1: Imagine it’s Thanksgiving. Sitting in the living room is a grandfather who’s grumbling.  

“He is cranky but the underlying emotion is a sad sense of loneliness from his family never seeing him,” Chris Voss writes in Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It.

He’s grumpy because he feels like he never sees the family. And he feels lonely. So he’s expressing his feelings in a dysfunctional way to get attention. 

So how do we fix that? 

We begin by understanding that our emotions have two levels: There is the “presenting” behavior which is observable. This is what we see and hear. Then, there is the “underlying” feeling which is what motivates the behavior. 

So, “instead of addressing his grumpy behavior,” Chris suggests, “we acknowledge his sadness in a nonjudgmental way. We head him off before he can really get started.” 

“We don’t see each other all that often,” we might say. “It seems like you feel like we don’t pay any attention to you and you only see us once a year, so why should you make time for us?” 

Next, we pause briefly to give the grandfather time to recognize and appreciate our attempts to understand what he’s feeling. Then, we offer a positive solution to address the situation.  

“For us this is a real treat. We want to hear what you have to talk about. We want to value this time with you because we feel left out of your life.”

2: On Monday, we looked at the importance of understanding the role of emotion in any negotiation or high-stakes conversation. Yesterday, we looked at the power of labeling emotions.  

Chris served as the FBI’s chief hostage negotiator. He explains: “What good negotiators do when labeling is address those underlying emotions. Labeling negative diffuses them (or defuses them, in extreme cases); labeling positives reinforces. them.”

Our tendency can be to get frustrated or angry when someone acts in a counterproductive way.  

“As an emotion, anger is rarely productive—in you or the person you’re negotiating with,” he explains. “It releases stress hormones and neurochemicals that disrupt our ability to properly evaluate and respond to situations.”

Not only that, but anger also blinds us to the reality that we are angry. Which gives us a false sense of confidence.

“That’s not to say that negative feelings should be ignored,” Chris writes. “That can be just as damaging. Instead, they should be teased out. Labeling is a helpful tactic in de-escalating angry confrontations, because it makes the person acknowledge their feelings rather than continuing to act out.”

Chris shares an example about a time he had made the top FBI official in Canada angry because he had entered the country without alerting him in advance so he could notify the State Department, a procedure known as “country clearance.” 

“I knew I needed to call and assuage him to straighten out the situation, or I risked being expelled,” he writes. “Top guys like to feel on top. They don’t want to be disrespected. All the more so when the office they run isn’t a sexy assignment.” 

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” Chris said when the official answered the phone. 


“Who is this?” 

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” I repeated. “It’s Chris Voss.” 

Another long pause.

“Does your boss know you’re here?” he asked finally.

Chris said his boss did know. “At this point, the FBI official would have been completely within his rights to tell me to leave Canada immediately. But by mentioning the negative dynamic,” he explains, “I knew I’d diffused it as much as I could. I had a chance.” 

“All right, you’ve got country clearance,” he finally said. “I’ll take care of the paperwork.”

3: The next time we make a mistake or anger someone, go right at it.  

“The fastest and most effective means of establishing a quick working relationship is to acknowledge the negative and diffuse it,” Chris writes.

“Whenever I was dealing with the family of a hostage,” he explains, “I started out by saying I knew they were scared. And when I make a mistake—something that happens a lot—I always acknowledge the other person’s anger. I’ve found the phrase ‘Look, I’m an asshole’ to be an amazingly effective way to make problems go away.

“That approach has never failed me.”

More tomorrow!


Reflection: Think back on a recent situation where I did something to make someone angry. How did I handle it? What did I say? How did it work?

Action: Next time, go right at it. Observe the negativity without judgment. Then, label it and offer a positive solution.

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