Scott Tillema shares powerful wisdom on handling emotional and tense conversations with ease and finesse.
- Two powerful skills to help you connect with anyone
- A handy strategy to get people to listen in closely
- What people want to hear during emotional conversations
Scott Tillema is a top communication keynote speaker, FBI trained hostage negotiator, and senior associate with The Negotiations Collective.
He is a nationally recognized leader in the field of crisis and hostage negotiations, training thousands of negotiators across the country. Scott has developed a model for hostage negotiation, which is now being adapted by those in the private sector for use in sales, marketing, communication, and leadership.
- TEDx Talk: “The Secrets of Hostage Negotiators” by Scott Tillema
- Website: NegotiationsCollective.com
- Website: ScottTillema.com
- Book: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini
- Book: Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate by Dan Shapiro
- TED Talk: “Your body language may shape who you are” by Amy Cuddy
- Previous episode: 693: Building Better Relationships through Validation with Michael Sorensen
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Scott, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.
Hi, Pete. Thanks for having me today.
Oh, my pleasure. I’m so excited to hear some of your negotiation wisdom. But I think, first, we have to hear a thrilling tale of crisis and/or hostage negotiation. Bring it home for us, Scott. No pressure.
Yeah, there’s all kinds of thrilling tales. And I think all of us are engaged in difficult conversations. And although not many of us will rise to the level of doing a hostage or crisis negotiations, we’re all having difficult conversations where we want influence. And one of the ones that sticks out in my mind, I was having a conversation with a man, who is holding a gun to his head, and saying that he wanted to kill himself.
And in these moments, you realize how critical this dialogue is going to be, and the words that you say and how you say them really, really are impactful. And I learned a big lesson in this conversation with him because I was trying to persuade him, I was trying to be influential in getting him to do what I wanted him to do, and that is put the gun down so we could have a very safe resolution to this incident.
And, unfortunately, after many hours of conversation, this man chose to pull the trigger, and that was probably one of the most impactful moments in my negotiations career where I really had to reflect upon the outcome of that incident, and say, “What could I have done better so during my conversation with him, he would’ve put that gun down and reached a safe outcome?”
And moments like this really drive me to be excellent at what I do and to be a great negotiator. So, that’s the moment that sticks out, to say, I can do better, I need to do better. And the challenge to everybody I work with and everybody I teach and train, to say, “If this is the level of consequence in my conversations, what’s the hesitation for you? Why not go out and be a great leader and be a courageous person in sales and marketing, and do these things and take these chances, and find the influence and be great at what you do?” because the outcome probably is not going to be as consequential as something like that.
Yeah, or certainly it’s highly unlikely most of our conversations will be as immediately consequential as in a person dies. Although, I think it’s quite possible that the conversations that we have, and the extent at which we are effectively engaged in them, can, over years or generations, reshape history for thousands, and not necessarily for like super CEOs but just like our children, our children’s children, or our colleagues and those they, in turn, touch. It might be a lower amount of change for one person, but with the ripples and multiplications, it may be quite substantial.
Very substantial. And I don’t want to diminish the work that people do in any field because you’re in a leadership role, you need to be having difficult conversations with the people that you work with and the people that you coach and develop. Because if they don’t succeed at their job, they’re going to be without a job.
And think about how impactful that is to that person, and the people that they support and their family. So, we know that the power of influence in conversations is really a life-impacting piece here that all of us, who work in the field of influence, and that’s many of us, I think that everybody out there wants to be more influential.
And when you reflected on that encounter, and you said, “What could I have done differently?” I’m intrigued, did you have a lot of training and experience? What did you conclude and that you could’ve done differently?
That’s a great question. And in 2007, I was trained by the FBI, and one of the cornerstones of FBI crisis negotiation training is active listening, being a great listener, and they teach the eight skills of active listening, and this is foundational. Most people in negotiations know or should know these eight skills, and this isn’t classified stuff. There are books written out there about this. This is stuff that anybody can learn.
But what I kind of took away from this is we have to be a little bit more broad in communication than just being great listeners because the reality is what we see is what we believe, and sometimes we have this side bias that we believe what we see and we can disregard the conversation if we see something to the contrary.
So, in my trainings, we do exercises that show that we believe what we see. So, as communication has evolved, we’re getting away from just this telephone conversation. And now, in 2022, moving forward, it’s very commonplace for us to engage in Zoom conversations or Skype or any type of conversations where we can see each other and experience each other, so it’s more than just being a great listener that we communicate through gestures and facial expressions and body language, and how we’re dressed, and what people can see in the backgrounds of our virtual conversations, and this all matters.
This is all very impactful to what people think and what people believe, and, ultimately, what they choose to move forward on. So, in addition to being a great listener, I really press people that we have to understand body language, we have to understand the expressions, and we’re putting on a show, essentially, to allow people to experience us through the visual in addition to being great listeners and having a great conversation.
Okay. Well, can you share some of the eight skills of listening, some tidbits that can be advantageous to your everyday professional?
Sure. The acronym to remember this is MORE PIES, and we could probably go into a five-day class on these eight skills of active listening, but just to touch on a couple that I think are really the most impactful – asking open-ended questions. And this seems so simple and so basic but when I tell people, “I want you to ask questions and engage,” we almost default to closed-ended questions because we’re interested in gathering factual information.
And our goal in these critical conversations needs to be dialogue. And I challenge people, “I want you to do this in three or four sentences, and then pass the baton back to your negotiation partner, and allow them to speak, and allow them to be heard. And we do that by asking great questions. And that’s a great one.
And when you couple that with emotion labeling, which I think is another really, really important step of active listening, now we don’t have to default to saying, “Pete, I understand.” The reality is I don’t understand. I haven’t lived your life, I haven’t done your work, I haven’t had your experiences, so, for me to say to you, “You know what, I understand,” that’s almost dismissive, and I would say it’s a bit disrespectful because how can I possibly understand you when we’ve only been having a conversation for a short period of time?
So, instead, let’s maybe go to an emotional label, and say, “You sound frustrated.” So, we label what I’m hearing with an emotion, “You sound really excited,” and then we couple that with an open-ended question, “Tell me more,” and allow you to continue that conversation so, now, not only am I connecting with the content of what you’re saying but I’m connecting with the emotion of how you’re saying it.
And that’s when people start to sense that, “Hey, I really get you. I really have an appreciation for what you’re saying, and the emotions that are generated by your situation.” So, that’s, I think, two of the most important pieces of active listening, but there are other great ones. Reflecting or mirroring back the actual words that somebody says. Somebody says whatever they say and they get to the end of whatever they’re saying, and we just repeat back the last two or three words, and that’s reflecting.
The last two or three words.
You got it. You’re a pro. Perfect. And what the amateur is going to do is going to say, “Yes, that’s exactly that.” And, if you do it with an upward inflection, we’re asking a question with a downward inflection, we’re affirming that statement, and then we’re going to go to silence, which is another skill of active listening, which I think is probably the hardest for people to master because we’re uncomfortable in silence.
So, I’m just going to let it be silent for a moment, and allow you to take in that moment and keep speaking, and give you the floor because negotiation is not about being right. It’s not about ego. It’s about reaching an agreement. That doesn’t mean I have to like you. It doesn’t mean that I have to trust you. It’s we’re going to reach an agreement that’s satisfactory for both of us, and that’s how we’d go about doing it, by being great listeners and engaging in some excellent dialogue.
All right. So, there’s some tidbits about listening. And then how do we become more influential? You talked about verbal influence. How do we develop that?
Yeah. So, understanding the first step, I see this as having four steps in being a great negotiator. And, for me, I see our goal is to create a bond with somebody. And so often, we have a goal, “I want to sell them this,” “I want them to do this,” “I want them to drop the gun,” and I challenge people, I say, “Your goal needs to be to build a bond with this person. And once you start thinking about connection, now we can start having a mental map of how to get there.”
And I see that through four principles working together in a circle. And some people see negotiations as a stairway that we’re working our way up, and I don’t see it like that. I see it as a circle that we’re going around and around, and these four principles are the influence and the bond that we are creating. And the first one is understanding, and we do that through listening, and we do that through studying body language and gestures, and make sure I have an understanding of what’s going on.
And so often, we get stuck on that, especially as high performers and the work that we do, we say, “Okay, I think I get it so now I’m going to go right into solving the problem.” And I think that’s the step that most people skip, especially if you’re really good at what you do, is, “I skip the understanding piece,” not that you don’t know how to be a good listener. It’s just that, “I think I know what the problem is. I think I know what the issue is, so I’m going to move on quickly.”
So, the second principle that I use is timing, knowing when to deliver your message. And I found this to be the strategy piece in these conversations and these negotiations, to say, “Okay, I have an understanding of what’s going on, but I want to quickly say whatever I need to say and give my pitch,” and sometimes we get this wrong.
And by getting your timing wrong, we can really miss an opportunity or, worse, put ourselves in a more difficult situation if we try to jump the gun and start selling too soon, or try to persuade somebody too soon. So, the second step is having great timing to what it is we’re going to do.
Okay. And next?
Next is delivery. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Most people should be preparing for their negotiations, for their difficult conversation. And if you’re not preparing, let’s start there. But the people who do prepare, spend a lot of time focusing on the content of what they’re going to say, “So, I’m so worried. Here’s my talking points, bullets A, B, C, D, and I’m going to get through this, and this is what I’m going to say.”
But how often does somebody going into a really consequential conversation take time to practice their delivery, not what they’re going to say but how they are going to say it? And I’m convinced that this is much more important than the words we actually say. Now, I don’t want anyone to listen to this, and say, “Hey, I was just listening to a podcast with Scott Tillema who said I can say anything I want as long as I say it nicely, it’s cool.” And that’s not the case at all because words matter.
Words are how we frame the conversation so I don’t want to dismiss that piece at all. Words are really critical, but how we deliver them, and I’m talking about the rate, the rhythm, the pressure, the volume, the tone, all these different ways that we can manipulate our verbal delivery. This is really, really important on how people experience us. So, that’s a third big piece, is delivery. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.
Scott, I love the way you listed several key variables there. Can you share with us some demonstrations and the impact of saying the rate, fast versus slow, or different rhythm patterns, and what kind of influence that makes on the listener?
Of course. When we get nervous, when we get excited, our rate starts to notch up and we start speaking quickly. And it’s been shown that people who speak really quickly are perceived as less trustworthy than people who slow down that rate. Now, we don’t want to speak too slowly because we’re going to lose people’s attention. And we have found that the attention span has shrunk significantly over many, many years, as we’re surrounded and bombarded with distractions and social media and everything else that we’re attending to.
So, when I do a negotiation in a crisis or a hostage negotiation context, I have a coach that’s working with me in real time, so they can sit here and analyze what I’m saying and tell me, “Hey, let’s slow it down a little bit,” and kind of give me that hand signal, “Let’s slow that down and allow the person some time to process what we’re saying.” And if we can slow down just a little bit, we’re going to be a little bit more trustworthy and maybe even a little bit more likable. So, that’s the rate.
Okie-dokie. And then, so next step, we talk about rhythm. What are the key rhythm patterns that we can look to and what are the impacts of them?
Yeah, everything I say feels the same way. You get into the groove, it’s going to feel really smooth, you don’t have to rhyme, but we want everything to be right here. So, when you are engaging with me, you have an expectation that you’re not going to get yelled at, that I’m not going to be getting excited, and now we’re going really, really…Everything is kind of right in this groove, and it’s not too loud, it’s not too soft, it’s paced just right, so you can feel comfortable opening up to me.
And I think that this is the same reason that there is a couch in the therapist’s office so you get comfortable. We’re creating a bit of psychological safety for you to say, “Let’s really discuss the important issues here,” because sometimes we disguise the important stuff with other nonsense, and we’re willing to talk about the things that are easy to discuss.
But, really, sometimes we need to get into the more difficult conversations, and I’m really not going to open up with somebody if there’s a chance I’m going to get yelled at, or if a chance that they’re going to just quickly dismiss me and move on. Everything is right in this zone here and I want you to get comfortable having this conversation that’s going to open up pieces of information, which goes back to our first principle of understanding.
Okay. So, we talked about rhythm and volume, we mentioned not shouting. Any other volume insights?
I think that if you’ve listened to Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk, she talks about how we can use the body to influence the mind. So, taking this to the volume of what we say, if I become a little bit more quiet in what I say, it is going to force you to physically work harder to hear me. And it’s not very often that we find ourselves physically working really hard to hear someone. It’s only at the times that we’re listening intently, and those are the times that something is very important.
So, sometimes I’ll take the volume down a little bit, and that doesn’t mean speaking weakly or speaking without power. It’s going to force someone to listen very hard to what you’re saying. And now their brain may be convinced that this is something important, and now we’re getting into influence pieces because now they’re intently listening to what I have to say.
And we think the opposite when we want to be heard. We get loud, we scream, we get the bullhorn and we make sure that everybody can hear us, but this is intimate conversations. We’re one-on-one with people, trying to get them to go in the direction that we want them to go. So, I challenge people in coaching sessions, “Let’s take the volume down. Let’s come a little bit closer and see if we can engage them in a soft, intimate, intense conversation.”
Okay. Well, so we talked about a few components of delivery and we’ve got that four-part building of a bond with the understanding, the timing, the delivery. And what’s next?
The last one is respect, that I think you can do everything right. But if we don’t come in with respect, none of the other pieces work. So, you can’t get an agreement on respect alone. On respect alone, you can learn to be really nice, and you can get walked on. You’re going to lose a lot of negotiations, lose some opportunities. But without this respect piece, you are not going to have this influence and this bond that you need.
And I think that this makes sense to most people, and say, “Yeah, I get that. I was raised to be respectful, the ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘No, Ma’am,’ ‘Yes, please,’ ‘No, thank you,’” and that’s all really good, and that’s something that I want. But I think that respect is about emotion and connecting with people’s emotion and their emotional triggers.
And we see such the opposite of this. If you check on Twitter or a lot of social media where people are just disrespectful of each other, and that’s emotional triggers for people. So, I talk about, within respect, I talk about pieces like fairness and autonomy. Are we being treated fairly? How do they see this? How do they see this conversation? What is the issue that they see? Because I know that I see it one way, but can I see it the way they see it? Are they being treated fairly? And that’s a huge trigger for people.
And I’ve had a lot of conversations with folks, to say, “You know, I may not be able to get you what you want but I can assure you that you’re going to be treated fairly,” and people really like to hear that. And sometimes there can be a sticking point because how I see fairness might be a little bit different from how you see fairness, and we can have that discussion.
But the second piece of this is the autonomy, “Are you giving me the opportunity to choose the outcome here?” And I think that I could probably pressure people into making the decision I want them to make, but, ultimately, I want them to carry out that commitment. It’s not just getting me to say yes, to get me to say yes. I need you to do whatever happens next.
And I’m going to try to guide them toward making the right conversation, but, ultimately, I want them to choose, “This is what I want, this is the outcome, this is the agreement that I’m going to enter into.” And if we can be respectful of fairness and autonomy, and have sprinkle in some empathy in here, we’re really going to be someone, who this, your negotiation partner, your conversation partner is going to look to, and say, “Yes, this is someone I want to agree with. This is someone I like. This is someone who I believe in. This is someone who I’m going to enter into an agreement with.”
And that’s the piece of negotiation where we find success, to say, “We’re going through understanding, timing, delivery, respect,” and this is how we build the bond. We’re going around the circle. We’re making this connection. We don’t listen to strangers. We don’t care what strangers have to say. But now that we’ve formed this relationship and this connection, maybe I can have a little bit of influence and nudge you in the direction that we need you to go.
Okay. Well, so zooming out across the broad expanse of this topic domain, could you share with us some of your top do’s and don’ts that are particularly applicable for professionals? Are there any key words or phrases? Is there any way we could accidentally threaten someone’s autonomy or trigger them there, even though we didn’t mean to?
Of course. And when we do that, if we do that, again, we’re watching for changes in behavior. Are they pulling away? Are we seeing things outside of the baseline? Are we losing that dialogue? And let’s not be afraid to go back to that, to say, “Hey, I’m doing my best here. I sense that there’s a little bit of disengagement here. Is there something I said or didn’t say that maybe doesn’t sit quite right with you?”
And this is an important piece, especially with these high performers, to say, “What if I’m wrong? What if you see it differently from the way I see it?” And I think this is the importance of having diverse teams and diversity and all kinds of different ways because I want a lot of different pieces of input from people who think differently from me, to say, “Hey, maybe we have to take a different approach. Maybe this approach is wrong.”
And to approach someone and say, “If I did something wrong, let me apologize for how I just presented this. I sense that this was really unsettling to you or upsetting to you.” Or just inquire, “Is there something that happened that we need to go back and address?” That’s a great, great piece. And so often, we have this ego that gets in the way, to say, “Well, I’m not going to apologize to anybody,” “Well, I’m not going to be the one who’s wrong here.” That’s not what this conversation is about.
This conversation is about reaching an agreement with somebody, so let’s set the ego aside. It’s not about ego. Be willing to be curious. What another big takeaway, that so often we are so worried about talking about us, “And what I know and what I can do.” People aren’t impressed by that. They just aren’t. People are more happy to tell you about themselves and their work and their product, so be much more willing to listen than being eager to talk. Another important takeaway to be influential and do great things.
All right. Well, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?
I think that negotiation is probably one of the most important skills that people need to have to be successful in life because negotiation, really, it’s an umbrella for other skills like communication and influence persuasion, and all these things. And we have an inflated sense that we are really good at this because we communicate with people all the time, and we can point to examples in our life where we have found success.
But the people who are really good at this are humble to say, “I need to learn more, I need to be willing to examine myself and do better at this.”
All right. Now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
So, I don’t know if this is a quote verbatim, but one of the professors at Harvard, Michael Wheeler, he’s a long-time negotiation trainer, he talks about flexibility and adaptability. That we can’t say, “This is the way. This is the only way.”
So, be willing to step out of our comfort zone, be willing to take on styles that are uncomfortable to us, and learn things outside of what we already know because you might need that technique, you might need that tactic, so I really find the work of Michael Wheeler to be very impactful.
Okay. And a favorite book?
I’ve got a number of books that I like on negotiation and influence. I think one of the older ones, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini outlines six principles of influence, and that is a cornerstone for anybody who’s in the business of influence or persuasion. We need to understand that. But another one is Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate by Dan Shapiro. He talks about five core concerns that trigger our emotions, and that we can use to trigger other people’s emotions.
Beyond Reason is a great book to pick up, cheap, easy read but really foundational for people who are engaging in meaningful conversations with others that really want to take the next step and understand the impact that emotions have in driving our thinking and decision-making.
Okay. And a favorite habit?
Favorite habit is probably practicing my active listening skills. And I’ve been doing this for a long time, and that doesn’t mean that I’m good at it forever. It’s something that we can forget, and something that we can lose. And people ask me all the time in training, “Hey, Scott, how can I practice the eight skills of active listening?”
And the next time that you get a spam call, one of these people that’s trying to get you to do whatever, give them money and steal your credit card, I want you to practice the eight skills of active listening. Write down what these eight skills are, have them handy, and in three or four minutes, you should be able to get through each one.
And if you’re doing it with purpose and true intent, like you aren’t just going through a checklist, this person is going to engage you and you’ll get through the eight skills of active listening, give yourself a pat on the back, and then you can hang up the call and wait for the next spam caller in a few minutes, and do it all over again.
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with listeners; they tweet it out and quote it back to you?
“It’s not about trying to get somebody to do something. It’s about creating a bond.” And that’s what I hear back from people the most because that’s not what we’ve ever been taught before. We’ve been taught to sell them this thing, or convince them of this thing, or get them to do what I’m telling them to do, and it just reframes the mind. It reshapes the mind to say our goal, our focus is on creating a bond.
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
Excellent. If they would like to hear a little bit more on these principles, I invite your listeners to check out my TED Talk, it’s “The Secrets of Hostage Negotiators.” You type in hostage negotiator on YouTube, it’ll be one of the first talks that come up. It’s 18 more minutes of what we’ve been talking about here today, with a few more stories and a few more examples. They can visit my website at ScottTillema.com or my business site at NegotiationsCollective.com to learn about me and what I do and the services that we offer.
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?
I would say that it’s important for us to realize that this is a difficult time for many people, that all of us have experienced anxiety, and loss, and trauma over the last two years. And I’m not sure that that’s going to change immediately. So, being mindful that there are people around us who are struggling, use these principles, use this approach and try to connect with somebody today.
And it’s not maybe in a professional level where you’re trying to sell something or try to make money. It’s being a thoughtful connecting human being with somebody else, and you’ll be surprised how impactful this approach can be, and that with all the struggles with mental health and suicide in the world, that being a great connector, being a great negotiator, being a great communicator, this can go a long way, and you are going to connect with somebody who will later reflect to you how impactful you were at a really critical moment in their life.
So, let’s be mindful that there are people out there who are struggling and we can use these techniques to connect with them and really lighten up what can be a difficult time in a lot of people’s lives.
All right. Scott, thank you. I wish you much luck in all your negotiations.
Thanks, Pete, for having me on. A pleasure chatting with you today.