Gary Noesner, former chief negotiator with the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group and author of Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator wrote an interesting piece on active listening skills.
You don’t need to be dealing with barricaded gunmen to improve your communication skills with the techniques he describes. In the early part of any negotiation, information exchange and building rapport are key. These are some of the most powerful and tested techniques available to achieve those goals:
1) Minimal Encouragements
During negotiations with a subject, negotiators must demonstrate that they are listening attentively and are focused on the subject’s words. Negotiators can convey these qualities either through body language or brief verbal replies that relate interest and concern. The responses need not be lengthy. By giving occasional, brief, and well-timed vocal replies, negotiators demonstrate that they are following what the subject says. 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.
Paraphrasing consists of negotiators’ repeating in their own words the meaning of subjects’ messages back to them. This shows that negotiators are not only listening but also understanding what the subject is conveying…
3) Emotion Labeling
Because expressive subjects operate from an almost purely emotional framework, negotiators must address the emotional dimensions of a crisis as the subject sees them. Emotion labeling allows negotiators to attach a tentative label to the feelings expressed or implied by the subject’s words and actions. Such labeling shows that negotiators are paying attention to the emotional aspects of what the subject is conveying. When used effectively, emotion labeling becomes one of the most powerful skills available to negotiators because it helps them identify the issues and feelings that drive the subject’s behavior…
By mirroring, negotiators repeat only the last words or main idea of the subject’s message. It serves as both an attending and listening technique, as it indicates both interest and understanding. For example, a subject may declare, “I’m sick and tired of being pushed around,” to which the negotiator can respond, “Feel pushed, huh?”
Mirroring can be especially helpful in the early stages of a crisis, as negotiators attempt to establish a nonconfrontational presence, gain initial intelligence, and begin to build rapport. This technique allows negotiators to follow verbally wherever the subject leads the conversation. Consequently, negotiators learn valuable information about the circumstances surrounding the incident, while they provide the subject an opportunity to vent.
This technique also frees negotiators from the pressure of constantly directing the conversation. Under stress, negotiators may find they are unsure of how to respond to the subject. Mirroring enables a negotiator to be a full partner in the conversational dance without having to lead. Using this skill also helps negotiators avoid asking questions interrogation-style, which blocks rapport building.
5) Open-ended Questions
By using open-ended questions, negotiators stimulate the subject to talk. Negotiators should avoid asking “why” questions, which could imply interrogation. When the subject speaks, negotiators gain greater insight into the subject’s intent. Effective negotiations focus on learning what the subject thinks and feels. If negotiators do most of the talking, they decrease the opportunities to learn about the subject…
6) “I” Messages
By using “I” messages, a negotiator ostensibly sheds the negotiator role and acts as any other person might in response to the subject’s actions. In an unprovocative way, negotiators express how they feel when the subject does or says certain things.
For instance, a negotiator might say, “We have been talking for several hours, and I feel frustrated that we haven’t been able to come to an agreement.” This technique also serves as an effective response when the subject verbally attacks the negotiator, who can respond, “I feel frustrated when you scream at me because I am trying to help you.”
While employing this skill–and all active listening techniques–negotiators must avoid being pulled into an argument or trading personal attacks with a subject. An argumentative, sarcastic, or hostile tone could reinforce the subject’s already negative view of law enforcement and cause the subject to rationalize increased resistance due to a lack of perceived concern on the part of the police. Use of “I” messages serves to personalize the negotiator. This helps to move the negotiator beyond the role of a police officer trying to manipulate the subject into surrendering.
7) Effective Pauses
By deliberately using pauses, negotiators can harness the power of silence for effect at appropriate times. People tend to speak to fill spaces in a conversation. Therefore, negotiators should, on occasion, consciously create a space or void that will encourage the subject to speak and, in the process, provide additional information that may help negotiators resolve the situation.
Silence also is an effective response when subjects engage in highly charged emotional outbursts. When they fail to elicit a verbal response, subjects often calm down to verify that negotiators are still listening. Eventually, even the most emotionally overwrought subjects will find it difficult to sustain a one-sided argument, and they again will return to meaningful dialogue with negotiators. Thus, by remaining silent at the right times, negotiators actually can move the overall negotiation process forward.
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