FBI Negotiators Use Empathy — Andy Raskin on Applications

Braden Mike Main Salmon Alder Ck

Triple Threat — Braden on the oars, with Mike and Ritche hanging on, Salmon River 2016

Parsing through my Medium feed, I came on this short and readable story by Andy Raskin, a consultant who helps corporate leaders tell effective stories for larger audiences.  The main takeaway from his story was that he had watched a corporate leader discuss connecting with a group of his employees, in an apparent negotiation over a strategic story to tell to the press.  One holdout — a salesperson — didn’t agree.  So the CEO used active listening — repeating back to the salesperson — what they said, and once the salesperson agreed to the correct representation, they moved on.  The CEO said that it was a negotiating technique he had learned from FBI negotiator Chris Voss, in his book Never Split the Difference.  

The point was the main thing the opposing party really wanted was what empathy delivers: coherence of information transfer.  (Normal people might call this being completely understood!  🙂 

And active listening, as a technique, works on all three bottom layers of the empathy pyramid: mirroring behavior, by repeating speech; emotional empathy, which in this case involved syncing voice tone and eye contact so that context is the same (wouldn’t have helped in the active listener had scorn in their voice!); and finally, rational empathy — the content of the strategic message itself, about what the person having a hard time coming to consensus believed was the truth about the larger issue.

The three points he makes are:

  1.  Leadership is an emotional connection.
  2. “Active Listening” (a well-known empathetic listening technique) is key to establishing connection.
  3. And finally, he has a lot more to learn from the FBI negotiator, Voss.

It’s always nice to see someone like Raskin write about empathy, even if he doesn’t recognize it as such.  What more could he learn, though?  That will involve in a little more rational empathy, in understanding what knowledge structures his audience could understand, what types of social structures might be in a corporation (or a broader audience) and how those values might propagate across those social structures.  And finally, in the background, that multi -v-Meme-spanning behemoth, culture, that shapes how individuals out of the context of their organizations might also interpret a given message.

What is cool about Raskin’s final point, which may seem ambiguous, is this:  it is ambiguous!  And what’s cool about this that Raskin is telling us about himself is that he has a sense of metacognition — knowing what he doesn’t know, as well as being aware of unknown unknowns out there.  And not being afraid to admit it indicates he’s interested in improving his own performance, and is far less focused on his status.  As a consultant, he doesn’t claim to have all the answers — his story on Medium is largely a portrait of his failure in a session.  But it also means that he has the innate empathetic development to explore the larger metacognitive space.  And that’s exactly what you’d want with someone who’s writing your story, which is what he does for a living.  Because your story is your own — and only someone willing to connect to you can get close to being right.

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