Number Psychology

Number Psychology

Whether you’re an amateur or an experienced negotiator, you realize that most people are not going to make their first offer their last, at least not when you’re dealing with money. That makes it easier to go first and shoot high or low; you can always backtrack.

I’m not going to tell you that you can’t break that rule—there are certainly circumstances when you should, and if your personality is one shot and out, then go for it. But if you do intend on breaking it, make very clear, very very clear, that the figure is not going to be negotiated. Say, “This is my final number,” or words to that effect. Not, “I thought I’d pay this.”

Which brings us to a general rule about making demands: If it’s non-negotiable, say so when you bring it up. Save yourself the hassle of a long-drawn-out test; suffer only a shorter one instead.

But be very comfortable with your out, because you may have to take it.

Crumpling Them Up

Most times when people make demands—whether they use that word or not—they’re simply starting negotiations off. A list of demands is simply something to talk about.

And most demands, frankly, are bullshit.

If I’m known for anything outside of police and negotiating circles, it’s the negotiation I was involved in at New York City’s Kennedy Airport, where a hijacker had threatened to blow up a Lufthansa airliner if his demands weren’t met. The way the media had it, I took the list of demands the hijacker had, crumpled them up dramatically and confidently, and said, “Let’s start from scratch.”

Well, the media was wrong. I may have looked confident, but I was nervous as hell.

But I did crumple up the demands. I don’t advise that as a general rule in a negotiation—it can really piss people off—but in this case I did it to make a point. The demands weren’t just bullshit. They were a set of preconceived notions that were so far off the board, just so outrageous, that we couldn’t even use them to talk about. The hijacker wanted to fly out of JFK, wanted prisoners released, may even have wanted the poor of India and Africa fed, for all I know—like I said, I tossed them so I can’t get them and check.

And incidentally, it turned out later that the demands weren’t even the hostage taker’s. The FBI had come up with the list from . . . well, to be honest, I’m still not sure where.

Which is the first rule of dealing with demands: Make sure they come from the other side, and not your own assumptions.

You have to ask what the other side wants.

Otherwise you don’t know.

Which was what I did next in that negotiation. And instead of some long list covering everything from freeing criminals to feeding the poor, the demands came back as two things:

  1. I want to surrender at the Lufthansa terminal.

  2. I do not want my picture taken. If I see the press there, people will get hurt.

We talked a bit more than that, but basically that’s where we went. You can see right away that those demands are a heck of a lot more tangible than feeding the hungry of the world, though I don’t deny that feeding the hungry does have a certain nobility to it. Those are demands—needs, if you will—that can be worked on together and solved.

Separation of Powers

Finding out what the other side wants is the negotiator’s job. Acting on it is the commander’s.

That’s one important reason we don’t let a police chief take the negotiator role. Because once presented with the demand, he would have to immediately act on it one way or the other. It’s logical, right? He’s the one in charge: If he’s got the power to decide, then how can he not decide?

The negotiator, on the other hand, can take a more neutral role, listening to the demands and passing them on. Physically, after I ask a person what they want, I take out a pen and paper and write it down. And I make sure they know that’s what I’m doing.


Because I want them to understand that I’m taking their demands or points or interests, or whatever word we’re using that day, seriously. I may think that 95 percent of all demands are baloney, but the signal I send back is one of respect for the person who’s making them.

It also shows that the demands—needs, whatever—are things that are outside the person, and outside me. I have a list on paper that I can take to the guy in charge to discuss. I’m letting the person on the other side of the barricade see my process.

A little. I want him to understand that I’m not the commander. I’m working with him, and he and I are going to solve this thing together.