Episode 166 – Master Negotiator Brandon Voss


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Episode 166 — Master Negotiator Brandon Voss

Hey, everyone!

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 166! I’m speaking with Brandon Voss, part of the Black Swan Group. His father Chris Voss wrote the New York Times Bestseller Never Split the Difference. It is the book for negotiating. His father was the top hostage negotiator for the FBI, in situations where negotiation was a matter of life and death.

This was a really cool Episode! We dive into a lot of great information. I think all of us are a little bit uncomfortable when it comes to negotiating. We dive into a lot of great stuff!

Let’s dive in!



I. [00:48] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get a callback or didn’t get the job? Here is the thing: Most of us think that we can put our latest work on our reel, add some music — and get the job. A lot of us aren’t aware that the majority of reels sent to a studio are skipped through and sometimes never even watched in the first place.

Everything we’re taught about being an artist is wrong! Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of arts — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write a book from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. I want to:

  • Give you the formula to be the obvious candidate for the job;
  • Tell you how to build a reel and put it up on YouTube — that brings studios to you!

You can get this book for free right now! Whether you’re in design, film or games, go to www.allanmckay.com/myreel!

II. [02:52] I have some free training out right now based on the upcoming film Venom. This is something I’ve been working on for a while. You can go to and sign up for the free crash course at www.allanmckay.com/venom/. Go there now!

III. [03:22] In addition to all the great insights in this Podcast, I have a Negotiating Guide for Artists out right now. To get access to it, please go to www.allanmckay.com/166download/.



The Black Swan Group is a consulting company that trains its clients how to be successful at negotiating. They help achieve exceptional results in business and personal negotiations using hostage negotiation skills. The Group was co-founded by Chris Voss, the author of Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It, and his son Brandon Voss.

Prior to writing this bestselling book, Chris Voss was the lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI, as well as the FBI’s hostage negotiation representative for the National Security Council’s Hostage Working Group. During his government career, he also represented the U.S. Government at two international conferences sponsored by the G-8 as an expert in kidnapping. Prior to becoming the FBI lead international kidnapping negotiator, Chris served as the lead Crisis Negotiator for the New York City Division of the FBI. He was a member of the New York City Joint Terrorist Task Force for 14 years.

During Chris’s 24 year tenure in the FBI, he was trained in the art of negotiation by not only the FBI but Scotland Yard and Harvard Law School. He is also a recipient of the Attorney General’s Award for Excellence in Law Enforcement and the FBI Agents Association Award for Distinguished and Exemplary Service.

Since Black Swan’s inception in 2008, Brandon Voss has established assessment procedures for new clients that take their needs, situations, and corporate culture into account so Black Swan’s approach can be customized to each client. Brandon has made it his mission to teach clients how to identify the basic types of negotiators and has developed a methodology for dealing with each type in the most successful way.

Brandon’s background is in sales. He has done retail sales for Macy’s and business-to-business sales for Verizon. In addition to training clients, Brandon has guest lectured at USC Marshall School of Business, Georgetown McDonough School of Business and organizations like Policy Innovators in Education.

In this Podcast, Brandon Voss talks about the art of negotiation and how to use of your emotional intelligence and leverage during any negotiation.

[04:00] Allan: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?

Brandon: Alright, well, my name is Brandon Voss. I’m the Director of Operations at Black Swan Group, the company that my father Chris Voss and I started. My father is the author of Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It. He and I have been working together since the inception of our business.

[04:32] Allan: Do you want to talk a bit about your background, as well as your dad’s? And what you’ve been doing for the last few years? 

Brandon: He is the marketable part of this business which I’m not afraid to say. Nothing wrong with that! My background was in sales. I started at the bottom of the tier. I got a chance to have success at it. Based on what I’ve learned in that arena — as well as from my father — we were able to create the business we have today, based on the tactical application of emotional intelligence to your conversations.

[05:36] Allan: I didn’t really plan to ask this but having your dad doing such an amazing and dangerous job, what was that like for you? For most people, a dad is an accountant. What was that like?

Brandon: You know, he was definitely the most popular parent on Career Day at school. No doubt about that! It was a cool thing! At this point of my life, I can appreciate what he did a lot more because I’m learning from him. I’m in a blessed position to have him as my mentor. As a kid, he was my father and it was just something that he did [for a living]. We had such a good relationship because we didn’t see each other that much. If you’re the kidnap negotiator for the FBI, as awesome as that is, you don’t have much of a home life. You’re traveling the world in these dangerous places. When we would see each other, it was great because we didn’t get to see each other all that much. I got to go live in DC alone because he was on a case in the Philippines. I was an only child. I’ve learned to be on my own. Both of my parents worked really hard to provide for me and give me everything I needed. But I looked after myself a lot of the time. But he did have a lot a great stories; and these days, I get to learn from him.

[08:11] Allan: I’ve heard the Philippines story before. So impressive! I’m curious about the book. It’s so huge! So many people have read it religiously! Do you think your father realized what impact his book would have?

Brandon: You know, I don’t think so. We had some sense, some goals of what we wanted the world to know. Where it is now, it’s definitely more than what we imagined. My dad and I do a lot of training. He can stand in front of the group and joke that I’m not listed an author. We originally wrote the book in my house. It was a great process! Tahl Raz, the guy is a genius! We went through several writers before we got introduced to Tahl. When Chris was initially meeting writers, he would carry this book Never Eat Alone that Tahl Raz cowrote. When Tahl fell out the sky, he came down to DC. For three days, we sat in my kitchen and talked about negotiation. Then he went back to New York and started sending us chapters.

[11:23] Allan: He said, “I’ve got a bestseller for you, let’s go!”

Brandon: I thought he was joking. When he knew that he was going to cowrite with us, he had to read every negotiation book he could get his hands on. I thought he was joking. I think he read 20-30 books, just to get his brain into that mold.

[11:57] Allan: That’s so cool! Your dad’s experience with negotiation is one that’ve very different to the hypothetical, “Hey, just be confident and say these things in an interview” situations. With your dad, it was life and death. How much of a contrast would those 20 books be to Never Split the Difference? 

Brandon: There is a huge difference! There is a few authors who have the sense of emotional intelligence and the application of it. No one really talks about it specific to negotiation. Of course, I don’t know everybody. Specific to negotiation, you don’t see a lot talked about it.

  • Negotiation is about leverage.
  • It’s about making your argument.
  • It’s about getting people to do what you want, sometimes against their will.
  • “How do you manipulate them?” is the mindset.

And our mindset is: 

They’re going to be happy to agree to your terms because it’s so easy to collaborate with you!

[13:38] Allan: What kind of clients do you typically get with the Black Swan Group?

Brandon: There isn’t a typical client. I guess the only way to describe a typical client is:  Someone who wants to be more affective in all the communication that they have. As far as the company [profile], we have a guy who runs a small business in Ohio to the largest private equity firm in one of the Asian countries; there is Fortune 500 and small family-owned businesses. The amount of people that you get to meet — the successful individuals who are working every single day to get better — the type of people who weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths. They’re successful now because they’ve been grinding and trying to figure out how to improve every single day.

[14:53] Allan: That’s so cool! As I’ve mentioned earlier, most of the audience I have are designers and artists. A lot of people tend to have a view that a negotiation means confrontation, and is therefore to be avoided at all costs. Is that a pretty common feeling? And is there to a way to train yourself to look at it differently?

Brandon: I think that’s a great question! That is not uncommon. Looking at negotiation as a necessary evil — is not uncommon! But to quote my father, the most dangerous negotiation is the one you don’t know you’re in. The problem with looking at a confrontation, is that if you’re looking at a negotiation that doesn’t feel like a confrontation — the fact that you are indeed in a negotiation is completely lost on you. Not that that’s an uncommon thought, but it’s completely narrow-minded and it eliminates all the other negotiations throughout the day that don’t make you feel uneasy.

[16:24] Allan: What about nerves? Most people end up freezing in the process. I used treat my interviewers as equals and it tends to eliminate that pedestal. Are there mindsets like that?

Brandon: I think that’s a great question!

I. So the first part of that: How do you slow yourself down and get yourself gathered in the moment? It’s going to sound simple: Just focus on Slowing. Down. Your voice. When you feel yourself getting anxious and you don’t know what to do next. Just focus on slowing down your voice. You naturally fall into this downward inflecting, slow, soft tone of voice. What it does to you mentally is it helps you slow yourself down and become able to hear yourself and the other person across the table. That helps them slow down.

II. The second part of emotional intelligence is being able to recognize the emotions of the counterpart and influence those emotions directly. The simplest way to do that is with your voice. I think there is a book titled Performing Under Pressure. It’s a New York Times Bestseller. Those techniques help you apply in negotiations. For example, when we get tense in a situation, our fingers naturally curl into a fist. If you focus on uncurling your palms.

  • Slow down your voice.
  • Uncurl your palms.
  • Focus on what you can name or mirror next.

It’s going to feel awkward in the moment. You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. But you will be amazed with where you come out on the other end of that.

[19:47] Allan: That’s great! Slowing down your voice is your state control as well, you’re bringing them down to your level. You get this one a lot — but every artist tends to have it: When negotiating money, you want the employer suggest the first number. What would you recommend in those situations where an employer wants you to disclose how much you made at your previous job or suggest a number you should start at?

Brandon: That’s a great question, especially in a job situation. I’ll go at the money question.

  • First initial reaction is: What makes you ask?
  • Or: You need to use the label that makes you pinpoint what about their question makes it important to them (a.k.a. “It sound like X is important to you.”)

Because what difference does it make if you’re coming from a job where you made 50K in a year and going into a job where you should be making 80K a year. The only reason they would ask you that question is so that they could cut down the salary as much as possible. You don’t want to give them an opportunity to take advantage of you.

We assume that you’re speaking with the decision makers. And even if you’re talking to one of those, there are people who are not at that table — to whom that person talks to — that helps them make that decision. Almost never are the decision makers at the table! So when you’re at the table, you need to concern yourself with how to conduct the conversation that happens in that room.

The same goes for salary negotiation:

  • Part of that interview process is: Are you worth that money?
  • There is no company on the planet that has a foolproof interview process. The process changes every few months because they aren’t happy with it. To play into a flawed hand, that’s the thing that fell out of the sky.
  • Treat them as an equal. Treat them as a friend. You want to have a conversation. And part of having that conversation is your asking questions that make you look like you know what you’re talking about.
  • Turn them into your personal mentor. Tie them into your success. How do you make yourself important enough on the inside of what they do, to work yourself up the latter?
  • The what and how questions are focused on flipping the interview: “How do I make myself better within the organization that you, guys, have already created?”

[24:28] Allan: That’s great! I completely agree with that. A lot of people don’t think it’s as easy as that. The most common thing that people who want a raise do is say, “I’ve got a better offer elsewhere. I’m going to quit unless you give me more money.” I would rather let someone like that go. Why reward bad behavior? Instead, why not go and tell them how much you love the company — and ask them what they need and how you can make yourself more valuable to them? You’re investing in them and that makes you a more valuable asset. If you don’t improve yourself, I don’t have to give you a raise.

Brandon: The way you put that too: That “asset”! How do you go from being an employee — to being an asset? As asset by definition is more valuable to you. The threat “Give me this or else” is more common in the private sector. It’s horrible! Everyone has done it at least once and it’s a horrible tactic. There is a large enough population that’s a competition. I don’t need to make deals with someone who makes threats all the time. And it’s a basic human nature concept. We talk about this in the book: Ignore human nature at your peril.

One of the most sought factors is human autonomy. And when you come in and start making threats, whether you’re doing it on purpose or not, you’re threatening their autonomy. And the only natural reaction is to dig their heels in and get ready for battle. And that is not the place you want to take your negotiation.

A negotiation is:

  • About getting the information. How are you going to get that information from someone who is threatened?
  • About collaboration: How can you get there when you come in with, “Give me this — or ‘I’m going to blow this person’s head off!’”

[28:30] Allan: And do you think it’s pretty common? Most people come into any negotiation thinking about what they want. I’ve always simplified it to: Figure out what they want and then getting what you want becomes a lot easier. If you go in and look to take on a project — but you know money is an issue for them — you can negotiate other things (contingencies, vacation time, etc.) Understand what they want. I’ve had friends negotiating, “I want all your computers after your job is done.” Do you see the self-involved approach as more common?

Brandon: Yes, I’m going to make another harsh statement here. If you aren’t someone who’s read Never Split the Difference then yes: You’re the type of person who goes into a negotiation thinking about yourself and not worried about what they want. That already puts you on a bad foot. Decisions have been made before you enter the negotiation. A common misconception is that we come together to make decisions. And the fact of the matter is that decisions have been made before you got there. They’ve had conversations with their teams, or bosses. When you come to the table with your opinion, you’re shorting yourself.

What brought them here in the first place? It’s probably more beneficial for you to consider that. Take any card game. (I’m a big card player.) The cards in your hand never change. The cards are static unless you play them. If you’re the type of player who just sits there and stares at your hand — you’re doing yourself a huge injustice. There are multiple people at the table with their cards. Based on their looks on their faces or the order in which they played their cards, what does all that information tell me? If that’s not how you play card, you better rethink the game. If you’re staring at your hand during the negotiation, you are missing out on all the information you could’ve gathered during the conversation.

[32:44] Allan: That’s great! That’s actually a brilliant advice. This is a no-brainer for some people, but what’s emotional intelligence? What’s empathy? For me, communication has been the most important skill. I found it fascinating when I moved to a new city at the age of 27, and I would make myself go out by myself every day. I learned that communication was just a muscle. I suddenly got bored being with my own friends because there were so many opportunities to meet great new people. Do you want to give a rundown on what EQ is?

Brandon: Sure, sure! First of all, I agree with you a 1,000 times: It is a muscle, the way you develop it. There are neural pathways in your brain that affect your ability for communication. The great thing is that you can approve. EQ is short for Emotional Intelligence. It’s a concept concept coined by Daniel Goleman. He talks about different forms of empathy. Most people see EQ as being aware of your own emotions and being able to control those emotions. That’s all good. The problem is that you’re only 50% of the way there. The second part is being able to recognize the emotions in the people around you and have a direct influence on those emotions. That’s how you start to use emotional intelligence at all time. 

[36:32] Allan: So many people aren’t even aware of empathy! When it comes to negotiating money or renewing contracts, what you do you find with most clients that you have are the key things they can negotiate — other than money? 

Brandon: When it comes to the involvement of emotions, I am not sure if you can only have black and white. There is always going to be a gray area. Negotiations are a highly emotional endeavor. Pushing on something like a vacation turn could easily lead to your having more money. There was one young lady at Georgetown. She was my father’s student and she got a $30K increase in her salary because she wanted more vacation time. She’s originally from France; and as you know, everyone else in the world has double the vacation time. She asked for more vacation time. They couldn’t give her more time so they just raised her salary. What are the non-monetary terms that are important to the person I’m speaking to? There are always commonalities, like vacation.

[39:43] Allan: I’ve seen that happen before. Instead of sick leave, people ask for more time or assets. You’re able to trade things in like vacation or health insurance. Vacation is brilliant because no one is going to get upset about that. The solution is to give more money as a trade-off. In terms of negotiating platforms, what’s the most successful way of communicating with people? I think there are upsides and downsides for both phone and email communication. I remember reading one book that said that phone is the most powerful. What do you think is the most powerful platform?

Brandon: That’s really interesting. The best platform to communicate is: There is no substitute for face to face communication in the same room. Video communication is great, but there is no substitute for being in the same room with someone! That’s not always possible. If you could have a phone call, some sort of verbal communication when you can hear each other, [choose that]. These days, we talk through email and texts so often! How do you negotiate better through emails? There are techniques to do that. But those emails and texts need to set up the verbal communication. That’s a lot of what we work through with people. If people can hear you talk, you can do better. No complicated agreements or terms are made through email. The intricacies takes place over the phone. “Is it too much to take up 5 minutes of your time over the phone?” Something like that can be set up over an email. In some cases, they may call you directly.  The phone could be ringing in 2 minutes.

In terms of getting leverage in your conversations, there is going to be a very counterintuitive response: You need to let go of the thought of leverage. The main reason for that is that leverage is the most emotional point in a negotiation. You need to ask yourself: If a person is going to give you something — especially if they don’t want to give it to you — are they more likely to give it to you because they feel that you have a lot of leverage over them? Or because they trust you?

[44:29] Allan: Do you have any advise on how to recover from a conversation / negotiation where you feel you’re blowing it?

Brandon: I think that’s a great question. That’s probably a question we don’t get asked enough. One of the beauties of using EQ is that no matter how bad things are, you can always recover. You can flip an emotion that’s going to improve your situation. If you’ve been in a relationship, you know sometimes things are really bad — and then immediately after, they’re really good. And you may not pinpoint exactly why; but you know that it happens. It’s because of the communication and bad feelings that take place.

And personally, I love being behind the eight ball in negotiations. And the reason for that is because the negative emotions are present and they’re always easy to see. You don’t need to search for them. Positives — you don’t have to look for! But you do know why they hate something! You can articulate that pretty accurately. If you can address the negative emotions and dissolve those negatives, you can be on the easy street pretty soon.

And as far as HOW to do it, the easiest way for me to explain it is: You’ve got to read the book!

[47:00] Allan: I’m sure everyone will! Let’s say you’re dealing with an angry client. They aren’t really receiving your information. How do you disarm angry clients? 

Brandon: If you’re dealing with an angry client — once again you’re dealing with a negative emotion — chances are you know WHY they’re angry. They’re angry because of the implementation, etc. If you can look at them and say, “You’re angry for these reasons,” — they feel heard! That’s the “That’s right!” moment. That’s what we talk about in the book. If you can articulate that before the client is able to get it out of their mouth, they will go from, “I don’t trust you!” — to “You really have your mind wrapped your mind around this! You can assess the situation.”

[49:02] Allan: That’s right. You completely judo the situation! Do you think it’s important to have scripts or canned material? If everything is a muscle, you’re probably going to have a library of responses in your head.

Brandon: The short answer is yes! Scripts or having canned responses is extremely important! Have a cheat sheet — never get beat! A lot of clients we work with have a list of “Go-To Labels”. They keep that list next to their phone. Before the book came out, we had cheat sheets on the back of our business cards. We work with clients on a regular basis. One of the things we work on is “What’s your list?”

[50:57] Allan: That applies to so many situations. One more question is: Do you have any tactics when reaching out to VIPs over emails, like producers or directors?

Brandon: I think that’s a fair question. Again, you’re in a situation where you’re trying to influence a decision. [When] you shoot an email out or send them something in the mail — your negotiation has started. You’re already negotiating. One of the best ways to do it is a cold read: It’s a twist on accusations audit. One thing that will resonate with anyone you talk to is: You want to make good decisions for your company. If you can talk to a VIP and get them to listen to what you have to say — and you start out by acknowledging that their number one goal is to make good decisions for their company — you are going to grab their attention. That’s a real simple start.

[53:10] Allan: I love that! You’re aligning their needs to yours. Do you want to end on the high end of that story of your dad in the Philippines?

Brandon: Sure, we can, yes! Allan is referring to the Jeffrey Schilling kidnapping in 2002-2003. (That was my senior year in high school.) My favorite part of that story is the ending: He escaped. The entire reason why he could be in a position to escape was that the negotiators were doing such a good job in negotiating, that these terrorists that were hell bent on torturing Jeffrey unless they got 10 million dollars as “war damages” (if someone is asking for “war damages”, that’s a huge piece of information), they went from that to the point of not knowing what to do with Jeffrey. They had no motivation to hurt him. The negotiators were doing such a great job, the terrorists’ mindset shifted and they had fewer guards with Jeffrey. Now Jeffrey has lost weight in captivity and the chains no longer fit him. So he was in a part of a jungle and they weren’t even checking on him anymore. He walked out of the jungle. A local farmer in the Philippines passes him and says, “You must be Jeff Schilling.” The government of the Philippines went on to tell this elaborate story of Jeffrey’s rescue. Politics were used to tell the story (https://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/13/world/american-hostage-freed-in-philippines.html). In fact, the guy just walked out of the jungle.

[57:09] Allan: That’s so cool! Obviously, I will leave links in the show notes but where would people go to find out more about your company?

Brandon: Well, our website is a great resource: www.blackswanltd.com. We also have a weekly blog called The Edge. It comes out every Tuesday. If you text the words FBIEMPATHY (all CAPS) to this number 228-28, that will give you a text sign-up to our weekly blog.

[58:36] Allan: It has been so much fun to talk to you! Thanks, Brandon!

Brandon: Allan, this has been my pleasure. I’m so glad you wanted to do this. This was a lot of fun! Thanks for having me on!


I want to thank Brandon for doing this Episode. I hope you can replay the Episode a few times, to really absorb this valuable information.

  • I have a free crash course going on right now. Go to www.allanmckay.com/venom/! It’s available for the next couple of weeks. I will be releasing this same training — for purchase — in January 2019.
  • If you’d like to get my Negotiating Guide, go to www.allanmckay.com/166download/.

Have I confused you yet? I hope not!

I’ll be back next Episode. Until then —

Rock on!


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