A former hostage negotiator gives his top tip for negotiating

A clerk closes the door before a round table talk on the shifting of lower import prices to customers due to the strong Swiss franc in Bern August 10, 2011.

Richard Mullender, a former hostage negotiator, gives his advice for negotiating in business. Image: REUTERS/Pascal Lauener

Lara O'Reilly
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Future of Work is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:


Richard Mullender knows a bit about getting his way.

Mullender spent 30 years in the UK police force and then went on to spend five years as a hostage negotiator, working in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

He has the power of persuasion to talk someone out of jumping off a bridge or to prevent an armed kidnapper from killing the person they are holding captive.

Now he runs his own training company, teaching companies about the power of listening.

Mullender gave a crash course in "life-or-death listening" at Advertising Week Europe in London on Monday and revealed the four most important words you need to use if you want to negotiate with someone.

Those words are: "I feel as if ..."

Mullender explained that the best barristers at London's central criminal court, the Old Bailey, weren't the ones that asked endless questions. It was the ones that didn't.

"Don't change the conversation. It's the dumbest thing you can do. The secret is in the rambling. It's the rambling I'm interested in," Mullender said.

Sometimes, in conversation, people ask questions to let the other person "off the hook" and to stop them from rambling. But as soon as people ask questions, they are changing the subject, rather than attempting to interpret how they feel. And it's when people give their opinions that you begin to work them out.

So rather than asking a direct question like: "Why are you doing that?" when attempting to interpret what someone is saying, you should say: "I feel as if ... "

Saying something like "I feel as if something I said upset you," or "I get the impression this is the problem," allows you to interpret their true emotion without offending them, Mullender said.

He added: "It allows you to guess what you think the other person means. If you get it right, they expand on it. If you get it wrong, they correct you and expand on it."

The best way to sit in a meeting

While Mullender said he doesn't ascribe as much value to body language when it comes to negotiation, he said there is a "listening position" that "automatically makes you listen better."

When sitting, lean slightly forward, with open space between you and the person you are listening to. Keep your hands apart with your palms open too, Mullender said.

"The moment you do that, the body is telling the brain: 'Wake up and smell the coffee,'" Mullender added.

Seating arrangements are vital too when it comes to negotiating with someone. You should never sit directly opposite the person, according to Mullender.

Instead of directly looking at each other eyeball to eyeball — which can feel quite intimidating and tense — the people in the meeting should slightly angle their chairs — at a "1.50" angle if you were looking at a clock face —to give people the opportunity to look away if they feel they need to.

But just as it's important to look away occasionally, Mullender said it's certainly not ideal to do it throughout the entirety of the meeting. People in meetings often take notes throughout, but if the person talking looks around and finds the note-taker isn't keeping eye contact, they tend to go quiet.

Mullender advised note-taking should only take place every five minutes and that this practice should be agreed upon at the start of the meeting: Talk for five minutes, summarize the main points, write down the summary.

More from Business Insider:

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
LeadershipFuture of Work
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Chief Procurement Officers: What they do and why they’re ‘unsung heroes’ for tackling big global challenges

Linda Lacina

December 19, 2023

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum