It may seem impossible to win an argument against an irrational person, but it turns out the tried-and-true techniques that hostage negotiators use against hostage-takers work surprisingly well in everyday situations.
You may not ever deal with a real hostage situation personally, but life is full of negotiations with unreasonable people, and those conversations don't always have to end in rage or disappointment. The mental techniques that professional hostage negotiators use can help both parties remain calm and feeling like a winner, while ensuring you come out on top.
According to former FBI agent and current Cornell Professor Gregory M. Vecchi, individuals in a "crisis state" operate at an intense emotional and irrational level. People in this mental state are completely unable to cope and there is absolutely no hope in trying to persuade them with logic.
To win the battle over these types of irrational people and get them to cooperate with you, use some of the techniques outlined below, which come straight from professionals in the fields of Aggression and Violent Behavior and Emergency Mental Health.
Mirroring includes repeating the last couple words or the main point of what an individual is saying. It helps the speaker stay organized by establishing a frame of reference throughout the conversation, and it also shows them that you're paying attention.
She says, "I work so hard, and he's such an asshole. He doesn't recognize anything I do. I just work so hard."
"You work so hard," you reply. By saying this, not only are you appearing empathetic (see Technique #7), you're keeping them focused on the point and away from a stream-of-conscious rant.
Emotional labeling shows the speaker that you're at least trying to understand how they feel. Since logic is useless at this point, show them that their emotions are noted and understood.
Emotional labeling is not telling them you "know how they feel," it's recognizing how they feel. It's showing them that you are only there to listen.
For example, take this failed hostage negotiation training scene in Flashpoint. Although the acting is questionable, the emotional labeling is legit. Notice him saying, "you sound very upset."
Did you get a gold star in 6th grade for that book summary? Put those skills to use and summarize the content and emotion of the speaker's words. It serves the same purposes as mirroring, but should be used to make sense of particularly long diatribes.
If the speaker gets lost in a ten-minute rant of rage, summarize it in a few sentences. "So, let me make sure I understand this right. You're not being recognized for all the hard work you're doing, and it makes you feel upset and frustrated?"
People don't like hearing "no" and "never" when they're in a rage, but you can say no without actually saying "no." Phrasing things positively does not mean saying "yes" and giving in to heinous demands. Instead, replace "don't" with "try this instead." Replace "I can't" with an alternative of what you "can do."
I've referenced it before and I'll do it again, Samuel L. Jackson in The Negotiator once more teaches us a thing or two about mind hacking.
People in a crisis state have trouble with time. They will digress. So use "minimal encouragers" to that show you're still paying attention. This may include cues like "uh-huh," "right," and yes, maybe even "can I get an amen."
If the speaker verbally attacks you, and they will, it's important to carefully establish a connection with "I" statements. These statements should be personal disclosures within the context of the speaker's experience or emotion.
For example, "I work for a large company, too. My boss doesn't even know my name. That bothers me a lot, so I can imagine how you must feel."
Empathy is "feeling with people," where you share an experience with another person and create an instant connection. Sympathy tends to lean towards caring, but not really understanding, which creates disconnection, and therefore will hurt you in an argument.
An individual is a crisis state does not want to know that "it could be worse," according to psychologist Brené Brown in her wildly popular TedTalk (some of which is animated below by The RSA). They aren't interested in your interpretation of their pain. All they want from you is to feel what they feel. They want you to understand their emotion, not their logic.
People are much more likely to cooperate with you after they've opened up to you, and it's vital that you get as much information from them as possible.
"Yes" or "no" questions show that you're more interested in the outcome than the individuals concerns. Stick to asking open-ended questions like "Why do you feel upset?" rather than "Is your boss making you upset?" In the end, you'll have more information from them to play with.
Before and after you say something important, pause. Doing this before an important comment increases anticipation, and doing this afterwards encourages reflection.
For example, "Let me make sure I understand." Pause. "You're not being recognized at work." Pause. "This makes you feel frustrated."
Always be calm. Your emotional state should not elevate theirs, but rather diffuse it. People naturally mimic and mirror those they socialize with, so staying calm can only help guide them to cooperation.
If it helps, just pretend that you're Steve Zissou (or any Bill Murray character for that matter). After years of searching for the leopard shark that killed his best friend, his encounter is as calm as you should be.
Now, hopefully you've got the grasp of everything, so the next time you have to communicate with unreasonable person, you'll know how to trick them into doing what you want.
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