What a hostage negotiator taught me about rapport

Whether you want to upgrade an air ticket, deal with an irate customer or engage a colleague who seems uncollaborative you may want to take a few tips from an FBI hostage negotiator.

Why negotiation?  Because if you’re trying to someone to say ‘yes’ to anything, you’re in a negotiation.

In a survey by the Institute of Leadership and Management 88 percent of remote workers struggle with miscommunication.

The way we listen – to our clients, leaders and colleagues – has a profound effect on the bonds we create and our influence.

In the book, ‘Never Split the Difference’ by Chris Voss a former FBI hostage negotiator, he describes three of the techniques that you can implement at work to create a greater sense of rapport with others.

Whether you’re dealing with angry colleagues, indecisive prospects or you want a free upgrade in a hotel (yes, it covers that, too), then click below. 

The Techniques


This is when you repeat the last three or four words of what’s just been said. The effect is remarkable as it encourages the others person to clarify or qualify themselves.

It’s also a safe way to question authority when you have none.

Take this situation with a manager who was criticised for being unprepared for a client presentation.

Director: Everything was last minute.

Manager: Everything was last minute?

Director: Well, not everything. You had made some copies didn’t you?

Manager: Yes. 4 of them. I had 16 people down as attending and there were 20.

Director: Oh right. The numbers were wrong then. I’ll double check next time. Pack some extras.

See how a general accusation is funnelled down to correcting only a small tweak.

As well as dealing with potentially antagonistic discussion, verbal mirroring also helps to increase a mutual understanding of fundamental issues.

In addition, if you’re stumped for what to say next, simply mirror.

Don’t get stuck trying to solve or think of a witty riposte that can make you feel great and, at the same time, not get you fired.  It’ll help the conversation flow.

You may think they’ll mistake you for a talking parrot. However, that’s not the case.  I’ve never heard anyone say “I just said that!”

Instead they nearly always add to what they’ve stated as hearing back what they’ve just said gives an opportunity for them to explain further or confirm it to themselves.

Note that your vocal tone goes up at the end.

This is important as your curiosity will encourage the other to add further to their explanations.  It also stalls you from rushing in with unwanted advice or solving the wrong issue.

Mirroring at least some of a client’s language in proposals is also important. For example, if they were to mention ‘rescaling’ instead of ‘downsizing’, swap out the words you usually use for theirs.  I write in more details about vocal as well as physical mirroring (also called ‘matching’) right here.


Labelling (or ‘Tactical Empathy’)

We may react to what we think another person is feeling. By using statements such as “It seems you’re…” and “It sounds like…” Voss discusses labelling as:

a) a way to increase your understanding of what’s really going on for the other person, giving them a chance to correct perceptions and

b) a way of building a sense of connection in an interaction.

Note his use of words such as ‘seems’ and ‘sounds’, rather than the more definitive ‘You’re frustrated’, marking the fact that this is only a guess, thereby protecting against what may be presumptive and allowing them to correct your perception.

Voss warns against using the statement, “So what I’m hearing is…” 

In order to maintain rapport, keep the focus on them, and avoid using ‘I’.

I’ve used labelling and mirroring in almost exclusively in conversations with clients.

A great example is if you’re working in Customer Success.

One sure fire way to get an angry client explosive is to tell them to ‘calm down’.  Instead, you may use, “It sounds like this software has caused you a lot of frustration.”

They may respond with “Yes, it bloody has!”

This technique builds connection and a sense of understanding: you’re making the other feel heard.

After that, you’ll find that a calibrated question (below), will help them be more specific about the issue.


Calibrated Questions (‘What’ and ‘How’ Questions)

In order to gather more information and keep conversation and connection developing, Voss recommends that questions are open-ended, beginning with ‘what’ and ‘how’: calibrated questioning.

Referring back to the angry customer above, you may start with a phrase such as, “What’s been happening?” or an open statement such as “Walk me through what’s going on.”

It’s by listening to them, they’ll build trust in you, abating their anger.  What often happens as a result, is that you’re their go-to person, such is the trust it creates.

Ever wanted to get an upgrade on a plane? Once you’ve struck rapport at the flight desk, you may want to try this question from Voss:

“How much trouble do I get you in for trying to get an upgrade to a suite for free?”

Since hotel receptions face requests like this regularly, the question incorporates an understanding of the situation from their point of view.

You’ve addressed the elephant in the room and the likelihood is that by they’re not going to feel manipulated.  However, don’t go rushing in with that.  You’d want to build up rapport with a bit of mirroring and labelling to acknowledge empathy before hitting them with a free upgrade plea.

Such questions prompt the other person to lower their defences, giving your richer information. Note ‘why’ needs to be used extremely sparingly as that can inflame defensiveness.

Pauses are key here as they give the other person time to think. The magic of the combination of pausing and questioning is that they give your counterpart time to reckon with their own position.

Using these techniques create a greater sense of understanding and connection.

Not only will you unearth more information but in a feedback or meeting context, help your counterpart buy into a solution.


Don’t ask “Why?”

“Why did you do that?”

Seems a bit harsh a question?

When we read, we tend to lay our own intonation on to the words.

?For that reason, ‘why’ can create a defensive response.

What’s likely to be heard (especially in written communication) is:

“Justify yourself, you biscuit-brained idiot.”

So instead of asking “why…“, use these instead:

  1. “What triggered that decision?”
  2. “What was the rationale behind that action?”
  3. “What was the basis for that initiative?”

Using ‘Why?’ is less likely to be considered challenging in face to face communication if the intonation and body language seem curious and there’s trust in the relationship or interaction.


Your Action Step

1. Think of your next conversation. Make this a low stakes one, so push aside a pitch and aim instead for a chat you might have with a friend or family member.

    • Use, at least once during the interaction:
          • Mirroring
          • Labelling
          • ‘What’ and ‘How’ questions

Notice the depth of information, you’ll willingly be given.

2. Repeat on another low stakes interaction, applying another one of these techniques and noticing conversation flow and connection.





Image by Gerhard from Pixabay

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