll be delighted to do for you whatever they can. A playful, enjoyable attitude gives you latitude.

Q: How do you ask for a hotel upgrade?

A: Having put the person in a positive frame of mind, the next move seems counterintuitive. You want to say something like “I’m getting ready to make your day incredibly difficult.” Having started in a good frame of mind, they think they can handle anything. They imagine way worse than what you end up asking for. But, with a positive vibe, there’s no downside. Wherever I go is upside. It’s a can’t-miss approach.

Q: How do you actually make the request?

A: You disarm their concerns with empathy. You can say, “I’m a self-serving, predictable traveler demanding the world.” You’re really letting them know you see what their world looks like. Then you ask a closed-end question you want them to say “no” to. A yes-oriented question is “Please, can I have a later check out?” Instead we go for “Would it be a ridiculous idea if I asked to check in early with no fee?” People feel safer when they say the word “no.”

A no-oriented question is designed to let the person behind the counter feel safe and secure. You haven’t made them feel badgered. As long as you’re playful, you can keep asking. If you laughingly ask an airline, “Is it out of the question to put me up at a five-star hotel and pay for all the buffets?”, you’re anchoring high with your ask but doing it in a really nice way. You give them the option to be as helpful as possible with whatever they’ve got. The only thing that stands between you and getting what you want is how you make them feel. A hotel employee once said, “If I gave you my employee rate, I would have to pay for it myself.” I said, “I’ll pay you back!” They laughed and found another way to give me a discount.

Q: What if the news is bad and there’s no rental car though you have a reservation?

A: Say “Oh, I’m sorry,” because they are expecting you to yell at them. A well-timed apology catches people off guard and makes them feel empowered. Say “I’m sorry I’m late. I’m a self-serving traveler who thinks the entire world revolves around me.” You’re setting up this line: “How am I supposed to accept that?” That is a killer line but it has to be set up with a little empathy before because it’s also fairly assertive. It forces them to look at the situation through your point of view. We refer to this as “forced empathy.” The Brits say you can be as rude as you want as long as you’re polite about it. There’s so much magic in the tone of your voice.

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