By Eric Barker
March 26, 2014

How does hostage negotiation get people to change their minds?

The Behavioral Change Stairway Model was developed by the FBI’s hostage negotiation unit, and it shows the 5 steps to getting someone else to see your point of view and change what they’re doing.

It’s not something that only works with barricaded criminals wielding assault rifles — it applies to most any form of disagreement.

There are five steps:

  1. Active Listening: Listen to their side and make them aware you’re listening.
  2. Empathy: You get an understanding of where they’re coming from and how they feel.
  3. Rapport: Empathy is what you feel. Rapport is when they feel it back. They start to trust you.
  4. Influence: Now that they trust you, you’ve earned the right to work on problem solving with them and recommend a course of action.
  5. Behavioral Change: They act. (And maybe come out with their hands up.)

The problem is, you’re probably screwing it up.

What you’re doing wrong

In all likelihood you usually skip the first three steps. You start at 4 (Influence) and expect the other person to immediately go to 5 (Behavioral Change).

And that never works.

Saying “Here’s why I’m right and you’re wrong” might be effective if people were fundamentally rational.

But they’re not.

From my interview with former head of FBI international hostage negotiation, Chris Voss:

The most critical step in the Behavioral Change Staircase is actually the first part: Active listening.

The other steps all follow from it. But most people are terrible at listening.

Here’s Chris again:

The basics of active listening are pretty straightforward:

  1. Listen to what they say. Don’t interrupt, disagree or “evaluate.”
  2. Nod your head, and make brief acknowledging comments like “yes” and “uh-huh.”
  3. Without being awkward, repeat back the gist of what they just said, from their frame of reference.
  4. Inquire. Ask questions that show you’ve been paying attention and that move the discussion forward.

So what six techniques do FBI hostage negotiation professionals use to take it to the next level?

1. Ask open-ended questions

You don’t want yes/no answers, you want them to open up.

Via Crisis Negotiations, Fourth Edition: Managing Critical Incidents and Hostage Situations in Law Enforcement and Corrections:

2. Effective pauses

Pausing is powerful. Use it for emphasis, to encourage someone to keep talking or to defuse things when people get emotional.

Gary Noesner, author of Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator has said:

3. Minimal Encouragers

Brief statements to let the person know you’re listening and to keep them talking.

Gary Noesner:

Even relatively simple phrases, such as “yes,” “O.K.,” or “I see,” effectively convey that a negotiator is paying attention to the subject. These responses will encourage the subject to continue talking and gradually relinquish more control of the situation to the negotiator.

4. Mirroring

Repeating the last word or phrase the person said to show you’re listening and engaged. Yes, it’s that simple — just repeat the last word or two:

Gary Noesner:

5. Paraphrasing

Repeating what the other person is saying back to them in your own words. This powerfully shows you really do understand and aren’t merely parroting.

From my interview with former head of FBI international hostage negotiation, Chris Voss:

6. Emotional Labeling

Give their feelings a name. It shows you’re identifying with how they feel. Don’t comment on the validity of the feelings — they could be totally crazy — but show them you understand.

Via Crisis Negotiations, Fourth Edition: Managing Critical Incidents and Hostage Situations in Law Enforcement and Corrections:

Curious to learn more?

To get my exclusive full interview with former head of FBI hostage negotiation Chris Voss (where he explains the two words that tell you a negotiation is going very badly) join my free weekly newsletter. Click here.

Related posts:

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The last damn thing you’ll ever need to read about influence, persuasion and negotiation

What are the 18 secrets to giving a presentation like Steve Jobs?

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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