Learn the best way to defuse your next relationship fight.
In the midst of a heated fight with your girlfriend or wife, the struggle can feel like life or death. But in most cases, it’s just stressful. For both of you.
And if you’re not careful and even thoughtful with your words, you’re going to make a tough situation a lot worse, pushing it from you-should-know-what’s-wrong tense to you’re-sleeping-on-the-couch-tonight terrible.
How do you make sure that never happens? By approaching these encounters like a hostage negotiator.
Now, we’re not referring to the “show ‘em who’s boss” negotiation tactic you see in movies like Dog Day Afternoon, Speed, Die Hard, or Phone Booth.
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We’re talking about a proven strategy from Gary Noesner, a three-decade FBI veteran who spent 23 years as a hostage negotiator, the last 10 as that bureau’s chief negotiator. He’s been in the thick of kidnappings, hijackings, prison riots, and right-wing militia standoffs. And he’s written about it all in his memoir, Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator.
So Noesner has defused some seriously hostile situations. Here’s how you can use his techniques during your next relationship spat to stop it from hitting crisis mode.
Level the Situation
Hostage negotiation, Noesner says, used to be about bargaining or, in some cases, just outright intimidation.
“Instead of just trying to strike a bargain, we realized we had to get nuanced,” he says. “We had to influence behavior and gain cooperation.”
To do that, you have to do more than argue and push and needle and demand. You have to listen.
“Compare it to a classic cop context,” he suggested. “An officer might deal with a guy who was threatening to kill his wife by making his own threat. The ‘stop or we’ll shoot’ approach. But if you layer a threat on top of another threat, you’re almost compelling resistance.”
Today, Noesner says trained officers and agents will ask the guy to tell them what happened.
“He says he found out his wife’s been cheating on him, that he feels devastated from the loss of trust and the collapse of the relationship. Anyone can relate to that. You can express sympathy and offer understanding.”
Those emotions are what get people to lower their guns—or, in your case, forgive you for working late and forgetting to call (again).
Lose the Strut, and Listen
Active listening starts with asking questions—not just letting the other person talk. Next time you’re in a low-stakes disagreement, find out what’s making the other person angry instead of automatically arguing in your defense.
“When I train police officers in the techniques of active listening, the first words out of my mouth are ‘self control,’” says Noesner. Resist the unhelpful responses to look tough or have the last word.
Even the most despicable criminal—or seemingly unreasonable significant other—wants respect and to feel like her frustration is being heard. “Listening,” he adds, “is the cheapest concession you can make.”
This may all sound pretty obvious, but just because it makes sense in theory doesn’t always mean it’s something you’re actually doing.
In the middle of a fight, all of your well-meaning intentions can go right out the window. As males, we want to puff out our chest and swagger, says Noesner. “We posture like we’re in the animal kingdom.”
So a little practice never hurt. Pay attention to your behavior the next time you’re in a normal conversation with her. How often are you asking questions? Are you truly listening?
Do that, and maybe you’ll never have to use Noesner’s strategy during an argument after all.