From Hostage Negotiation to Workplace Negotiation: The Simple Trick to Better Outcomes

You know the feeling; you’re sitting in a meeting, and the concerns that you want to address are simply not being given as much consideration as you feel is appropriate.  You argue with your boss and your co-workers over the issues for a half an hour, before you eventually concede or compromise in the interest of moving along.  You’re not happy about the way things went, but the project pushes forward regardless. Being relational tells us that this can lead to a host of future problems.  At the time, though, it likely just feels good to be out of that meeting.  Future outcomes be damned.

What’s the alternative?  Andy Raskin, a strategic messaging and positioning consultant, tells us a story about a meeting that seemed to be going down that unfortunate path before being drastically re-routed… by a very relational technique.  This technique can revolutionize the way that you lead others and navigate conflict.  Don’t take our word for it- this is a technique actually used by the FBI during hostage negotiations.  That sounds like it’s probably fancy and complicated, but never fear.  As with most relational techniques, it’s deceptively simple.

The secret?  Be Engaged.

During the meeting in question, Raskin was fighting to gain consensus against “a salesperson named Troy (not his real name) [who] would not buy into the strategic narrative framework that [Raskin] had led his CEO and co-founders in crafting over the previous four weeks.  Troy was an important member of the team, and the CEO wanted him excited about the shared vision.”

Raskin was sure he had lost Tory entirely, when the CEO stepped in and took control of the situation. The CEO told Troy that the next day he would be speaking on the phone with someone from the New York Times to tell them about the company.   “’What should I say,’” the CEO asked, “’when she asks, ‘What do you guys do?’”  After Troy answered, the CEO summarized what Troy said “with total openness and lack of judgement or anger, which is impossible unless you truly make yourself open to what the other person has to say.”  After he gave the summary, he allowed Troy to adjust it and repeated the process until Troy finally said “That’s right” and signed off on his version of the story.

The process by which the CEO got Troy to clearly express his vision is one that is crucial to the very first way of being relational: being engaged.

Being engaged is listening attentively, reflecting, and asking open questions.  All three are elegantly simple, but can be hard to do. Here’s how. Listen attentively: suspend what you think, feel, and want to say. Be aware of your own impulses to either: agree with, align with, give advice to, or tell others what to do; or your impulse to disagree with, dismiss, and put them down. These impulses come from your personality, your life experiences, and your own personal reactivity. They may assist you in other times in your life, but they are barriers to listening attentively. Remember relational reciprocity. There is a huge pay-off to having enough discipline to suspend your judgment and assumptions, and even your good advice. When you listen attentively, the other person will experience you in the way they most yearn for you to experience them: fully as a human being. They will be more likely to hear and experience you in the way you most desire.

To this quality of listening, add a reflection. As you listen deeply, you must focus closely on the other person’s words and listen to what they are saying exactly, including their emotional expressions and intonations. When they finish their thought, reflect back both the facts and the feelings they conveyed using their exact words, not yours. Why do this? Because it shows the utmost of respect for the speaker to not get in their way. It communicates that you are with them, by their side, neither behind them nor ahead of them, honoring their story and fostering their empowerment. To reflect another in this way allows that person to edit, to change, to modify, or to retract what they were saying. It is a vehicle for clarity and understanding. When clarity emerges, there is a relief—an opening, a stronger chance for mental understanding and potentially compassion. Your interaction is strengthened. Whether you are strangers or intimately familiar with each other, the quality of your relating to each other is strengthened.

Be sure to stay in the listening attentively mindset and reflect back exactly what they said, without an edge or your bias or interpretation or spin. That can be very difficult if you are used to reframing others’ ideas into your own words. You are not paraphrasing. You are not agreeing, advising, interpreting, or reframing. Allow them to edit and to change what they said. Listen deeply again and offer another reflection. Do this again. When the other person has calmed down a bit, you can then ask an open question: “What else is important?” “What else do you want to tell me?” “What else do you want me to know or understand?” An open question is one that does not seek a particular answer, a question that does not call for a yes or no response. It is not a leading question. It has no content agenda and is not trying to steer the conversation to what you want. Be amazed at what is said, including thank you, even from someone you thought did not like you or was your adversary. The yearning to be understood, and thus connected, is deeply hard-wired, in our cellular structure, and held by all human beings. The best part for you in choosing to be engaged is that because you also want to give of yourself to the other and are committed to the effort to do so, you now have a much better chance that the other person will now be able to listen to you. And if not right at that moment, then set a time for later, and be committed to it, because you are genuinely interested in others. You are curious.

These tools have been used by mediators for decades to improve communication between adversaries, and they are the tools that the CEO used during Raskin’s meeting.  The CEO learned about these negotiation tactics from a book written by Chris Voss, the former lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI.  The goal in any negotiation is to find a win-win solution, or as we would say, find an outcome that is good for the self and other.  Voss realized that this is nearly impossible to do without first establishing some sort of emotional connection with the person you are negotiating with.  This is true regardless of whether you are trying to reason with someone who is holding another person hostage or someone who could break a deal.

How do you create that emotional connection?  You engage.  You want what’s best for yourself and for the other, so you make the choice to try to understand the other person- despite the stakes.  It’s a brave choice, and it’s one that pays off in the end.  After Troy felt like he had been really listened to, not only did he agree to the original shared vision, that shared vision was made stronger by something Troy had contributed while the CEO was reflecting back at him.  What was good for Troy was good for the whole company.  That’s what being relational is all about.