Extreme Influencing: The Importance of Going First

We all have difficult situations where we need to persuade someone to do something but they just won’t do what we want. Some of these situations are extreme – does anyone here have teenagers?!

Hostage negotiators – world class persuaders

But are your situations as tough as those that hostage negotiators find themselves in? These really are extreme. Life and death situations, emotions running at 11 out of 10 and polar-opposite desired outcomes – one demands a million dollars and a flight to Cuba and the other says, “Er, no and can you put your gun down and come out with your hands above your head?”

And yet, their results are exceptionally good. In the early days, there was no negotiation, they just sent in with a SWAT team who took everybody out. Then in the 1970’s, they conducted some analysis to see if this approach worked. It turned out it was a disastrous approach – more hostages were killed by the SWAT team than by the hostage taker. So this was when they decided to bring in the twin-track method, they still have the SWAT team but now most of the proceedings are handled by a gently spoken negotiator – usually called Bruce or Denzil (in the films, anyway).

This approach turned the results on their head. Now, 97% of situations are resolved without any injuries other than to the hostage taker and 80% of the time, even they aren’t injured either.

Sometimes it is easy

Some situations proved surprisingly easy to resolve. In one instance, an airplane hijacker was arrested after a calmly thinking air-stewardess sat him in the first-class area while they were still on the runway, pulled the curtain behind him then removed everyone from the plane! The poor chap obviously didn’t have all his marbles with him. Shortly after he was released from prison, he tried to hijack exactly the same flight. This time he didn’t fall for the trick but waited until they were in the air and stayed in economy. They shot him.

What can you do in your situation?

Most situations are, of course, a lot more complex than this and the negotiator has to carefully lead it from a hair-trigger atmosphere to something much more manageable.

And that’s exactly what they do. They lead. Wherever they want the hostage taker to go, the negotiator goes first.

So can we learn from their example? How can we lead our situation where we want it to go?

Be polite, go first

For a start, you could listen to them. You want them to listen to you? Surely, it’s only polite if you go first.

In fact, whatever behaviour you want them to do, you need to do it first. If you want them to be open to reason, if you want them to admit an error, if you want them to agree to your argument, you have to do exactly that yourself, challenging though that might be.

Take Brexit or Trump or Corbyn or Israel/Palestine or any one of a hundred polarising issues out there at the moment. On Facebook, someone will post about one side or the other, to which someone from the other camp will reply. And then this argument will go down the page and you can scroll down as far as you like and never in the history of Facebook has anyone ever said, ‘Oh, you’re right, actually. I never thought of it that way, I’ve now changed my mind’. Doesn’t happen!

But they just might if you found something of their argument to agree with first.

Daniel Dennett, the philosopher, said that if you want to persuade someone to change their mind, you first have to play their argument back to them better than they could have put it themselves. Then, and only then, can you put across your point.

Acknowledge the emotion

And if they’re not being reasonable, no matter how reasonable you are being? Maybe the problem is you are focusing too much on reason and ignoring emotion. They cannot get to reason if their emotions are getting in the way. So, again, you have to go first in acknowledging this.

“Wow, that happened to you? If that happened to me, I’d be furious!”, “Look, I know you’re upset with me because you think I was rude”, “Ok, hands up, I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry.”

In most cases, this acknowledgement will draw the sting, disarm them and allow them to be more open to reason.

Go first and they will follow

There are lots of things that you can do to turn around even the most extreme of situations and the success of hostage negotiators is testament to this. Many of their methods are very simple but simple can be very powerful.

But whatever it is you do, if you want them to change their behaviour, you have to change your behaviour first. It’s the only way that works.

And, of course, it’s only polite.

If you're intrigued to know more about influencing and negotiation and how to become as good as experts like hostage negotiators, do consider joining Simon Horton's session at the NLP International Conference on Sunday 19th May 2019.