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How Fear of Loss and Time Are Negatively Impacting Your Ability to Listen

By |May 14, 2024

In the seventh hour of the hostage negotiation, the team psychologist leaned over and delivered a chilling message.

It was a realization that we all knew deep down but were reluctant to confront. For seven long hours, we had been listening to the suspect's demands, but our own fear of loss – the dread of the worst-case scenario – had clouded our ability to truly hear and acknowledge his underlying motivation.

As hostage negotiators, we are trained to listen at the highest level, to understand the real reasons…motivations behind driving the hostage taker's actions and vision. However, in this intense standoff, our own emotions and biases had created a barrier to effective listening.  One of the Laws of Negotiation Gravity™is that fear of loss is the single biggest driver of human decision-making and behavior. In this case, our fear of losing the innocent child had prevented us from directly addressing the suspect's true intentions.

Fear of loss wasn't the only factor. In this situation, time was also a major factor. The first few hours of the negotiation were volatile -  fits of angry tirades, threats, and rebuttals – making effective communication difficult.  The reality of the situation demanded that we invest time in building rapport with the suspect - listening, Labeling™, and asking Calibrated Questions™. The real challenge came when the hostage taker's tone became more…intentional. He demanded to speak with his ex-wife.  The request sounded quid pro quo, transactional, hiding an unarticulated intent. 

We were at an impasse. 

On the phone, we told the hostage taker, "We are not going to put your ex-wife on the phone. If we do, you are going to kill the hostage and blame her."  

The entire direction of the conversation changed after we articulated and addressed intent.  After investing the time in building rapport, we moved the conversation into vision and implementation. The conversation focused on forecasting, using sentences that began with "Here is what this can be…", and "This is what will happen when…". Questions started with "How" and "What." The rants and tirades fell away and progress was made. 

Stop being pressured by time

A common question or concern is the time required to move through a negotiation. In the hostage situation described above we weren't encumbered by the clock – the pressure came from the hostage taker's mental state. I am very confident that had we been impatient, skipping steps, the outcome would have been catastrophically different.

When time is allowed to be a variable it will inevitably work against you. Another Law of Negotiation Gravity™, The last impression is the lasting impression. People remember two parts of an interaction: the most intense moment and how you made them feel at the end. If you're in a negotiation and time runs out, leave your counterpart with a good impression. That way, if the stars align in the future, you'll still be able to start again on a positive note.

The lessons from this hostage negotiation can be applied to everyday situations, whether you're a salesperson trying to overcome objections, an HR professional handling a disgruntled employee, or simply navigating a difficult conversation with a loved one. The principles of empathetic listening, building rapport, and addressing underlying motivations are universal.

  • Be aware of your own fears and biases.
  • Invest time in understanding your counterpart's perspective.
  • Have The courage to confront difficult truths. 

In doing so, you can unlock the power of negotiation to create value, strengthen relationships, and achieve better outcomes in all aspects of your life. Remember, the skills and techniques used in high-stakes negotiations are not just for professionals – they are valuable tools that can help us all become better communicators, problem-solvers, and leaders. By embracing the art of listening and applying the lessons of the Black Swan Laws of Negotiation Gravity™, we can navigate even the most challenging situations with grace, empathy, and success.