8 Skills to Listen and Lead Effectively: Advice from an FBI Hostage Negotiator
We’ve all had to persuade someone to do something. Most of the time we press actions on people and expect them to cooperate without doing any of the negotiation prep work. In a recent leadership workshop, Wharton brought in an FBI hostage negotiator to teach the best skills and steps to influence behavioral change. Although we may not negotiate international kidnappings anytime soon, these techniques actually come in handy on a day-to-day basis: moderating conflict amongst friends, handling a disgruntled employee, charming a customer service rep to give you that discount. So how do we most effectively negotiate and exert influence to get what we want?
I wish I’d known these skills to better handle an incident with a client when I was running the advertising agency in Rwanda. Our client, one of Rwanda’s largest mobile service providers, was hosting the board of their Stockholm-based holding company and wanted the editable files for an ad we’d previously created to display during their presentation. When one of my account managers incorrectly told them we couldn’t release the unedited version, the CEO got involved and called me. Under serious time pressure (and being Latin American), he was so furious and worked up that I could hardly understand him, let alone grasp what was going on. Once I calmed him down and reassured him that we could release the files under certain stipulations, he became more reasonable, but it wasn’t easy. In the end I also managed to procure a fee for editing the files in-house for their presentation – but it could have been much easier and less stressful if I’d known what the FBI does about hostage negotiation!
For my MBA peers in particular, these skills are very applicable as we prepare for careers in the corporate world. Dealing with unruly clients (as I did), asking for a raise, and resolving disagreements in the workplace are all scenarios in which we’ll need to act as effective negotiators and leaders. As you read through these, ask yourself how they can help you to become a better manager, a superior team player, or even just a more supportive friend.
The 8 Active Listening Skills
According to the FBI, the most important part of the negotiation process is constant application of Active Listening Skills. ALS help you gather info throughout the conversation, and can calm down highly emotional people so you can reason with them. Here are the eight ALS you need to know:
1. Use minimal encouragers – Brief responses like “Really, Yeah, Uh huh, Ok” indicate you’re present and listening. Use these when the person is talking through an extended thought.
2. Ask open-ended questions – Ask questions that require more than a yes or no answer to gather more info. This conveys a sincere interest in gaining understanding and doesn’t make the conversation feel like an interrogation: “What happened today? How would you like this to work out?”
3. Reflect/mirror – By repeating the last few words, this helps the person to continue; you don’t want to stop their thought process. A voice inflection at the end (up or down) can be used to either demonstrate understanding or encourage them to go on (try it – it works!): “She doesn’t pay attention to what I say to her and it makes me angry!” -> “It makes you angry”.
4. Label emotions – By restating the emotions you hear and helping the person identify the emotions they’re experiencing, they might realize how they’re overreacting and walk through their thought process. Comments like “You sound frustrated, you seem angry, I hear betrayal…” help to establish rapport by labeling emotions the person is feeling but has not yet registered.
5. Paraphrase – Restate and put their meaning into your own words. This is used for brief confirmations and to display attentiveness: “My coworker is always talking and doesn’t pay attention to what I say” -> “He doesn’t listen to you”.
6. Use “I” messages – These turn the message from an accusatory “you” into an “I feel…”. They can be used to confront the person about a behavior that is counterproductive, without being accusatory: “I feel [frustrated] when you [are late to meetings] because [it hinders our team’s productivity].”
7. Pause effectively – Many of us are uncomfortable with awkward silences in conversation. Inserting effective pauses before or after something meaningful can help focus thought and interaction, and give the person a chance to expound on the topic.
8. Summarize – Periodically stopping to cover the main points helps to keep you on track and reassure the person you’re paying attention. Put his story and his feelings in your own words: “Ok so what you’ve told me so far is this… and as a result, you feel worried/angry/frustrated…”. Be careful not to jump to problem solving too quickly, as sometimes people don’t want to think about next steps or actions just yet.
The Five Steps on the Behavior Change Stairway
Now that you’ve perfected your Active Listening Skills, you’re ready to put them to use! Here are the five steps of the FBI’s Behavioral Change Stairway to effectively influence behavioral change:
1. Active Listening – ALS serve as the foundation for the FBI’s framework for negotiation, and should be used throughout the process. Listen to the person, and make sure they know you’re paying attention.
2. Empathy – Lower emotions and show the person that you understand what they’re going through. Empathy is neither agreement nor sympathy – you don’t need to agree with or feel sorry for someone to show them you understand.
3. Rapport – Establish a relationship of mutual trust. Developing rapport takes patience and can easily be damaged: a phrase like “I understand” can come off as demeaning or rushed. Instead, say “That must’ve been very frustrating, tell me more”. Be careful not to give advice: “You should/shouldn’t” can feel like a lecture.
4. Influence – Establish your power or capacity to cause a change in the person’s thoughts or actions. “I” messages can be useful in this context to build influence and subtly recommend next steps.
5. Behavioral Change – Encourage behavioral change – and get what you want!
.Of course, these skills are only effective when applied correctly – if you aren’t sincere, it’ll be obvious. It’s also useful to pay attention to your tone of voice – inflection, speed, demeanor and projected sincerity are more important than any single phrase you may use. And always address people by their name – people love hearing their name more than anything else! This will help establish rapport and increase your likability.
As you set off to into the world to listen and lead more effectively, keep these skills in mind – our teacher emphasized that ALS are perishable skills and if not used regularly, will diminish. So use this advice frequently, and you’ll become an expert negotiator/manager/mediator in no time! Good luck!