We had one big problem that day in Harlem: no telephone number to call into the apartment. So for six straight hours, relieved periodically by two FBI agents who were learning crisis negotiation, I spoke through the apartment door. I used my late-night FM DJ voice. I didn’t give orders in my DJ voice, or ask what the fugitives wanted. Instead, I imagined myself in their place. “It looks like you don’t want to come out,” I said repeatedly. “It seems like you worry that if you open the door, we’ll come in with guns blazing. It looks like you don’t want to go back to jail.” For six hours, we got no response. The FBI coaches loved my DJ voice. But was it working? And then, when we were almost completely convinced that no one was inside, a sniper on an adjacent building radioed that he saw one of the curtains in the apartment move.
Let’s go back to the Harlem doorway for a minute. We didn’t have a lot to go on, but if you’ve got three fugitives trapped in an apartment on the twenty-seventh floor of a building in Harlem, they don’t have to say a word for you to know that they’re worried about two things: getting killed, and going to jail.
So for six straight hours in that sweltering apartment building hallway, the two FBI negotiating students and I took turns speaking. We rotated in order to avoid verbal stumbles and other errors caused by tiredness. And we stayed relentlessly on message, all three of us saying the same thing.
Neutralize the negative, reinforce the positive
Labeling is a tactic, not a strategy, in the same way a spoon is a great tool for stirring soup but it’s not a recipe. How you use labeling will go a long way in determining your success. Deployed well, it’s how we as negotiators identify and then slowly alter the inner voices of our counterpart’s consciousness to something more collaborative and trusting.
First, let’s talk a little human psychology. In basic terms, people’s emotions have two levels: the “presenting” behavior is the part above the surface you can see and hear; beneath, the “underlying” feeling is what motivates the behavior. Imagine a grandfather who’s grumbly at a family holiday dinner: the presenting behavior is that he’s cranky, but the underlying emotion is a sad sense of loneliness from his family never seeing him.
Clear the road before advertising the destination
Remember the amygdala, the part of the brain that generates fear in reaction to threats? Well, the faster we can interrupt the amygdala’s reaction to real or imaginary threats, the faster we can clear the road of obstacles, and the quicker we can generate feelings of safety, well-being, and trust. We do that by labeling the fears. These labels are so powerful because they bathe the fears in sunlight, bleaching them of their power and showing our counterpart that we understand.
Do an accusation audit
On the first day of negotiating class each semester, I march the group through an introductory exercise called “sixty seconds or her dies.” I play a hostage-taker and a student has to convince me to release my hostage within a minute. It’s an icebreaker that shows me the level of my students, and it reveals to them how much they need to learn. (Here’s a little secret: the hostage never gets out.) Sometimes students jump right in, but finding takers is usually hard because it means coming to the front of the class and competing with the guy who holds all the cards. If I just ask for a volunteer, my students sit on their hands and look away. You’ve been there. You can almost feel your back muscles tense as you think, Oh please, don’t call on me.
Get a seat—and an upgrade—on a sold-out flight
Up to this point, we’ve been building each skill as if they were musical instruments: first, try the saxophone mirror; now here’s the bass label; and finally, why don’t you blow a note on the French horn of tactical silence. But in a real negotiation the band all plays together. So you’ve got to learn how to conduct.
Facial conversational tics. In any interaction, it pleases us to feel that the other side is listening and acknowledging our situation. Whether you are negotiating a business deal or simply chatting to the person at the supermarket butcher counter, creating an empathetic relationship and encouraging your counterpart to expand on their situation is the basis of healthy human interaction. These tools, then, are nothing less than emotional best practices that help you cure the pervasive ineptitude that marks our most critical conversations in life. They will help you connect and create more meaningful and warm relationships. That they might help you extract what you want is a bonus; human connection is the first goal.