Why Trump Is A Terrible Negotiator, And Why Mark Wahlberg Is The Best In Hollywood

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Chris Voss (Courtesy of The Black Swan Group)
The average human being does not care much for the act of negotiating. It inspires anxiety or dread in most of us, the confrontation-averse masses. But many of us negotiate on a regular basis, whether we like it or not, and it's an inevitable part of being a person, regardless of culture.

Chris Voss, the former lead kidnapping negotiator for the FBI, knows this, and has plenty to say about the right way to negotiate in his recent book, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It. Last year, Voss moved to Los Angeles where he now teaches his tactics of "weapons grade emotional intelligence" at the USC Marshall School of Business.

I sat with Voss to discuss how we use the English language to build walls, how our presidential candidates fare in terms of negotiation, and who some of the best negotiators in Los Angeles are.

Your book reminded me of how Hollywood—and by extension L.A.—is described as "yes" place, and New York, where you've spent a lot of time, is based on the word "no." Have you experienced that since you've moved here?

One thing I always loved about New York is that it's a much more direct place. And I happen to be a very direct and aggressive person. I'm used to dialing that down and making it work in other cultures, and L.A. is a different culture. It's been an adaptation. I think that people are far less direct here. Some of "no"—the whole idea behind "no"—is protection. But what you experienc is people's very psychological reaction to the word. You can take "no" and help protect them. It's just figuring out what they're saying "no" to.

Let's figure out what doesn't work. This is a behind-your-back aggressive town. And I don't mean to say that in a negative way. But there's a lot of aggression here. But people think they've got to cover it up, because most of the time people think that being aggressive means burning a bridge.

People want to think that "well, I never said 'no' to that person."

It's a convoluted logic that gets you to the same place.

"Convoluted" describes a lot of L.A. and Hollywood. It takes more energy to get anything done than it should. And that's probably a mechanism to weed out people who aren't persistent.

For lack of a better term, I think a lot of gold diggers come to this town. Unfortunately, that's a term usually applied to young beautiful women, but there are gold diggers of all types. Somebody wants to come here and make a quick score, be an overnight success without putting in the work or time. Those people tend to abandon you very quickly. They come in very quickly, and they feel very little sense of loyalty. I think a lot of people in this town are concerned with loyalty, and they don't have a better way to test it than the long term.

Which gets us back the same problem: nobody's giving you direct feedback to your face.
You can sort of draw it out of people. You can feel people out gently. They're used to getting hit back immediately. I read a negotiation book last year about it: The Ten Commandments of Negotiation written [by Jeff B. Cohen], former actor turned agent. He was talking about how fear is the weapon, and everybody acts out of fear. It is what it is. Unless they're afraid of you, they're not gonna do anything for you. It's a short-term attitude. A very effective short term attitude. For all intents and purposes, it's Donald Trump's M.O.

The seduction of that is you can be ridiculously successful short term, but then you can't get anything done later on.

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Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Trump touts himself as a great negotiator. In your experience, do great negotiators need to scream how great of negotiators they are at any opportunity?

Mr. Trump had a number of monumental, stunning successes in New York City. He re-did the Grand Hyatt with spectacular success. The city couldn't fix the Wollman skating rink for years upon years, but Trump snaps his fingers and gets it fixed overnight. He restored a New York City landmark. Trump Tower emerged—three or four quick hits. Usually you're going get anywhere from three to five stunning successes, then nothing. When's the last time Trump put up a building?

I have no idea?

Exactly. The last time he put up a building he tried to develop the railroad yards on the west side of Manhattan—the largest development on the planet ever. By then, all the enemies he made on his other successes all lined up and attacked him. And you ask people, "What happened to the railroads Trump owned on the west side of Manhattan?" That was maybe 20, 25, 30 years ago. He hasn't had a success in New York City since then.

He ended up selling the railroads off. Someone else developed it. He ended up making a small profit because he wouldn't let it go, but built nothing in New York City since. Then he goes to Atlantic City. Several spectacular successes. Then—bang!—suddenly no more. It all disappears. Put up the Taj, put up several other things. In his book The Art of the Deal he talks about casinos as being money machines. And then he's no longer there.

That's what happens with the aggressive negotiator. It's very addicting. It's an adrenaline rush to have these successes.

Is it like a gambler's mentality? Even the worst gambler in the world is going to win big a few times if he keeps playing?

Right. And that rush is so addicting. So what is Trump coasting on now? Golf courses in Scotland? Now he can only be some place for a very short period of time, and then suddenly no one will cooperate with him anymore. That's what happens to this sort of negotiator.

For all intents and purposes, Mr. Trump does not have any allies. He only has the enemies and the conquered. And the conquered often turn into enemies in very short order. But it's very hard for that guy to see that because you're so addicted to the spectacular successes. These are monuments to his style today in New York. But it's been 30 years since he did those. You move on, and leave toxic waste behind you.

As vexing as Hillary Clinton is, one article in particular about her that was enlightening was that within her circles she has a specific reputation as being a great listener. While that's not the sexiest thing in the world, that make me rethink her. Do you think she has a more developed set of tools as a diplomat?

Listening is a black belt skill, and nobody sees it like that. In every book that talks about negotiation, listening's always listed as an advanced skill. Not a basic skill. It's something beginners need to learn. But to be a true negotiation master or Jedi—it's listening.

And Hillary is absolutely phenomenal at it. If you blame the Obama administration for mistakes in the Middle East, and you trace it back to where it came from, you'll see that Hillary either wasn't involved, or argued for a different approach. Behind the scenes Hillary is enormously aggressive. You don't see that publicly because she doesn't want that to be seen.

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Hillary Clinton. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Who would Vladimir Putin rather see as President of the United States?

Trump. For a variety of reasons I think Putin is actually scared of Hillary. She won't put up with his bullshit, and he'll never be sure of how to outflank her. You know what Donald Trump is going to do—nothing he does is going to surprise you.

Hillary is constantly and very quietly extremely aggressive. People overseas realize they're going to have to be on their toes around her. If my enemy is afraid of me doing something, I probably want to go that way.

Now having been a lifelong Republican, I view the Russians as adversaries. Who are they most afraid to face? It happens to be a Democratic female. In my own self interest, that's got to make me take a second look at her. The only other thing that might be less sexy in a negotiation than listening is empathy. Empathy makes people fall asleep immediately. "Jesus Christ, empathy." Hillary's the only one who talks about empathy.

I like your phrase a lot: "weapons grade empathy". Did you come up with that?

I thought of that on my own.

I think what most people are interested with regards to negotiation is money. Would you agree that it's not always about the money?

You should start talking about collaborating on the future right away.

And using "we" language?

Yes, using "we" language. But try: "What does a successful collaboration between you and I in the future look like?"

A high school buddy of mine—Tom McCabe—is the head of the development bank in Singapore. He's here in L.A. now, and he and I have reconnected. He's spectacularly successful on this philosophy. Everybody who goes to work for him, he'll ask, "How can I build your future?" He retains people longer than anyone else in the industry. Because as a boss, he's concerned about what will make you happy in the future and how to support that. Now you wanna stay with him for years.

Which is the same for a hostage negotiator. When I show up at a barricade, the first thing out of my mouth is, "I wanna see you get out of this alive." Now there's a point in the future that you and I can unequivocally agree on. Now that makes us a little bit less worried about the short term.

You know who I think is the best negotiator in Los Angeles is?

Who's that?

Mark Wahlberg.

I wasn't expecting that. Why do you think so?

Look at who collaborates with him. Whatever project he's working on, everybody sees future success working with him, where he encourages and supports you. The sign of a great negotiator is not saying, "I'm the best negotiator in the world." The best negotiator is the person who has the most people who want to collaborate with them. You'll collaborate with him, work out a relationship, and the next thing you know things are getting done.

In project after project after project he's successful, and that moves your life forward. And that's a sign of a great negotiator. I don't know how he would describe himself in that regard. I don't know if anyone's ever interviewed him about how good of a negotiator he is.

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Mark Wahlberg at the Toronto International Film Festival. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Isn't it in a negotiator's best interest to not be known as a great negotiator?

Yeah. I'll give you another example. I find if I'm speaking to a group of 300 men and women, 50-60 books will be bought. If I get into a group of all women, fewer books are sold. I've asked a couple women in business why that's happening. Their answer is that, "You know what? The reputation of the 'great negotiator' is Donald Trump. Women do not wanna be Donald Trump."

There's been a lot of discussion about women get paid 77 cents to the dollar. Do you give different advice/tactics for women versus men seeing as how unbalanced the power/pay dynamics are?

I think men are more willing to say "no." And women are more willing to develop relationships. I think the most successful negotiator does both. In my negotiation training, women tend to pick it up faster and start scoring higher. I've seen that consistently at the master's level programs I teach. The people who pick it up and start hitting home runs are always women. It's relationships first, then learning how to say no.

Now, depending on your type, women might see getting up and walking from the table as this really horrible thing to do. But saying nothing and walking from the table is one of the best ways to say no. Instead of slamming your hands on the table or screaming, or kicking a chair across the room—which, reportedly, was something Trump did with a contractor in New York to get his attention.

The stereotype—and I'm not sure this is accurate—is that women won't get up and walk from the table. Or the reason they don't do that is that they're more relationship-oriented, and this is a very disruptive thing to do relationship-wise. When I stop talking to someone, I may feel like I'm being very harsh. But the other side might not take it as harsh and might be mystified by it and want to re-engage.

That's how you keep a negotiation going. You don't want to slap someone in the face. But if they're mystified, now that means you have their complete attention.

One thing I used to do when I wrestled was in that moment before a match when you have to shake hands, I would always throw out my left hand. I'm not left-handed, but in my mind, I think that gets your opponent off their script. It mystifies them.

You're on the money. You wanna throw the other side off. You want them to not realize that it was you that threw them off. You try to shake somebody's hand left-handed. It's disruptive, and you're messing with 'em. When you disrupted that wrestler, most people get angry in that situation. And they need a focal point for that anger. That guy has no idea what you just did to him. You don't want him being angry at you. A great negotiation is throwing the other side off their game without getting them mad at you.

Which is why, the go-to response to say no is, "How am I supposed to do that?"

Everybody envisions the other side screaming at us, exploding, losing all control. I did ["How am I supposed to do that?"] with terrorists and kidnappers around the world. I did that with the most dangerous, psychopathic, and the most psychotic people in the world and never got a negative response.

What do you think the number one, most common mistake people make while negotiating?

First of all that you have to get your point across. Secondly, trying to get the other person to say yes. And every conversation, people are driven like paranoid schizophrenics to say what's in their brain or to hear yes. In either of those two mindsets, you're not there to listen.

I'll mention [former Dodger's GM] Ned Colletti because I think he's a great guy, phenomenal businessman, and a hell of a negotiator. He talks about when he negotiates with some of the best sports agents on the planet. He says it could be a two-hour conversation. And within that two hours, there's going to be ninety seconds of solid gold. And he'll mention the who's who of sports agent negotiators.

So knowing that within those two hours, somewhere buried in there is ninety seconds of solid gold, he gets them talking. He talks about one agent that he always puts on speaker, because he's going to clean his office while that guy talks. All he's listening for is a change in voice. That's also a trigger. He knows as soon as there's a change in tone or a hesitation, his ears immediately perk back up as he thinks, "There's my solid gold."

He didn't say a word. He doesn't sell. Because when he's selling, he's not finding out where the solid gold is on the other side.