How could you do this to me?
I slammed the door shut.
NO! I’m not coming out of this room!
I was sixteen years old, holding myself hostage in the bedroom, wailing and crying.
Mom brought her boyfriend home, unannounced, late at night, when I wasn’t ready to accept any of that.
It was a tough year. My parents separated. Mom, sisters and I moved to a new place. I had no friends, no money, no car. I felt powerless, trapped and hurt.
The wounds were still too raw.
So I resorted to stonewalling, barricading myself behind a locked door, wailing loud enough for my outrage to be heard.
At sixteen, I was an emotional hostage taker.
What I learned from this experience is you don’t need a gun to your head to feel like you’ve been taken hostage.
Every day, we can feel this way with difficult people, stressful events — we can even be hijacked by our own emotions.
To avoid or simply give into these difficult situations is not the answer.
To get what we want — fulfilling, successful lives — we must engage in a dialogue and negotiate, especially when the temptation is strong to slam the door shut on engagement and wail from behind closed doors.
How do actual hostage negotiators negotiate? How do they talk with the most dangerous adversaries and get them to keep their word?
I studied three veteran hostage negotiators:
George Kohlrieser, author of “Hostage at the Table”
Chris Voss, CEO of Black Swan Group
Gary Noesner, former Chief Negotiator for FBI
They all teach three core skills the rest of us civilians and lay people can apply to our most worrisome negotiations:
Self-control is the ability to manage your emotions and control the story we tell ourselves. The voice in our heads, or self-talk.
A great example comes from Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years. He was held hostage physically, but not psychologically. Instead of choosing to see himself as a victim of his circumstance, he chose to consider his imprisonment a period of training and preparation for the work he would do after his release. After his release, he became the first democratically elected president of South Africa.
Self-control is about owning the choice that you always have — even in the most extenuating circumstances — to think, feel and speak from a place of power.
Empathy is the ability to recognize the perspective, feelings and experiences of the other side and to verbalize that recognition.
In the book “The Art of Doing,” Gary Noesner tells a story of how an experienced negotiator defused a bank hostage situation by calmly and empathetically listening to the hostage taker’s owes. He was a police sheriff with marital problems. After listening to him, she said, “It sounds like you’re very frustrated and angry. What do you think your wife would say if you told her how you feel?”
She not only acknowledged his emotions — thus calming him down and saving many lives that way — she also followed up with an open-ended question: “What do you think…?”
Open-ended questions can have a transformative effect in a negotiation, as in this example. Think of it as an open invitation to the other side to share their motives and needs. It typically starts with the words “how, what, why.” It’s not a yes or no question.
The key is to ask without defensiveness, accusation or attack. Imagine doing this while a hostage taker is holding a knife to your throat — or while you’re held hostage metaphorically — a family member blackmails you emotionally, a boss humiliates you in front of your colleagues.
Asking open-ended questions while exercising self-control and empathizing with the “enemy” is not easy, but it’s a skill you can learn.
I teach this skill at my workshops — asking open-ended question to dig deeper for motives and interests but also to get past beyond pushback in a workplace negotiation.
I’ll never forget this story one attendee shared with me. She works as a real estate sales manager and found out she was making 20% less than her male colleague. She approached her boss and asked him, “What accounts for the difference in our pay?”
He replied, “Oh, that must have been a mistake. I’ll make sure to address that!”
Asking the right questions can help you get what you want.
Every day, we can be made to feel threatened, powerless and manipulated. But it doesn’t mean we have to give in blindly to the people who become our metaphorical hostage takers.
To defuse these difficult situations and negotiate like a hostage negotiator, we need to resist the temptation to shut the door on engagement and see ourselves as victims. We must own the power we already have to write our own stories and speak from a place of power. We can imagine ourselves in the shoes of the other side. And we can ask open-ended questions to dig deeper for motives and get past impasse.
What I learned from studying hostage negotiators is that the real work of negotiating effectively starts from within us.
Finally, as JFK once said, “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”