Use the FBI’s Playbook to Resolve Disputes Like A Pro

Roxanne Hale

I bet you were raised to be real nice. Civil. Never make a fuss. Politeness is a prized value passed down from parent to child, and so on. It’s reinforced in school, playdates, and church get-togethers. Please and Thank You. Sharing with others.

A polite and agreeable world sounds fantastic. The trouble with lifelong training on how to be a “good boy or girl” is — When do you learn to stand up for yourself? Assert your interests and refuse to share? Resolve disputes in work or life?

If you’re like me, I learned the old-fashioned way, in a trial by fire. On the first day of my dream job, an angry client walked in. On that day, 22-year-old me had no idea how much conflict happens in homebuilding. This guy was understandably red hot when he found someone had filled the bathtub in his (under construction) house, full of urine.

Nothing in my life or training prepared me for the kind of daily confrontations I experienced doing this work. Conflict had never punched me directly in the face as it did daily in my first year in homebuilding. Before that, I dealt with conflict like all other sane human beings. Ignore it. Lower my eyes. Look away.

That year set me on a path to learn everything I could about effectively dealing with conflict. And while the lessons I learned helped me professionally, its effect on my personal life changed me profoundly. The surprising upside to successfully resolving conflict is its way of bringing two parties closer together. It can forge a bond.

If I was going to learn how to deal with conflict, going straight to the experts made sense. FBI Hostage Negotiators manage high stakes, life or death conflict on a regular day. In his book, Stalling for Time, retired Hostage Negotiator, Gary Noesner describes the FBI’s changing stance on conflict negotiation. Admittedly, over the years, the FBI has learned a lot about resolving conflict and improved its approach.

Training that once centered around tactical positioning and weaponry has evolved to include de-escalation tactics designed to keep everybody calm and working toward the common goal of no loss of life. I figured if their de-escalation strategies worked under such drastic circumstances, maybe those tactics could help me keep my customers from losing their minds over paint color options.

Normal Responses to Confrontation

FBI Hostage Negotiators know when they arrive on location, they’re going to deal with conflict. The signs are hard to miss. Someone is brandishing a weapon, maybe they have a hostage, and there is apparent distress.

In ordinary everyday types of disputes, it isn’t so clear. People respond to disagreements and confrontations in different ways. They can range from 1) Apparent — outward hostility, 2) Uncooperative — stonewalling, or 3) Passive Aggressive — the silent treatment.

3 Steps to Resolving Conflict

Buying Time

In Stalling for Time, Gary Noesner makes his case for slowing situations down. Success in resolving confrontation starts with fully comprehending the situation and circumstances that brought the problem to this point. A little time provides clarity.

According to him, some of the FBI’s early tactics included making the suspect uncomfortable or scared, so he would make a move they could respond to. They learned the difficult way (through shoot-outs and death) that slowing a confrontation down allowed everyone to cool off and think more rationally. When a person is operating in Fight or Flight mode, all logical thinking goes out the window, and they respond on instinct. If they are calm and thinking logically, they may be willing to listen and avoid rash decisions. The same goes for you and me.

If you find yourself in a confrontation with someone, in work or life, there are some practical steps you can take to stall for time and allow calm to settle in.

1) Speak slower and lower. People often mirror your behavior and do the same. Plus, its more calming.

2) Excuse yourself for a moment on an offer to bring back food, drink, or some helpful item. The kind gesture and short break give everyone a moment to collect themselves, plus it’s hard to argue with food in your mouth.

3) Suggest a longer break and come back to the discussion when everyone has had time to think. An extended break clears the way for some perspective and solutions.

4) Reframe the situation with an apology and an offer to start over. It’s like hitting the reset button.

Personally, if I am having a verbal disagreement with someone, I like to sit down because it helps me remain calm. If it’s a loved one, try sitting beside them.

Listen for Understanding

If you are mitigating conflict FBI style, you’ll take time to understand perceptions — both yours and theirs — before you jump into action. Understanding where the other person is coming from helps you see the big picture and shape a response. Comprehending another person’s perspective is hard to do under the best circumstances and almost impossible to do when angry. (See step One — Calm down first.)

When Listening to Understand, follow these steps:

1) Listen closely to the other person. Hold comfortable eye contact and try not to fiddle with stuff. Keep your hands visible. It’s a non-verbal sign of honesty. Nod your head in agreement and say encouraging things like, “I understand” or “I hear you.” Don’t let their delivery distract you from the message. People aren’t often polite when they’re angry. Sometimes really angry people are overly nice and just hiding it.

2) Take notes if applicable to the situation. It shows you are keenly interested in the details of their problem.

3) Don’t interrupt. Go as long as you can before speaking. Interrupting signifies that you don’t think what they have to say is important. Maybe you are just excited or eager to share, but it’ll just be discounted as rude. A significant benefit of waiting to speak is that you learn as much as you can about the issue and their thinking. It allows you to shape your response precisely to the problem. And sometimes, people like to vent. Often through venting, a person stumbles upon a solution all by themselves.

4) Ask questions for clarification. By asking the right questions, the solution becomes obvious to everyone.

5) Respond to the emotion, not just the problem. If your spouse tells you they are angry because you forgot to call home after your out of town work event, say, “I am sorry it made you mad. I can see how that was upsetting for you.” Then you can get into your defense strategy. Responding first to the emotion allows you to connect with them and acknowledge their pain.

If the setting is right and you’re good at, humor rarely fails at turning a disagreement around. I didn’t get this tip from the FBI and instead learned it all on my own. Funny husbands are a treasure.

Expressing Your Position

Hostage Negotiators can’t give in to every demand of a perpetrator. Still, they look for small concessions that create goodwill, establish trust and rapport, and keep everyone working toward a peaceful resolution. They aren’t going to get a helicopter to the building’s roof, but they may agree to bring in some lunch. Often, they pair this with a request for something significant in return for the concession. “Let ten hostages go first, and then we’ll send in some water.”

There are two strategies at work here.

1) It sets the stage for how they’ll treat negotiations. “I give you something — you give me something.” If your mother demands to pick the venue for your engagement party, maybe she can help with some costs.

2) It activates a person’s innate response to bartering. When negotiating, start by asking for something greater than you think you can get. When you get the expected refusal, ask for something a little smaller. By conceding, the other person feels compelled to agree to the smaller request. If your boss needs you to stay late to finish up a report for his business trip, ask him for the entire Friday off work. No? Well, how about if I leave a little early then?

When possible, find positions you both agree on and make concessions where possible. Set the table properly by starting with what you are willing or able to do before getting to the items you can’t change.

Concessions in everyday situations aren’t always possible. Extending the curfew for your new teenage driver may not be OK for you, or you aren’t able to process a client’s request because it falls outside of the services your company offers. Sometimes the answer is “no” or fulfilling the request is impossible. How do you say no to a client or a loved one and still save the sale or the relationship?

The Power of a Positive No

In his book The Power of a Positive No: Save the Deal Save the Relationship and Still Say No, author William Ury offers up the perfect talk track for anyone who finds themselves in the difficult position of not being able to say Yes. Ury calls it a Positive No, and it goes as follows, “Yes! No. Yes?”

The first “Yes!” express your interests. The “No” asserts your position. The second “Yes?” is an invitation to the other party to reach an agreement.

To explain this technique, I’ll use a very relatable, recent argument I overheard.

How it went in real life:

HER: We’ve been invited to my good friend’s wedding (out of town).

HIM: I’m busy at work, and with all the costs for recent traveling we’ve done, I can’t make it.

HER: This is important to me. I always make your stuff a priority, and you never do the same.

HIM: What do you want from me? A trip like that isn’t in the budget right now.

Using Ury’s approach:

HER: We’ve been invited to my good friend’s wedding (out of town).

HIM (using first “Yes!”): I love traveling with you and always enjoy meeting your friends.

HIM (using “No”): Due to all the recent traveling we’ve done, I don’t think my boss will agree to the time off work, and I know my budget is tight. I can’t make it.

HIM (using the second “Yes?”): I am sorry. I know how important this must be to you. What if fly out with you toward the end of the year when I have a little more vacation time and money? Would that work?

Wow. I made that look easy. Only when you are really angry you won’t feel like being nice. This approach remembers the common courtesies we sometimes forget in everyday situations. Practice during inconsequential conversations to improve your reflexes for high stake disputes.

Some Phrases That Do Not Work in Confrontations

Over time, I have developed a shortlist of argument traps to avoid at all costs. These phrases raise a person’s guard or make them angrier. When a person’s guard goes up, they stop listening, and you no longer have influence.

“Our Policy Is….” Nobody cares what your company policy is. They want a solution to the problem. Try, “When this comes up for us as a company, we find the solution/these parameters/the best resolution/we do this….” It’s pretty much the same thing without the verbal speed trap.

“The decision was made over my head” typically elicits this response, “Ok. Let me talk to that person then.” Avoid the decision blame game. If you work there, own it. Describe why the decision was made in terms of the customer (not just the company) in the best way possible.

“Let me see what I can do.” or “I’ll try to help.” While well-meaning, these responses are flabby. Instead, give a more active phrase a shot, “Here’s my goal.” Or “Our first step is…”

Telling someone to “calm down” ticks them right off. Use it at your peril.

“I hear you, but….” You might as well say you don’t care. Try, “I hear what you are saying, and I have some additional points/thoughts we can consider.”

“You always do that/I never do that/It happens every time.” As they say in Western movies, “them’s fighin’ words.” Absolutisms rarely bear out under scrutiny. Why give them an opening?

Final Thoughts

Buy some time to give everyone a chance to cool off and collect their thoughts. Listen with an ear toward finding agreement and solutions that could work for all involved. When that’s not possible, express your position in the kindest, assertive voice you can manage with all the common courtesies.

Hopefully, you’ll never be caught up in a bank heist and need these skills, but maybe you’ll be a little more prepared next time your mother-in-law holds you over a barrel for a Christmas time visit.

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Roxanne Hale, owner, and broker of Arthouse has spent over 20 years in the real estate business. Here you'll find a collection of stories about buying and selling real estate & home building advice, housing history, and architecture & design tips. Oh, and some fun personal stories every now and then!

Homewood, AL

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