Monday, December 29, 2014


By Lynne Kinnucan

The Roman god Janus, responsible for overseeing the beginnings and ends of conflicts, was also the god of transitions. As we transit into 2015, we wanted to look at what we have learned from the insights and practices of negotiators who are experienced in transitions. All of them based their work in authentic listening.

We mentioned active listening in almost every issue last year because, although it is an old practice, it is played out in ways that are always new.  This month’s Corner reviews some of the comments on hostage negotiation techniques and the common root from which they spring. 

Trainer and retired FBI hostage negotiator Derek Gaunt noted that deep listening is a powerful skill, but difficult to master, and he works from day one to get the active listening skills off the page and into his students’ muscle memory. 

He steers them away from one of the biggest mistakes a hostage negotiator can make: using active listening skills like a robot. If a negotiator is thinking only about which skill to use next, the subject may think the negotiator doesn’t care about his problems and … how to put this ….may react badly.  Negotiations have been won and lost over this skill.

Gary Noesner, retired hostage negotiator and author of Stalling for Time, expands on this:  

The sincere and genuine demonstration of your interest and understanding of the other person's problem/point of view is far more important than your ability to provide a quick solution."  

In fact, the quick solution is often damaging to the process of attunement and resolution.  The listening must come first.
Key to the process is being totally absorbed in the situation, regarding each situation as new and one that has something to teach you….even if you have negotiated its twin a hundred times before. 

Lay your preconceptions aside; be willing to be taught by this person. Be a student, not a detective. 

Michael Tsur, a high-risk negotiator who has worked with every scenario from negotiating with guerillas to mediating family situations, has some special words for businesses.  He advises moving into a high stakes, high tension business negotiation with an initial gesture of humility.

Place signals territory,” says Tsur, “and most neutrals probably would opt for a mutually equal space.  But if you are a manager dealing with a very high risk situation, Place suddenly becomes an even more critical element in your negotiations. 

Choose humility, he says. “Even if you are a big shot, you fly to the other person’s office.  The gesture says, ‘I am confident enough in myself to make this gesture.’ Giving the opposite party the turf is modesty: it signals respect. 

“This single action appears to be simply a matter of logistics: ‘Where shall we meet?’ But it is far more than that. Not only does it begin the negotiations with an expectation of respect, but it follows an important psychological principle: when people are on their home turf they are less protective of themselves, less cynical, and less guarded.”

Humility, not as a virtue, but as a strategy. A sort of Jane Austen meets crisis negotiation.

Milton J. Bennett, author of Negotiating with Cults, listens to cult members and derives from this an overall sense of the cult organism itself. After the tragedy at Waco, many people believed that it was not possible to negotiate with a cult. Bennett says otherwise.  He believes that there are multiple stages in the development of a cult and the inculcation of its members, and that there are two distinct places where this process can be penetrated. One is just after the recruitment and before the recruit has been socialized to think of outsiders as “the enemy”.  The second is when a member is on the verge of leaving the cult.

Linda Coburn is another negotiator whose active listening took her in the direction of getting get a sense of the whole as well as its individuals. Nicknamed Red Adair for her expertise in intervening in explosive street conflicts, she listened for decades to the beat of street culture and, immersed in that, developed an intervention she calls provocative dissonance: a sort verbal sleight-of-hand that breaks the rhythm of the escalation and throws the antagonists off balance for a moment.

“I might use humor, or I might say something said in a way that is so confusing that they have to pause for a moment to make sense of what I have said. 

“For instance, if the conflict involves people from a lower income community who may have less verbal sophistication, I create that break by looking at them and saying, ‘Do you really appreciate the socio-economic ramifications of what you’re doing?’ While they’re stunned for a moment, trying to figure out what the heck I’m talking about, the provocation ceases. I have that one fraction of a second to break the momentum and introduce something new. 

“Or if one of them says, ‘He called my wife an idiot,’ I respond with, ‘Is that Idiot with a small i or a capital I?’ He will probably say, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ There’s that dissonance again. I have created a tiny space where all physical activity literally freezes in time. In that pause I can jump to Plan B and say, ‘Listen, sit down for a few seconds while I go over and talk to so-and-so.’ I am now creating an even larger gap, and it is more difficult for them to pick up where they left off.

It’s all about using that split second to change the odds.  They may return to the conflict, but they will not be able to get back into it at the same level.

Mark Kleiman Executive Director of Community Mediation Services in Jamaica, New York, also uses active listening in a combined model of crisis intervention and mediation.  Working to stabilize the devastated lives of returned veterans, he stresses the ravages that they endure from the moment of homecoming -- and his hope to get to them quickly.  ‘If we can enter the crisis as early as possible, using mediation for stability while collaborating with other resources, if we can get them engaged, there is less likelihood of someone jumping off a bridge or a despair-driven veteran holding a family hostage."

The goal of deep listening is to form a connection that draws a subject back into his normal state and, hopefully, to create a social connection, however small.  

The research of Gwen DeWar, Ph.D., on the amygdala found that compared to people in “[a student] control group, those who had viewed images of social support showed less activation in the amygdala. Moreover, the effects were especially important for students who seemed anxiety-prone. Being exposed to ‘feel good’ imagery was especially calming: The students’ brain reactions looked no different from those of their more laid-back peers.”
Her conclusion?  That “images of loving social support can dampen the stress response…” and, further, that this helped internalize a sense of being cared for that the person could access in the future.

If caring, social support – or in the case of the negotiator, individual support – does indeed help regulate the amygdala, what are the processes that do this?
One of them is most certainly active listening; the deep, sustained focus that can calm a subject by giving him the negotiator’s complete, uncritical attention.

All of the negotiators we interviewed showed a profound knowledge of  authentic listening, and a variety of ways to engage it.  Clearly it is not an easy skill.  It is difficult and elusive; it takes maturity, self-transcendence and patience.

Yet as we go forward into the New Year, it is good to know that we are not alone in trying to master it. And if we feel like giving up, if we feel that this skill is something only top negotiators can achieve, we can reflect on the encounter that one top negotiator had with her teenage daughter over doing the dishes …..  I do not need to tell you how this story ends.