Ep 22: Negotiating Rules and Limits

Episode Summary

Chris Voss, the former lead international hostage negotiator for the FBI and author of the bestselling book Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on it, speaks with us about how to win negotiations with your teenager over things like curfew, cell phone usage, and other rules.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Picture this: you come home from a full day at work. Part of your job might be to take out the trash on your floor every once in a while. When you get home, there is one more bag of trash that needs to be taken out. You ask your teen to do it. No big deal, right? It’ll take him 2 minutes at most. Nope! Instead, you both end up fighting about it for 10 minutes and dinner just got awkward.

Do you ever feel like your teenager is the most disagreeable person in your life?

If you are negotiating at work and you get into an argument, you still get to leave it at the office and go home at the end of the day. If you get into an argument while negotiating a rule with your teen, you still have to share the same roof with the child. Arguments with family can get emotional, and it’s hard to know how to negotiate with your teen when you are tired, angry, and hurt.

There aren’t many experiences that prepare you for an argument with your own teenager. So, if you want to learn how to negotiate with your teen, where do you look for advice? Who else can relate to the intensity of household drama and the stubborn persistence of teenage logic?

How about the FBI’s top hostage negotiator? No, really!

Chris Voss is the FBI’s former lead international hostage negotiator. He is also the author of the hugely popular bestseller, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on it. He is a leading expert in the science of negotiation, and knows how to negotiate with your teen through his wildly useful advice!

Tactical Empathy

Chris says that the first step in learning how to negotiate with your teen is learning how to apply tactical empathy. Your negotiation techniques won’t work unless you first understand what specific emotions drive your teen’s behavior. This is where tactical empathy comes in, but how is tactical empathy different from plain, old-fashioned empathy?

Empathy can help you identify if someone is struggling with emotions.“Tactical” empathy implies application. The application would be a careful observation and rephrasing of your teenager’s emotions. Here’s how to negotiate with your teen using this tactic:

  1. You notice that your teen started ripping at the bindings on his notebook.
  2. Consider what emotion is driving this unfamiliar behavior.
  3. Attempt to label this emotion. “Hey, it seems like your homework is making you very angry.
  4. Keep trying to label the emotion until your teen confirms, “Yeah, I am angry.” Or, “Yeah, I’m really tired.”
  5. Listen as your teen vents and word vomits why they’re so upset.
  6. Continue to label emotions as you observe them, while your teen feels that you understand his situation.
  7. Gently steer your child to a point where you can calmly ask him to stop ripping at the bindings on his notebook.

By verbally labeling the emotions your teen is acting out on, you can purposefully dial those emotions up or down depending on what they are. This works for all emotions, not just anger or fatigue. Some emotions can be hard to identify, though, and Chris has a magic phrase for when that’s the case (see “Parent Scripts” tab).

Chris explains that if you label a positive emotion, it reinforces it, and if you label a negative emotion, it diffuses it! By being tactful with your labeling in a conversation, you can calm down the person you are talking to and get them to a place where a negotiation is possible.

This skill is extremely useful in learning how to negotiate with your teen, however, it’s harder than it sounds. Before you master tactical empathy, it’ll be good to learn more about how our emotions drive us.

Emotions are Subconscious

Emotions are almost entirely subconscious, meaning most of the time, we’re not in control of them. Chris says that if you can tap into emotions in your teens you can improve your connection with them. But how do you know what emotions to label and connect with?

When someone is acting strange, it seems odd to us because usually we don’t recognize (or choose not to recognize) what emotions are driving that behavior. When figuring out how to negotiate with your teen, there will be a lot of emotions you won’t immediately recognize. These elusive emotions are the ones you want to attempt to label.

Chris is quick to point out that we don’t have as much control over our emotions as we like to think we do. As they are primarily subconscious, we can control emotions in the same way we can control our own breath. For 30-45 seconds, you can probably get a handle on conscious breathing, but then autopilot kicks back into gear. The same happens when managing emotions. Chris uses this analogy to point out how silly it would be to try to control your emotions all the time:

“Stop breathing for an hour.”

You can’t.

Your teen is going to act on emotions subconsciously. Even if you can’t specifically identify your teen’s impelling emotions, you can still notice how it changes their behavior. If your teen is uncharacteristically throwing a fit over why there shouldn’t be a curfew, and you really don’t understand their outrage, you can say something nonjudgmental, like:

“Hey, it sounds like you’ve given that a lot of thought.”

By trying to relate, even when you can’t, you are fishing for an opportunity for your teen to unveil their emotions. With a little luck and the right bait, you’re going to get your teen vomiting information, and this is good. Basically, you want to get them talking. For one, it helps teens hear their own thoughts out loud. Plus, it wears them out, and Chris says that’s never a bad thing.

It might sound like a waste of time to go through the process of paraphrasing your teen’s arguments and recognizing their emotions. But actually, it’s a huge time saver! Using tactical empathy in a calm, 10-minute negotiation beats an all-day fight any day! By following his instruction, you’ll know how to negotiate with your teen in no time.

Of course, you have subconscious emotions, too, and you need to plan for your potential responses to whatever you get your teen to say. You won’t know how to negotiate with your teen if you’re exploding in anger because they called you an “evil tyrant.” Their words, not mine.

Bringing it All Together

With conscious preparation, tactical empathy, and some patience, you can learn how to negotiate with your teen. When the time for the negotiation comes, Chris spells out some highly effective methods for bargaining towards your ideal outcome.

It might feel a little deceptive, but you don’t have to compromise on a later curfew hour. By learning how to negotiate with your teen, you can make your kid feel like they are winning arguments with outcomes that you decided in advance. (Listen in to find out how!) There are definitely some golden rules to live by, such as:

“Ignore human nature to your peril.”

“Seek first to understand, then be understood.”

In addition to discussing how to negotiate with your teen, Chris touches on a number of other factors that play into the parent-teen relationship. Topics that we cover in this conversation include:

  • “Black Swans” – those emotions that are hardest to identify
  • Behavioral patterns in all humans
  • The trap of the Fake “Yes”
  • “Motivational Interviewing” – another tactic for diffusing resistance
  • Controversy around “strategic umbridge” – why you probably shouldn’t fight fire with fire
  • “Why” vs “What” – a magical word swap
  • The Ackerman Model – 3 stage approach to negotiating
  • Understanding the teenage need for autonomy when negotiating

If you’re looking to step up how to negotiate with your teen, there might be no better man to talk to than Chris. He’s an expert on this stuff, and I’m so thankful I got the time to talk to him. I really hope you’ll give this episode a listen!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Start by taking away their arguments, rather than fueling the fire:

“Look, I’m sure I seem like a tyrant. I’m sure I seem like a dictator. I’m sure I seem like I don’t care what happens to you and your social standing. I’m sure it looks like I’m completely oblivious if your life is going to be over as a result of this.”

-Chris Voss

2.  A magic label to get your teenager to open up about whatever they just said:

(Members Only)

3.  After 3 rounds of negotiating about something with your teenager, throw in something you know they don’t care about at all to signify the negotiation is over:

(Members Only)

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1.  Take Away Your Teen’s Ammo by Accepting their Judgements:

In addition to creating an Ackerman Plan before every hostage negotiation (see next exercise), Chris told me he also makes something called a One Sheet to prepare for these high stakes encounters. This will help you before your next high stakes talk with your teenager! Your goal when creating a OneSheet should be to write down all of the judgments your teen is probably making about you. According to Chris, and easy way to do this is to think of all the things you would want to deny to your teenager (“I’m not some tyrant who is trying to control you, I’m trying to help you!”). Write these down. Instead of denying these judgments, however, you are going to accept them. Try to list at least 10 judgments below and then circle the top three. These will be the 3 biggest things your teen is probably thinking about you at the start of a delicate conversation. So try to start off your next big talk by accepting all three of these things. Say, “Hey, it probably seems like I’m a complete tyrant. I get that.” When you lead off by accepting their worst judgments, you will take all the wind out of your teen’s sails. He won’t have any ammo left to pepper you with.

2.  Prepare an Ackerman Plan to Win Negotiations with Your Teen:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: So one of the big things that you wrote about in your book, that I thought was so cool, was you talk about something that you call tactical empathy and my brother works at a suicide hotline and you talk about working at one of those yourself and kind of using that experience to gain these skills. So I’m really interested in how that worked out and how tactical empathy might be used with a teenager, especially towards the beginning of an important negotiation or conversation to kind of break down their defenses a little bit.

Chris: Sure, it can absolutely be used with teenagers, we’re seeing people use it with children anywhere basically from about age five up.

Andy: Okay.

Chris: So let’s start with why do we call it tactical empathy instead of empathy, how about that?

Andy: There you go, okay.

Chris: All right so, when I first learned this a lot of people learned that empathy is just very broad, very general term. But the application of it we’ll come to find out, and it’s backed up by neuroscience, that when you use what we referred to in a hotline as reflection, what I called is a hostage negotiator emotion labeling what we now call as business negotiators, just labeling.

Andy: Labeling, okay.

Chris: You know you label a positive emotion, it reinforces that positive emotion. You label a negative emotion, it defuses that negative emotion. And these work every single time. Now what people get confused by sometimes is it doesn’t guarantee the matter of degree. But since we know even more now in listening for different, what do you want to defuse the negative, do you want to reinforce the positive. That’s the tactical application of empathy and the understanding of what it is. So it’s just a more precise, intentionally understanding than just sort of labeling the emotion you hear and waiting to see what happens. It’s looking for specific things and intentionally trying to dial up or dial down certain emotions.

Andy: That’s what I thought was cool about your techniques in your book here, is a lot of it is kind of about really having like a deep knowledge about the person that you’re talking to and that if you can know things about their motivations and about what drives them, then you can kind of use those. And you talk later in your book about you call them black swans, things that you don’t know that are really, maybe important to the other person, that if you knew them would like really alter the course of the negotiation. And I thought that was such a cool idea and I wonder how do you find those and especially with a teenager that you kind of have known for a long time, are these things that you maybe already know that you just have to kind of recognize, or are these things that you maybe don’t know about yet that you have to uncover or find out?

Chris: Yeah, good question and it’s really not about knowing it in advance, but what are the skills that uncovered, what you want to learn and are they in really predictable places? So-

Andy: Okay.

Chris: When I was at hostage negotiation, they just said, label emotion that you hear the presenting emotion. Now the vast majority of time, the presenting emotion is going to be a negative emotion.

Andy: Sure.

Chris: And then you combine that with they all always told us to look for the loss, if we’re talking to somebody who’s barricaded someplace, for whatever reason, there’s going to be a loss. And nine times out of 10, it’s going to be a loss within the last 24 to 48 hours. So we didn’t know that that governs all behavior. We just thought it governed hostage-taking behavior. I learned hostage negotiation in the early 1990s and then along about 2002 or so, Daniel Kahneman wins a Nobel Prize in Behavioral Economics on prospect theory, which says that fear of loss is the out sized influence on all behavior, and the different biases.

Andy: Yeah, cognitive biases.

Chris: And they’re all built around that and they didn’t say in hostage-takers, they said all behavior. And they didn’t say Americans, they said human beings, again all behavior.

Andy: Sure yeah, it’s universal right.

Chris: And so now I’m like, all right so I guess what we were talking hostage negotiation just didn’t apply to hostage-takers, it applied to human beings. And they happen to be involved in hostage situations, but again they’re just human beings and what we now refer to as the limbic system which is the amygdala, the hippocampus, couple of other long sounding names. In the brain, the limbic system operates I think a great analogy is to the respiratory system.

Andy: Okay.

Chris: When is your limbic system off? When is your respiratory system off? Neither one ever turns [crosstalk].

Andy: Hopefully never.

Chris: And that’s a lot what we psychologists use to identify as the subconscious, they say your subconscious is working and influencing your thought patterns, at all times and even while you’re asleep your subconscious is at work. Well, the subconscious is the limbic system.

Andy: Sure.

Chris: And again, the great analogy to the respiratory system is, I might ask you, “Can you control your emotions?” and you say, “Sure I control my emotions.” And I can say, “Can you control your breathing?” and they’ll say, “Sure I can control my breathing.” and I say, “All right, well stop breathing for an hour.” So the degree of control we have over our emotions is very similar to the degree of control we have over our breathing. We can intentionally slow it down and gain control from about 30 to 45 to a minute and a half seconds.

Andy: Yeah.

Chris: But then the autopilot’s going to kick back into gear and it’s going to go back and begin to operate the way it operates.

Andy: Okay, but so then what you’re saying is that we can notice these times when emotions maybe don’t make sense or when behavior kind of seems a little irrational. Are Teenagers maybe doing something that seems like, that just doesn’t make sense, why would you do that? That these are signs that you can use as clues to somehow uncover black swans that you can use in negotiations.

Chris: Right, those are absolutely the clues that take us right there. And you know what you said is really interesting in that, behavior that doesn’t make sense or it’s irrational, so there’s kind of two things there. When behavior doesn’t make sense to us, somebody is being driven by an emotion either that we’re not recognizing or we choose not to recognize.

Andy: Right.

Chris: Like when you say you shouldn’t act that way to someone. What you’re doing is, look I recognize what’s driving you, I just don’t like it, otherwise I wouldn’t use the word should. You shouldn’t be angry, well, you’re angry, I recognize it and I’ve just chosen to decide for you that you shouldn’t be angry. Should is the word that [crosstalk] if you as a human being are using the word should, then you are out of sync with the situation.

Andy: Right, but you think you totally understand better than everyone else what they should be doing.

Chris: Right, what is in fact happening doesn’t conform to your set of rules. So you’re saying, well reality shouldn’t be this way. You’re recognizing that you don’t like what’s going on but it’s actually going on.

Andy: Okay, but isn’t that hard as a parent because don’t you feel like some of your job is to tell your kids what they should be doing and what they shouldn’t be doing? So how do you do that in a way that you’re not really telling them what they should be doing?

Chris: Right, well it’s not just hard as a parent, it’s hard as a human being.

Andy: Sure, yeah.

Chris: An awful lot of what we misinterpret as parent-child dynamics is really just human being to human being dynamics. It’s two human beings dealing with each other that happened to be very close and very vested in the outcomes with one another which makes both sides less rational.

Andy: Sure.

Chris: Everybody acts in patterns, everybody other than actual paranoid schizophrenics, because they are hearing voices, they are seeing things. These are actual, for lack of a better term, wiring problems that they’re struggling with. And those voices that we have, whatever it is that induces schizophrenia into somebody, we have no way of knowing what those voices are saying or what they’re seeing. So they’re the only ones that are really kind of pattern less. Everybody else acts in patterns, we may not like those patterns. If you don’t like a certain politician, and I’m not taking a side now just having a good example. People will say Donald Trump is irrational. But nobody’s surprised by anything he says or does because he acts in patterns. He’s a human being, how many times does CNN have to say, “Can’t believe that Donald Trump tweeted this out.” Every other day, because Donald Trump is a human being he’s going to act in patterns and when we don’t like those patterns, we say they’re irrational.

Andy: It would be more shocking if all of a sudden he started only [crosstalk]…

Chris: If he stopped tweeting.

Andy: Tweeting G-rated, yeah politically correct politics right.

Chris: Yeah, but his supporters are saying, “Well, he’s not irrational at all.” So it’s like beauty, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. One rationality is really more about whether or not you agree with someone’s behavior.

Andy: Ah right, and reality is subjective.

Chris: Correct.

Andy: So that’s interesting and I wonder if we could break that down a little bit, in a little more detail, like some sort of specific example, how would you notice an emotion that doesn’t make sense? Then, how do you tie that to the underlying black swan behind it? And then from there, once you figured that out, then how do you go ahead and use that to establish the tactical empathy?

Chris: When you start simply recognizing people’s emotions, the black swans will come up. I remember that sometimes for practice, when I was volunteering on a suicide hotline, I’d be in conversations that the only thing I would do would be recognize the other person’s emotions, just for practice.

Andy: Okay, yeah.

Chris: And I can remember walking down the street with another FBI agent, a female FBI agent that I was working with, and we were discussing an issue. And all I was doing was reading her emotions and articulating them back to her and connecting them to her behavior. And we’re not two minutes into the conversation and she goes, “You’re reading my mind.” And I said, “No all I got to do is read your emotions, you’re going to open your mind up for me.” It’s really kind of that simple.

Andy: So what would some of those phrases look like or what would you say to someone to label an emotion?

Chris: Well, a great thing is the emotion is going to come through in their tone of voice, you’re going to hear a sound a lot angrier, they’re going to sound upset, they’re going to sound distant, they’re going to sound cold, they’re going to sound hurt, they’re going to sound happy. You just label it and if you confused by what you hear a great one, we teach everybody whether they’re interpersonal interactions with people their close to are business. A magic label is, “Sounds like that’s important to you.” Now, no matter what they just said, you’re going to get more information as a result of putting that out.

Andy: I see, sure, and encourages them.

Chris: And at different versions of that, another one would be, sounds like you’ve given that a lot of thought.

Andy: Right, right.

Chris: Now what happens when you say, “Sounds like you’ve given that a lot of thought.” Then you just grabbed onto the thread that’s got that whole thought string behind it and you’re going to pull it all up.

Andy: And you’re communicating that I understand this thing is important to you, but you’re not judging it, right? So you’re like bringing it up, but in kind of a really open way that allows it to be discussed. That’s pretty cool, it sounds like you’ve given a lot of thought. That would be when you see a topic that seems to be something that your teenager seems to be kind of excited about or something.

Chris: Yeah, one way or another you’re going to start to get them to, for lack of a better term we call it vomiting information, you want information, you want them talking, especially with teenagers, because you want to trigger thought processes to be articulate. It helps them hear what they’re saying, simultaneously it also sure to wear them out and that is never a bad thing.

Andy: So, another thing that we want in the conversation that you talk about in your book is, we want yeses and it feels good to get a yes. And a lot of times I think as parents, you go into a conversation and your objective is, I just need to get the kid on board with XYZ thing as okay, is it okay? Is that okay? Is it okay? Like give me yes, okay, good, got it, done. Got to move on to the next thing and so maybe it’s a rush kind of thing, but I feel like a lot of times those yeses that we get when we just kind of push for a yes from our kids are not genuine yeses, like you talk about in your book. So I wonder how you can tell the difference and how you can avoid falling into the kind of fake yes trap?

Chris: Yeah, well the simplest ways is just don’t try to get yes. Like what you said, we’re trying to get yes cause we’re trying to coerce the other side, again this is a human nature issue. We’re trying to coerce and we’re trying to back him into a corner, we’re trying to take away their autonomy, we’re trying to force him. No human being likes that, none, it doesn’t matter whether it’s your kid or not. It just creates resentment, but kids since we do this to our kids so much, they then figure out really quickly because they see this eight billion times. All they got to do is give us the fake yes and we move on, we get really happy and satisfied and we move on.

Andy: Like you say, it’s a pattern that gets triggered.

Chris: We teach them to give us a fake yes. And they’re, all right look, all I got to do is say yes to mom or dad and they’ll lay off.

Andy: Right and then it conditions them.

Chris: It conditions them.

Andy: So the solution is then you’re saying to notice when you’re going into a conversation that your objective is looking for a yes, and then to tweak that objective a little bit more to kind of understanding or something.

Chris: Yeah, well really the platinum response that you always really want to get from somebody else that’s much quicker, but it seems like it’s a waste of time is to really articulate their perspective till you get them to say, “That’s right.” Because when someone vents on us, it seems like they never shut up. And what this does is actually short circuit, shortcuts, hacks, whatever term you want, it hacks the venting process. And so you do not even get into venting at all, where you just wait for the other side to run out of energy but they just keep getting madder and madder and madder. What it just does is it just completely short circuits it.

Andy: So, how do you get a, “That’s right,” from your teenager?

Chris: Typically you want to paraphrase what they’ve just said, you get really good at it, you paraphrase what they’ve said, you paraphrase it and you label it, sounds like this is really important to you. Your kid says to you, “But everybody’s doing this.” Your answers, “It sounds like this is really important to you.” But most parents want to say, “Well if everybody was jumping off the roof, would you jump off the roof too?” Or, “I’ll just die. If I can’t get this.” Sounds like this is really important to you. Again we’re talking about defusing what’s driving, which is the recognition of these emotions seem to be such an utter waste of time until you try them out and find out how fast and make the conversations go.

Andy: Right, and it’s like in this classic technique that they teach therapists called motivational interviewing, which is a big in our literature on alcohol use cause it’s a technique they used to help people with addiction. But one of the things they talk about is rolling with resistance and that just really strikes me with what you’re talking about is, if your kid is really emotional about something or they’re driving really hard in one direction towards something, you don’t want to meet them head on, you want to kind of roll with that and you want to kind of slowly turn them to a better way. So by doing what you’re saying and saying, “Oh, sounds like that’s really important to you,” it sounds like you’ve given that a lot of thought and allows them to open up so that you can kind of start to steer them a little bit I think, which is really cool.

Chris: Exactly and it defuses also what might be driving them out of control.

Andy: Yeah, rather than if you meet it head on, it blows up and that escalates the energy, whereas what you’re saying, just sucks the urgency out of it or something and it’s really cool.

Chris: Yeah, that’s exactly it.

Andy: But so then, it’s funny because you talk about that and how you defuse the situation, but then you also talked about that sometimes it’s actually beneficial to kind of strategically use anger or take the other person off, I think you call it strategic umbrage. Is that something that you think you would ever use with a teenager where you kind of purposely get them a little riled up?

Chris: Yeah and that was one of the things that we talked about a little in the book that we’re really reluctant about and we thought about a lot since, and We just had a consultant call, my son is my Director of Operations and he’s a top coach, and some people were mad at some counterparts. And it’s the old do you fight fire with fire? And everybody loves that, but ask yourself when was the last time you saw a fireman going to a fire with a flamethrower?

Andy: Yeah, right.

Chris: Let’s fight fire with fire, if that worked, firemen would go to fires with flamethrowers. And when you put it like that, it just sounds utterly insane.

Andy: So, it sounds like what you’re saying is if you worked to rewrite the book at this point, you might kind of change that or not include strategic umbrage as a strategy?

Chris: That’s correct.

About Chris Voss

These days, Chris Voss runs the Black Swan Group, a company he started train businesses and individuals in his negotiation tactics.

Prior to 2008, Chris was the lead international kidnapping negotiator for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as the FBI’s hostage negotiation representative for the National Security Council’s Hostage Working Group. During his government career, he also represented the U.S. Government at two (2) international conferences sponsored by the G-8 as an expert in kidnapping.

Prior to becoming the FBI lead international kidnapping negotiator, Christopher served as the lead Crisis Negotiator for the New York City Division of the FBI. Christopher was a member of the New York City Joint Terrorist Task Force for 14 years. He was the case agent on such cases as TERRSTOP (the Blind Sheikh Case – Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman), the TWA Flight 800 catastrophe, and he negotiated the surrender of the first hostage taker to give up in the Chase Manhattan bank robbery hostage taking.

During Chris’s 24 year tenure in the Bureau, he was trained in the art of negotiation by not only the FBI but Scotland Yard and Harvard Law School. He is also a recipient of the Attorney General’s Award for Excellence in Law Enforcement and the FBI Agents Association Award for Distinguished and Exemplary Service.

Chris has taught business negotiation in the MBA program as an adjunct professor at University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. He has taught business negotiation at Harvard University, guest lectured at The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, The IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland and The Goethe School of Business in Frankfurt, Germany. Since 2009 Christopher has also worked with Insite Security as their Managing Director of Kidnapping Resolution.

His book, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on it, published in 2016, is already considered a classic text in the field of negotiation and sales.

Find Chris on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.