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  • Writer's pictureAntti Vanhanen

A Little Secret FBI Hostage Negotiators Know About Arguing

Last year, a good friend of mine taught me a valuable lesson I will never forget.

I know you're probably thinking "What?! Antti doesn't know everything?!", but it's true. 😜

Anyways, here's the rough outline of what happened:

My friend I were talking about something of which we are both quite knowledgeable.

I made a statement that went along the lines of "X is harder than Y, because A-B-C".

To that, my friend replied "I disagree, I think Y is harder X".

In my mind my brain screamed "What?!" and I immediately and heatedly launched into a tirade of all the reasons I was convinced he was wrong and I was right.

We went back and forth for a few minutes, and then my friend got quiet and said something that made me stop and listen:

"Antti, I know you are a smart guy and you obviously know a lot about this topic. But I know a lot about this topic, too. So I wonder how is it possible that it looks so different to the two of us?"


I went quiet.

Something inside me shifted.

In one fell swoop, my friend's comment had transformed the situation from an argument to an exploration.

It's as if he had moved from the opposite side of the table to sitting right next to me so that we were both looking at the same thing.

The conversation that followed couldn't have been more different than how it started.

Instead of trying to argue and prove ourselves right, we were now engaged in a joint exploration of what was actually true about the topic.

When we argue from a position, we feel the need to defend it. Conversely, when we seek to understand, there is nothing to defend and we are free to explore and change our minds.

This insight has served me many times since, and I have since learned that this is roughly how FBI hostage negotiators approach their work, too.

Usually, when a person has taken hostages or is ready to jump off a building to end their life, they have backed themselves into a mental corner from which there is no escape.

The more we push and try to change their minds, the more attacked they feel.

Instead, if we stop to listen closely and try to understand what the world looks like to them, the easier they are going to find their own way out back to wisdom again.

It's absurd to think that I or anyone of us could think we know everything about anything.

There are always new perspectives and viewpoints to uncover.

All we need to do is open up, listen and explore.

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