Negotiating Like A Pro: Tips From An FBI Special Agent

Melissa Fortunato is an FBI Special Agent and Crisis Negotiator. Over the course of her career, she’s been involved in a number of high-stakes scenarios that required her to lean heavily on the skills of negotiation. She joined Negotiate Anything to share her most exciting stories, as well as her best advice for winning in everyday negotiations.

The Importance of a Full Assessment

Prior to entering a negotiation, it’s important to complete a full assessment of your counterpart. This may require more time than expected, but the outcomes will be worth it. Fortunato shared how she once went so far as to “marry” her undercover colleague just to get closer to a group of targets. She invested the time (months legitimizing her cover) which then presented a perfect opportunity for building connections: a wedding.

For Fortunato, conducting a full assessment meant finding strategic ways to connect with the targets in order to learn more about them. For the everyday negotiator, this can mean adding a little more time to the preparation phase of your strategy, as well as making calls to find out more about your counterpart. These calls could be to former employers, former partner organizations or other associates. While it may feel uncomfortable at first, entering a negotiation with a complete picture of your opponent will make it all worth it.

Diversity As a Strategic Asset

While diversity should certainly be prioritized from a human rights perspective, we can’t overlook its role in a strong negotiation strategy. Diversity means a wider variety of backgrounds, strengths and opinions. This increases the odds of making a connection.

Every person is different, which means every counterpart will bring a different set of experiences, beliefs and emotional triggers to the table. The more diverse your team is, the more likely you are to make a connection. Connection is the foundation of strong negotiations.

“In any kind of negotiation, take advantage of all chances you get to make a connection,” Fortunato explains.

Prioritizing Empathy

While it may seem counterintuitive to some, empathy is the key to building strong connections and resolving complex negotiations. In one scenario, Fortunato was negotiating with a target who had shot a police officer and fled the scene. After a 15-hour barricade standoff, it was clear their current tactics were failing, so she decided to soften her approach. This slight shift in tone encouraged the target to engage with her while SWAT positioned themselves for the arrest.

While gender dynamics can be leveraged in certain situations, empathy should not be limited to women. Everybody has the potential to learn and build empathy in negotiations; all it requires is a simple shift in approach. Always be willing to forgo some of your original points if it’s clear the conversation is not moving in a positive direction and don’t hesitate to bring a new person into the conversation.

“There’s a strength in being able to see another person’s perspective and adjust your stance,” Fortunato shared.

Ask Questions Without Fear

Fortunato shared a personal story about a time in her life when her daughter was hospitalized but she found herself too afraid to ask the doctors important questions. She’s not alone in this experience. Many people hesitate to ask questions out of fear of looking “stupid”.

The truth is, not only will asking questions give you access to more information, but it also makes you look more engaged, intentional and thoughtful. Your counterpart will regard you as somebody who pays attention and is interested in what they have to say. This will level-up connections and strengthen your approach.

Just Listen

Fortunato wrapped up with an important reminder for listeners: as intimidating as negotiations can be (especially in her line of work) it all comes down to human interaction. Successful negotiations rely on listening and understanding, as most humans just want to be heard. If somebody feels they are being listened to, they are more likely to switch their position.

Consider this: with all of the power and artillery the FBI has to help manage crises, why would they continue to prioritize connection through expert negotiators?

“Because it works,” Fortunato shared.

Follow Melissa Fortunato on LinkedIn to learn more. To listen to the complete episode, click here.

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