Updated: Jan 18
What do parents and hostage negotiators have in common? It turns out they both use many of the same communication strategies. That was my conclusion after reading Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It by Chris Voss and Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids by Dr. Laura Markham.
Three similar themes emerge from the advice of a former FBI hostage negotiator and a parenting expert: the importance of regulating your emotions, fostering connection, and coaching rather than controlling.
Without emotional regulation, negotiation doesn’t work. Voss writes, “If you can’t control your own emotions, how can you expect to influence the emotions of another party?” In tense situations, regulating our emotions is difficult. The spontaneous expression of emotion that we feel in high-stakes situations isn’t often productive. Voss suggests it’s best to pause, think, and collect your thoughts before responding.
Similarly, Dr. Markham argues that a parents ability to self-regulate might have more impact on who their child turns out to be than anything else they do. Modeling appropriate responses is key. If a parent responds like everything is an emergency then so will their child. Parents shouldn’t be surprised when their children express their emotions in ways fit for their age (i.e., infants might scream, toddlers might hit, and teenagers might bully other children).
When you realize you are about to provide an inappropriate response (e.g., yelling), Dr. Markham suggests you take the following steps:
Step away for a moment.
Release tension by taking deep breaths.
Change what you are thinking.
Focus on what matters.
A second key to negotiation is to connect with your counterpart. Effective negotiators do this by focusing on what the other person has to say. Before presenting their case, they collect as much information as they can. Negotiators make their counterparts feel safe by listening, expressing empathy, and building rapport.
In similar fashion, parents should take intentional steps to foster a connection with their children. Dr. Markham writes, “The single most important skill for staying close to your child is listening.” Moreover, when communicating with a distressed child, parents should give their children their full attention and try to see things from their child’s point of view. Listening - in hostage negotiation and parenting - is essential to building a foundation of trust.
Coach, Don’t Control
Expert negotiators realize that humans have a universal need for autonomy. Voss says that your counterpart needs to feel like they are in control. The key to a successful negotiation isn’t about stating your demands. Voss writes, “It’s about the other party convincing themselves that the solution you want is their own idea.” Negotiators accomplish this by asking their counterparts questions that opens a path to their own goals.
How would you like me to proceed?
What is it that brought us into this situation?
How can we solve this problem?
Voss says, successful negotiation involves "getting your counterpart to do the work for you and suggest your solution himself" and "giving him the illusion of control while you in fact, [are] the one defining the conversation.”
Parenting is quite similar. Dr. Markham suggests many parents get anxious when their children express big emotions because they never learned to handle big emotions themselves. She says that the way parents respond to a child’s feeling shapes the child’s relationship with emotions for the rest of their life. In short, parents can improve the quality of life of their children by helping them learn how to manage their feelings and how to understand other people’s feelings.
Emotion coaching isn’t solving the problem for the child or using rewards and punishments. Just like a soccer coach might explain and demonstrate a skill, parents should help their children practice appropriate behaviors. Dr. Markham suggests parents can help children build confidence by doing things with their children rather than for their children. In order for parents to make this shift they must be willing to let go of their need to control.
The next time you find yourself in a tense situation with someone, you can draw on the advice from experts who live in two different worlds: regulate your emotions, connect with the other person, and give up control to get what you want.