Conflict Management Skills Managers Can Learn From Hostage Negotiators

“60 Seconds or She Dies.” That’s the name of the exercise former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss conducts during conflict management skills training. The basic premise is that the “hostage-taker” demands a car, or he’ll kill the hostage. But the trainee isn’t allowed to give him that car. And the clock is ticking.

If the idea of managing that situation makes your palms sweaty and your mind race, you could probably use a lesson in conflict management from hostage negotiators.

At first blush, managing a conflict at work seems like it has as much in common with hostage negotiation as your morning commute does with The Fast and the Furious. But these conflict resolution techniques are useful anytime you need to defuse a tense situation, especially when you know you can’t give the other party what they want. Whether that person is a team member asking for a raise that just isn’t in the budget, or a felon demanding a suitcase full of cash, you can use these conflict management strategies to turn a standoff into a productive interaction.

Or course, there’s a major difference between hostage negotiations and workplace conflict, which is that, at the end of the day you and your team member want the same thing: for them to succeed. Your mission is to prove that you’re on their side.

Conflict Management Skills: Emotional Intelligence

It can be both difficult and uncomfortable for managers to deal with strong emotions at work. We’ve got this misguided idea that people are supposed to “check their emotions at the door” when they come to work. But a workplace without strong emotions is a workplace where no one is really invested in the work. As Voss says, “. . . without emotions, you actually can’t make a decision, because you make your decisions based on what you care about.”

Managing conflict like a hostage negotiator means working with the other person’s emotions: being receptive to them instead of trying to shut them down, being curious about their causes instead of immediately trying to provide solutions.

Project a Sense of Calm
When a team member is angry or upset, most people’s first inclination is to either shut down or get upset themselves. But hostage negotiators know that the most effective tactic when dealing with strong emotions is to project calm and empathy. That means not only choosing your words carefully but monitoring your nonverbal communication so your body language and tone of voice are reassuring. As Voss says, “Calm is contagious.”

Control the Pace
Don’t let a team member draw you into an emotional ultimatum. If a team member demands a promotion or they’ll quit, defer by saying you need to look into the issue or ask your supervisor. Give them time to calm down and let their immediate distress subside. This also reduces the likelihood that you’ll lose control of your own feelings and escalate the encounter.

Talk One-on-One
The more people who are watching a conflict, the harder it is for a person 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. As a manager, you can de-escalate by moving a conversation to a private venue or addressing it in a one-on-one meeting.

Conflict Management Skills: Active Listening

The first mistake most managers make in handling conflict is trying to make their point without ever making the other person feel heard. 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.” That might be a good strategy for an academic debate, but when you’re dealing with an upset team member, it’s a surefire recipe for miscommunication and escalation.

The FBI’s method of hostage negotiation is called the behavioral change stairway model. The first and most crucial step is active listening.

What is active listening?

Active listening is a communication style in which you give the person speaking your total attention, feed their words back to them, and make observations rather than judgments. This technique will help you better understand your counterpart’s position as well as communicate that you’re really hearing them, and not just waiting for a chance to make your point.

It’s also an opportunity for you to get the other person to talk out their own position. By talking, they might realize that they’re actually upset about something else. If nothing else, they’ll start to see that their tactics for dealing with this conflict aren’t getting them what they want.

Active listening techniques

The FBI uses the following techniques to teach active listening. Managers can apply them to negotiations and conflicts at work.

Mirroring
Mirroring is a technique in which you repeat the last few words of what someone just said. Doing this reassures the other person that you are listening closely to their every word. And if the conflict is overwhelming, it’s also an easy strategy to give yourself some mental breathing room.

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

Mirroring example:
Team member: “I’m fed up with having to pick up the slack for everyone else! 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 per week.”

Paraphrasing
When your counterpart makes a point, summarize it and repeat it back in your own words. This is slightly more involved than mirroring because, while mirroring shows that you’re listening to someone, paraphrasing shows you’re understanding them.

Accurately paraphrasing a team member’s remarks can help you achieve a major victory in conflict management: getting the other person to say, “That’s right!” According to Voss, “The moment you’ve convinced someone that you understand their dreams and feelings is the moment a negotiation breakthrough can happen.”

Paraphrasing example:
Team member: “I keep on trying to improve and learn more skills, but then you assign me the same boring projects. If you never give me a chance prove myself then I’ll go somewhere else where they believe in me.”
Manager: “So you feel like the projects you’ve been given aren’t helping you grow, and you don’t want to stay here 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. By suggesting labels, managers can get to the root of workplace conflicts and help find solutions to address the negative emotion, even when you can’t meet the person’s specific demands.

Emotional labeling example:
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 just don’t think you treated me fairly.”

Effective pauses
Even skilled communicators are often uncomfortable with silence, but it can be a powerful tool in conflict resolution. 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, attests to 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. Thus, by remaining silent at the right times, negotiators actually can move the overall negotiation process forward.”

Conflict Management Skills: Prioritizing Relationships

In hostage situations, the negotiator and hostage-taker are strangers, the negotiator’s primary goal is the safety of the hostages, and the negotiator’s relationship with the hostage-taker will end once the standoff is over. The situation is different for managers since they have a relationship with the person or people in conflict, but that relationship is also your biggest asset in conflict management.

You’re working to protect the relationship; it’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 FBI’s negotiation staircase are “empathy” and “rapport.” Luckily for you, managers have a giant advantage over hostage negotiators in this regard. You should have already proven your empathy and built a rapport with your colleagues and team members. Hopefully, you’re using your one-on-ones to learn what’s important to this person, proving you’re on their side and investing in their success.

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.”

Once you’ve proven that you are that concerned individual, a person can be receptive to your ideas on how to resolve the situation.

Give What You Can

A hostage negotiator is rarely able to give a hostage-taker what they’re asking for, 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.

You might not be able to take them off their current project, but you an offer them support to finish it more quickly so they can move on to other things. You might not be able to give them the raise or promotion they want today, but you can offer to revisit it next quarter. The important thing is to make your team member feels heard, not merely placated.

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”

So you’ve talked a team member down from hysteria, you’ve suggested a solution to the problem, and you’ve even gotten them 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—just left it simmering.

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

For instance, asking, “Are you okay waiting until next quarter to talk about the raise?” might get you a grudging, counterfeit “yes.” But asking, “Would it be impossible for you to wait?” gets you a more honest “no.”

Level Up Your Conflict Management Skills

You don’t have to wait for an interpersonal conflict at work to put these conflict resolution skills into practice. Empathy, active listening, and emotional awareness should inform the work you do every day. 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.

Scroll to Top