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How a Hostage Negotiator Can Help Your Marriage

“While you might be curious how FBI negotiators get some of the world’s toughest bad guys to give up their hostages, you could be excused for wondering what hostage negotiation has to do with your life,” writes Chris Voss in his book, Never Split the Difference – negotiating as if your life depended on it. Mr. Voss has quite the impressive resume with a lot of letters: SSA, Supervisory Special Agent attached to the FBI’s elite CNU – Crisis Negotiation Unit which is also attached to the FBI’s HRT – Hostage Rescue Team to name a few. His experiences are equally as remarkable.

Mr. Voss’s career with the Federal Bureau of Investigation has taken him from dealing with bank robbers on the streets of New York City to becoming the lead international kidnapping negotiator in Manila. Currently, he teaches at several universities and has lectured in many prestigious institutions. He shares that his unique experiences have taught him one thing: Life is negotiation. He’s convinced that the majority of interactions we have at work and home are negotiations that boil down to the expression of a simple, animalistic urge: I want. I want you to free the hostages. I want you to accept that million-dollar contract. I want to pay 20,000 for that car. I want you to give me a 10 percent raise. I want you to go to bed at 9pm. I want you to go with me to my parents this weekend.

“Negotiation is nothing more than communication with results. Getting what you want out of life is all about getting what you want from – and with – other people. Conflict between two parties is inevitable in all relationships. So it’s useful – crucial, even – to know how to engage in that conflict to get what you want without inflicting damage.” In his book, he draws on his more than two-decade career to distill the principles and practices he deployed in the field into an exciting approach designed to disarm, redirect and dismantle your ‘counterpart’ in virtually any negotiation. And to do so in a relationship-affirming way. His secret bullet: Tactical Empathy.

“Tactical empathy is listening as a martial art, balancing the subtle behaviors of emotional intelligence and the assertive skills of influence, to gain access to the mind of another person. Contrary to popular opinion, listening is not a passive activity. It is the most active thing you can do.” He continues, “It all starts with the universally, applicable premise that people want to be understood and accepted. Listening is the cheapest, yet most effective concession we can make to get there. By listening intensely, a negotiator demonstrates empathy and shows a sincere desire to better understand what the other side is experiencing.”

It’s highly unlikely, in fact, mostly probable – you and I won’t wake up tomorrow and be forced to negotiate with a bank robber or terrorist, but we do engage in situations with our spouse and job that require negotiation. We encounter situations daily where we are tempted to make assumptions and ignore or dismiss what the other one is saying. This leads to frustration and angst in our relationship.

But if we apply Tactical Empathy by specifically labeling the emotion the other is feeling using the phrases, “It seems like…it sounds like…it looks like (you don’t want to go to my parents this weekend), then asking calibrated questions that begin with, “How? or What? (what do you suggest we do) to eliminate “yes or no” answers and engage conversation, we move forward in a good relational direction.

A standoff is a standoff whether its with a terrorist or the one we love most, and Chris Voss reinforces the message that “being right isn’t the key to a successful negotiation – having the right mindset it.” Tactical empathy is listening on steroids. It helps us uncover the real issue, eliminates assumptions and achieves results both parties are happy with.

“Dear brothers, don’t ever forget that it is best to listen much, speak little and not become angry.” James 1:19

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