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The Behavioral Change Stairway Model was developed by the FBI’s hostage negotiation unit, and it shows the 5 steps to getting someone else to see your point of view and change what they’re doing.
It’s not something that only works with barricaded criminals wielding assault rifles — it applies to most any form of disagreement.
There are five steps:
The problem is, you’re probably screwing it up.
In all likelihood you usually skip the first three steps. You start at 4 (Influence) and expect the other person to immediately go to 5 (Behavioral Change).
And that never works.
Saying “Here’s why I’m right and you’re wrong” might be effective if people were fundamentally rational.
But they’re not.
…business negotiations try to pretend that emotions don’t exist. What’s your best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or ‘BATNA’? That’s to try to be completely unemotional and rational, which is a fiction about negotiation. Human beings are incapable of being rational, regardless… So instead of pretending emotions don’t exist in negotiations, hostage negotiators have actually designed an approach that takes emotions fully into account and uses them to influence situations, which is the reality of the way all negotiations go…
The most critical step in the Behavioral Change Staircase is actually the first part: Active listening.
The other steps all follow from it. But most people are terrible at listening.
Here’s Chris again:
If while you’re making your argument, the only time the other side is silent is because they’re thinking about their own argument, they’ve got a voice in their head that’s talking to them. They’re not listening to you. When they’re making their argument to you, you’re thinking about your argument, that’s the voice in your head that’s talking to you. So it’s very much like dealing with a schizophrenic.
If your first objective in the negotiation, instead of making your argument, is to hear the other side out, that’s the only way you can quiet the voice in the other guy’s mind. But most people don’t do that. They don’t walk into a negotiation wanting to hear what the other side has to say. They walk into a negotiation wanting to make an argument. They don’t pay attention to emotions and they don’t listen.
The basics of active listening are pretty straightforward:
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
So what six techniques do FBI hostage negotiation professionals use to take it to the next level?
You don’t want yes/no answers, you want them to open up.
A good open-ended question would be “Sounds like a tough deal. Tell me how it all happened.” It is non-judgmental, shows interest, and is likely to lead to more information about the man’s situation. A poor response would be “Do you have a gun? What kind? How many bullets do you have?” because it forces the man into one-word answers, gives the impression that the negotiator is more interested in the gun than the man, and communicates a sense of urgency that will build rather than defuse tension.
Pausing is powerful. Use it for emphasis, to encourage someone to keep talking or to defuse things when people get emotional.
Gary Noesner, author of Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator has said:
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.
Brief statements to let the person know you’re listening and to keep them talking.
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.
Repeating the last word or phrase the person said to show you’re listening and engaged. Yes, it’s that simple — just repeat the last word or two:
For example, a subject may declare, “I’m sick and tired of being pushed around,” to which the negotiator can respond, “Feel pushed, huh?”
Repeating what the other person is saying back to them in your own words. This powerfully shows you really do understand and aren’t merely parroting.
The idea is to really listen to what the other side is saying and feed it back to them. It’s kind of a discovery process for both sides. First of all, you’re trying to discover what’s important to them, and secondly, you’re trying to help them hear what they’re saying to find out if what they are saying makes sense to them.
Give their feelings a name. It shows you’re identifying with how they feel. Don’t comment on the validity of the feelings — they could be totally crazy — but show them you understand.
A good use of emotional labeling would be “You sound pretty hurt about being left. It doesn’t seem fair.” because it recognizes the feelings without judging them. It is a good Additive Empathetic response because it identifies the hurt that underlies the anger the woman feels and adds the idea of justice to the actor’s message, an idea that can lead to other ways of getting justice.
A poor response would be “You don’t need to feel that way. If he was messing around on you, he was not worth the energy.” It is judgmental. It tells the subject how not to feel. It minimizes the subject’s feelings, which are a major part of who she is. It is Subtractive Empathy.
Curious to learn more?
To get my exclusive full interview with former head of FBI hostage negotiation Chris Voss (where he explains the two words that tell you a negotiation is going very badly) join my free weekly newsletter. Click here.
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