Secrets to being persuasive from hostage negotiators

We recently chatted to our negotiation team who have a depths of experience of highly charge conversations from their time in law enforcement and the military. From talking people down off bridges to negotiating the release of ships from pirates, before working for Fieri they were used to dealing with some of the most pressurised and prickly situations imaginable. We asked them for some top tips for being persuasive that they have taken from their training and experience in ‘crisis negotiation’ that can be used during difficult workplace conversations. We were shocked to learn that the best approach is not always the most obvious one.


Negotiating with pirates requires the same need to be persuasive as workplace negotiations

Being too direct isn’t courageous. It is is a poor strategy

Having difficult conversations is part of being a good leader. The term ‘courageous conversation’ is the current fad for describing these interactions in the work place. This implies that ‘telling it like it is’ is the best policy for any leader. The truth is that directness can be construed as being overly aggressive provoking a defensive response from the recipient rather than acceptance. There are smarter ways than being blunt. Even when delivering difficult news, a more tactful approach is likely to lead to productive dialogue and faster acceptance.


Start at the beginning

You have to earn the right to be persuasive. This starts with listening to the other side, showing empathy and building a rapport. People who can do this well are far more likely to be persuasive. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in honesty and getting to the point, but if you get to the point too soon you can provoke a fight. Then you are going to get nowhere. Take your time getting to the point and you are more likely to get it across.


Talk less, say more

Some people want to be in control during a difficult negotiation. For them that means they need to set the agenda and dominate the airwaves. Let them. That doesn’t mean you are giving them exactly what they want or letting yourself get pushed around – you are just allowing them to feel in control. When you do speak during this type of interaction it should be a summary of a point or points you both agree on which will lead to positive affirmation from the other party and their understanding that you are listening to them. Then you are getting somewhere. Some highly persuasive negotiators can get what they want by saying very little and listening tentatively. Some of the worst are the most verbose.


Questions are the key

Use open-ended questions to steer the conversation whilst letting them do most of the talking. Use ‘what’ and ‘how’ rather than giving statements or asking closed questions and you will usually find the tone becomes more collaborative. It also means that the person doing the most talking is more likely to trip up which may be useful. Persuasive people ask the right questions and latch on to the right information. Even the most obtuse person will reveal certain levers that you can latch on to if you can get them to speak for long enough. Go in too hard and you will get nothing. Remember it starts with listening, showing empathy and building rapport.


Let them solve your problems

An excellent technique to create a constructive dialogue from a potentially fractious exchange is to turn the tables. Get them to state the problem and their solution. Question further any weaknesses in their solution to a point that it will become clear that this is not a workable course of action without you actually having to say so. It will give them every opportunity to feel empathy with your situation. Even if this strategy leads to a ‘you’re just going to have to work that our’ response, this is unlikely to happen as often as you think and when it does you know that you have derived all information from that particular route that you can.


Have a plan

People will sometimes spend hours composing and re-composing a particular email. They rarely dedicate the same time to planning their approach to a difficult workplace conversation outside of formal pitches. Dedicate time to deciding your strategy and approach. If you are entering a negotiation ensure that you know what your ‘red lines’ are and try to anticipate those of you opposite number. It is unlikely that both of you will get everything you want so think of a viable so you must know what you are willing to concede on. Take time to evaluate your best alternative to a negotiated settlement – your fallback option and a potential lever.


So ditch the ‘courageous conversation’ mindset and start thinking about listening, empathy and rapport in order to be as persuasive as you can be during difficult conversations.


Our negotiation team deliver workshops and training programmes for business leaders and sales experts around the world to help them learn to be more persuasive using tools and techniques from crisis management. Get in touch at to find out more.