Conflict Management Skills Managers Can Learn From Hostage Negotiators

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Almost no one likes dealing with conflict at work (unless you’re a professional wrestler or a trial lawyer). But for managers, conflict resolution is part of the job description. Despite this, few managers feel confident in their conflict management skills. (In our 2020 survey of managers, only 6.3% said they felt “very prepared” to deal with their team’s interpersonal dynamics.)

If you feel out of your depth when navigating tense situations, consider turning to the experts: hostage negotiators. These professionals have mastered the art of defusing conflict when it’s literally life-or-death. Hostage negotiators specialize in the types of conflict that managers most dread: dealing with highly emotional people and finding resolutions even when you can’t give the other party what they want.

Former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss has made a living teaching business leaders psychological techniques to negotiate more effectively. Here, we’ll go over some of Voss’s conflict management skills, along with other principles of hostage negotiations. Along the way, we’ll show how you can put these conflict resolution techniques into practice as a manager.

Conflict Management Skills: Active Listening

The first mistake most managers make is trying to resolve conflict without ever really listening to the other person. According to Voss, “Most people . . . don’t walk into a negotiation wanting to hear what the other side has to say. They walk into a negotiation wanting to make an argument.” And here’s the kicker: The person you’re negotiating with is doing the same thing. When neither party is there to listen, it’s a surefire recipe for miscommunication and escalation.

The FBI’s method of hostage negotiation is called the Behavioral Change Stairway Model.
The steps are:

  1. Active listening
  2. Empathy
  3. Rapport
  4. Influence
  5. Behavioral change
Behavioral Change Stairway Model

You’ll notice that there are three whole steps that come before a hostage negotiator actually gets to negotiating. So if you’re trying to get better at conflict resolution, the first step is to brush up on your listening skills.

What is active listening?

Active listening is a communication style in which you give the person speaking your total attention, repeat their words back to them, and make observations rather than judgments. This technique helps you understand your counterpart’s point of view so you can build trust with them. That way, you assure the other person that you hear them and aren’t just waiting for a chance to make your point.

Active listening is also a great way to get the other person to articulate their position. When a team member gets to talk through their problem, they might realize that the true causes of this conflict aren’t what they originally thought. If nothing else, they’ll start to see that their tactics for dealing with this conflict aren’t getting them what they want.

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Active listening techniques

The FBI teaches several techniques to its hostage negotiators to help them develop their active listening skills. Managers can apply them to negotiations and conflict situations at work.

Mirroring is a communication technique in which you repeat the last few words of what someone just said. This reassures the other person that you are listening closely to them. It’s also an easy strategy to give yourself some mental breathing room so you don’t get overwhelmed in a stressful situation.

Mirroring is particularly effective when you repeat the words with a different inflection, like turning a statement into a question. This gives the other person the opportunity to either confirm or back off of their original statement.

Example without mirroring
Team member: “I’ve worked late every night for the last three weeks!”
Manager: “I doubt that.”
Team member:

Example with mirroring
Team member: “I’ve worked late every night for the last three weeks!”
Manager: “Every night for the last three weeks?”
Team member: “Well, not every night, but several times.”

When your counterpart makes a point, summarize it and repeat it back in your own words. Paraphrasing is slightly more involved than mirroring because you’re trying to show that you understand the other person’s point.

If you accurately paraphrase someone’s remarks, you can achieve a major milestone in conflict resolution: getting them to agree with you. Voss writes that getting someone to say, “That’s right,” in response to your paraphrasing can make a negotiation much less adversarial. “The moment you’ve convinced someone that you understand their dreams and feelings is the moment a negotiation breakthrough can happen.”

Example without paraphrasing
Team member: “I keep on trying to learn more skills, but then you assign me the same boring projects. If you never give me a chance to prove myself, then I’ll take my talents elsewhere.”
Manager: “I’ve been giving you the assignments you’re qualified to do.”
Team member:

Example with paraphrasing
Team member: “I keep on trying to learn more skills, but then you assign me the same boring projects. If you never give me a chance to prove myself, then I’ll take my talents elsewhere.”
Manager: “So you feel like the projects I’ve given you aren’t helping you grow, and you don’t want to stay unless that changes.”
Team member: “That’s right.”

Emotional labeling
People often mislabel or simply fail to label their own emotions, especially when those emotions are unpleasant. (How many times have you thought you were mad but turned out to just be hungry?) By helping to name emotions, managers can get to the root of workplace conflicts. This can be particularly helpful in defusing interpersonal conflicts between your direct reports, as it redirects their focus away from each other.

Example without labeling
Team member: “It’s ridiculous that Pamela got a bigger raise than me when she lost one of our biggest customers!”
Manager: “Pamela got that raise because she deserved it.”
Team member:

Example with labeling:
Team member: “It’s ridiculous that Pamela got a bigger raise than me when she lost one of our biggest customers!”
Manager: “It seems like you’re pretty angry with Pamela.”
Team member: “I’m not angry at Pamela. I’m just upset because this doesn’t seem fair.”

Effective pauses
Sometimes, the most effective thing you can say in conflict resolution is nothing at all. If you feel you’ve hit a wall in negotiations, try going quiet, and let the other person’s natural aversion to silence take hold.

Gary Noesner, former hostage negotiator and author of Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, has written about the power of thoughtfully employed silence. “Eventually, even the most emotionally overwrought subjects will find it difficult to sustain a one-sided argument, and they again will return to meaningful dialogue with negotiators,” he writes. “Thus, by remaining silent at the right times, negotiators actually can move the overall negotiation process forward.”

Conflict Management Skills: Emotional Intelligence

Managing conflict like a hostage negotiator means working with the other person’s emotions instead of treating their emotions as an inconvenience. Most workplace conflicts are about the person’s state of mind as much as they are about the specific situation.

When a team member is upset they missed out on a plum assignment, their hurt feelings probably have less to do with the assignment than with feeling undervalued. And even if you can’t give that person what they want, you can still assuage their feelings. After all, hostage negotiators aren’t there to give into a hostage taker’s demands but to convince them to surrender.

Don’t fear emotions

Managers often feel uncomfortable dealing with strong emotions at work. We have a misguided idea that people should “check their feelings at the door” when they come into the office. But that idea isn’t realistic or even desirable since a workplace without strong emotions is a workplace where no one is really invested in the work. “Business negotiations try to pretend that emotions don’t exist,” Voss says. “[But] without emotions, you actually can’t make a decision, because you make your decisions based on what you care about.”

Instead of trying to be overly rational in negotiations, Voss advises using the other person’s emotions to figure out what’s important to them and how you can influence them.

What it looks like: Focus on listening to get to the root causes of conflict and to understand the point of view of all involved parties.

Project a sense of calm

When a team member is upset, it’s easy to either shut down or get upset yourself. But hostage negotiators don’t get into shouting matches with hostage-takers, nor do they clam up under pressure. Instead, they project calmness and empathy, showing that they’re invested in fixing the problem but won’t get sucked into the drama.

So how do you project calm? It’s all about the little things. Choose your words carefully so you don’t further inflame the situation. That might mean you need to speak slowly, which can also help lower the temperature of the conversation. Likewise, pay attention to your nonverbal communication. Use open body language and keep your tone of voice steady and reassuring. If you behave calmly, the person you’re speaking to will start to do the same. As Voss says, “Calm is contagious.”

What it looks like: Make eye contact, keep a neutral facial expression, and speak quietly and slowly.

Talk one-on-one

The more people who are watching a conflict, the less productive it tends to be. When someone has an audience, it’s harder for them to back down from their position and be open to negotiation.

Public arguments quickly become performances.

Hostage negotiators try to establish a direct and private phone link to hostage-takers instead of yelling at them through a megaphone. De-escalate by moving a conversation to a private conference room (or Slack channel) or addressing it in a one-on-one meeting.

Conflict Management Skills: Empathy and Rapport

The biggest difference between being a hostage negotiator and a manager is that as a manager, you want to maintain a relationship that lasts after you’ve resolved the conflict. (Hostage negotiators don’t have to go to work the next day with hostage-takers.) But as a manager, your relationships with your team, colleagues, and customers are your biggest assets in conflict management.

You’re working to protect the relationship. That’s why you’re negotiating in the first place, rather than just letting this person walk out the door.

After “active listening,” the next two steps in the Behavioral Change Stairway Model are “empathy” and “rapport.” Luckily for you, managers have a giant advantage over hostage negotiators in this regard. You should have already built empathy and rapport with your team members. You’ve gotten to know them in one-on-ones. You understand what’s important to them, and you’ve proven that you’re invested in their success.

Whereas a hostage negotiator has to start from scratch to figure out why a hostage-taker is upset, you may already have a pretty good idea of what the problem is. Maybe your team member is going through a tough time in their personal life, or maybe there’s a team conflict because a big project went sour. Draw on your relationship to remind this person that you’re empathetic to their struggles and committed to finding a solution that works for them.

Noesner writes: “Negotiators generally achieve peaceful resolutions only after they demonstrate their desire to be nonjudgmental, nonthreatening, and understanding of the subject’s feelings. By projecting that understanding, negotiators show empathy and lead the subject to perceive them, not as the enemy, but as concerned individuals who want to help.”

Conflict Management Skills: Problem Solving

Once you’ve convinced someone you’re listening to them and you’re on their side, you can begin problem solving. Ideally, this involves collaborating to come up with a solution that works for all parties.

Be careful, though! Don’t be in such a rush to resolve conflict that you settle for a bad outcome or leave a problem to fester.

Give what you can

A hostage negotiator rarely gives in to a hostage-taker’s demands, but they can still offer a gesture of good faith, like food and water. As a manager, you can also present a gesture to a team member to show you’re taking their feelings seriously.

For example, a team member may ask to be moved off their current project. You can’t give them this, but you can offer them support so they can finish more quickly. A customer may not want to accept the price you’re quoting. You can’t lower the price, but you can throw in some extra perks.

Don’t abuse trust

It can be tempting to try and get out of a workplace conflict by offering a solution you know you can’t actually provide. But if you promise something and don’t deliver, you’re setting yourself up for even worse conflict in the future because you’ve lost the trust you worked so hard to build.

Don’t make a promise you can’t deliver in order to end a conflict.

Don’t settle for a “counterfeit yes”

At the end of a negotiation, you’ve suggested a solution and even gotten your team member to agree to it. But unless that agreement is genuine and your team member is committed to the solution, you haven’t really resolved the problem—you’ve just delayed it.

Chris Voss calls this faux resolution a “counterfeit yes.” He suggests avoiding it by framing your requests in ways that force people to say “no” instead of “yes.”

If you ask, “Is it okay if we wait until next quarter to discuss your raise?” Your team member might answer with a grudging, counterfeit “yes.” Instead, phrase it as “Would it be impossible for you to wait until next quarter?” Putting it that way will get you a more honest “no.”

Conflict Management Skills: How One on Ones Help You Build a Positive Culture

Be proactive before conflict starts

Ideally managers should aspire to having their finger on the pulse of their teams in order to avoid conflict before it starts. The most effective way to do that is to periodically ask your teammates about potential trouble spots. In your one on ones, try asking:

How would you rate our team’s ability to work through conflict? Any suggestions for improvement?

On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the communication on our team? How would you rate the communication between you and me? What can we do to improve it?

What can we do to build a more cohesive team?

Getting input from your team will help you find a problem before it expands to a full-blown relational crisis. And don’t be shy about asking for input on your relationship with your team member. If you don’t ask, you may pay later – with interest.

How your one on ones will help you in the midst of conflict

Of course it’s not always possible to mitigate conflict, but one on ones are still a good place to work it out. You’ll need to acknowledge the emotion involved in the conflict, with the empathy and rapport skills we’re learning. Then, try asking questions that focus on the actual issues, not simply the emotion involved. Here are some suggestions:

What would it look like to you if this was resolved?

What steps do you think we should take to start moving forward?

How would you like to move toward that first step? What can I do to help?

Asking questions in the middle of conflict should be forward-looking. While acknowledging the emotion, ultimately resolution is what’s important. By focusing on what the outcomes could look like, your team member will begin to see the light at the end of a dark tunnel.

Conflict resolved. Or is it?

Finally, once conflict has been resolved, it’s important to make sure the relationship is rebuilt. In your one on one, here are a few questions you can ask to begin the restoration process:

Do you feel like every aspect of the conflict has been resolved? Did we miss anything?

We’ve resolved the issue, but is there some personal tension we should chat about? How do we move forward now?

What are some things we can do to avoid these conflicts in the future?

Your one on ones are a great place to make sure no stone is left unturned. If you don’t deal with all elements of the conflict, from the actual problem to the relational issues, it’s likely the conflict will return – perhaps with even more force.

Level Up Your Conflict Management Skills

You don’t have to wait for a crisis at work to put these conflict management skills into practice. Every one-on-one meeting is a chance to practice empathy, active listening, and problem-solving skills. Every team conflict is an opportunity for team building if you cultivate a work environment where everyone feels respected. The more you practice these skills, the better equipped you’ll be to resolve differences when they arise. So even if managing interpersonal conflict is never your favorite part of your job, you don’t have to let the fear of it hold you hostage.

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