The way business people use their voices during high-level negotiations is critical to determining success. They could learn a lot from how military and police negotiators speak in extreme situations– such as during hostage negotiations, according to new research conducted by Christophe Haag, professor of organizational behavior at EMLYON Business School.

Professor Haag interviewed Christophe Caupenne who was the national coordinator and chief of crisis management and negotiation for RAID, an elite, special operations unit of the French police force, comparable to SWAT in the United States.

Caupenne’s role with RAID was to reason with fanatics, terrorists or hostage takers – many of whom were prepared to kill others and themselves. He successfully negotiated 350 extreme cases, all of which ended without bloodshed. His colleagues called him ‘The Voice’.

As well as this, the research team also conducted specific tests on the tone, timbre and frequency of how he spoke.

Five tips were identified to help executives improve their performance in complex negotiations:

#1 Don’t speak like a chipmunk: A negotiator with a high-pitched voice may be perceived as less effective and less respected in terms of power, charisma, authority, trust and competency. A negotiator’s pitch must not undermine his credibility – especially in difficult negotiations. Testimony from Caupenne demonstrates the importance he places on the pitch of a negotiator’s voice: “A few years ago I rejected an applicant for a job with RAID. His only handicap was that his voice sounded like a chipmunk, which I thought would irritate the criminal fraternity!”

#2 Breathe from your lower Abdomen: To learn how to do this instinctively, place a lighted candle 10cm from your mouth, inhale gently through your nose and inflate your stomach. Then exhale by blowing the air gently toward the flame without blowing it out and until your stomach returns to its natural position. Doing this exercise regularly will allow you to improve your breathing, which will increase your energy levels during a negotiation.

#3 The ‘pen exercise’: This exercise will help you to speak clearly during negotiations. Start by putting a pen between the corners of your mouth and grip it between your teeth for five minutes. Then practice saying a few sentences that you are going to say later. This will completely relax your jaw so that when you take the pen out of your mouth your diction and articulation will be much improved.

#4 Warm up your voice before negotiations: With your mouth closed say ‘ohmmmmmmm’ like a Buddhist monk would. Then with your mouth slightly open, vocalize a short vowel such as the ‘a’ in ‘apple’ several times and then move on to longer a longer ‘a’ as in ‘market’. Finally, imagine you are a strict dance teacher. Project your voice and count ‘And one, and two, and three…’

#5 Project your voice: For ten minutes a day read a text aloud with all the consonants removed. So ‘the voice is a second face’ becomes ‘e-oi-i-a-e-o-a-e’. This will make you aware of the importance of consonants, and that they make the vowels stand out and vibrate. Then read the text out again, this time emphasising the consonants by opening your mouth wide. This will make your voice resonate more and the listener will understand you better.

“There were a number of other important points raised by this exercise”, states Haag. “Firstly, it is important to listen carefully to the voice on the other side of the table. The ‘intuitive brain’ can quickly construct a first impression about the speaker’s personality, intentions and job performance that is usually accurate. Also, empathy is important in a negotiation – after observing the other negotiators voice, mirror it. Conveyed empathy makes confessions acceptable and strengthens compassion. In a business negotiation this facilitates dialogue, calms any distressed or nervous party and increases the probability of reaching a consensus.”

I am a professor of organisational behaviour – a branch of social psychology. What interests me most is the human brain, and particularly the ‘intelligent’ use of our emotions and our intuition in everyday life. My primary motivation, as a researcher, is to try to unlock the da Vinci code of our sixth sense. To that end, I work with atypical groups such as artists (writers, film directors, actors), ex-members of the special armed services or high-ranking soldiers, neuroscientists, neuropsychiatrists, speech pathologists, top-level directors from France’s top companies and SMEs, and TV and radio journalists. My aim is to make these scientific discoveries accessible to as many people as possible.

More information on Christophe Haag:
His CV online
His blog
His ResearchGate page


Further reading…

  • Haag, C. & Fresnel, E. 2015. Implementing Voice Strategies in Extreme Negotiations: A Conversation With Christophe Caupenne, Successful Former Commando of the French RAID Unit. Organization Management Journal, 12 (1): 4–12.
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