What Can a Teacher Learn from an FBI Negotiator?

Conflict Navigation

Have you ever wondered how a teacher modeling their interactions with students like an FBI agent would interact with a violent criminal could positively impact education?  I didn’t think so.  Let’s change that.  But first, I think it will be important to change the likely images that came to mind when thinking of an FBI agent’s interaction with a violent criminal.

Chris Voss is the former head of International Hostage Negotiations for the FBI.  His work there involved reimagining hostage negotiations.  He shares his insights and explains how they can, and probably should be applied to everyday life.  His book, Never Split the Difference, is a manual on navigating confrontation and steering conflict towards a positive resolution.

If you have not read his book, I’d highly recommend doing so.  I typically consume books through Audible, which is where I listened to this book.  However, this book will likely be referenced and you’ll likely want to annotate and revisit sections as you try out some of the more complicated and nuanced ideas.  As such, I’d highly recommend a physical copy of the book.  Read it with a pen in hand!

Today we’ll dive into a few of the key concepts and practices as they apply to the classroom.  After all, teachers are dealing with conflict all of the time!  If a teacher can better manage conflict while also arriving at desirable outcomes, and do so in a way that builds resonant relationships, well, what wouldn’t be to love about such an occurrence? 

The overarching assertion of Chris Voss is that it is emotion that drives conflict, not logic.  By developing and exercising your emotional intelligence and acting with empathy you can gain insight into how to best resolve conflicts.  Chris points out that it often the case that what we say we want isn’t really what we actually want.  Our emotions muddy our thinking.  If you can control your emotions, without being cold, and gain insight into the motives of the other party, then you can act to resolve those issues and resolve the conflict.  This is what empathy is, recognizing the need in another and acting to serve that need.

Chris argues that if we are calm and collected, we believe we engage in conflict with logical arguments and offers and expect logical counter offers or arguments.  But, we’re far more irrational than we perceive. We make decisions believing we hold all of the pieces of information, we think we understand what the other party is thinking, and we distort reality with a myriad of cognitive distortions.  Understanding and addressing these things is the key to resolving conflict appropriately.

One of the most impactful lessons, for me, was the idea to navigate life with hypotheses, not assertions.  For example, Right now, with what I know, I think this is correct.  Let’s explore and re-evaluate.  With assertions, it goes more like this.  This is what is right.  Let’s find supporting evidence and discount conflicting evidence.

This might not sound like an FBI negotiation guide to you, and it certainly didn’t to me either.  However, Chris Voss rewrote the book.  He learned some hard lessons, which he shared openly in the book, and adjusted how to engage with people.  In the book, he shares a story for each point he makes.  Sometimes those stories are a shining successful example, sometimes they’re a counter-example.  What better lesson exists other than that which is held in our mistakes?

Chris Voss’s book is a guide based on his experiences and philosophies.  He breaks this schema into ten parts, in ten chapters.  It is important to work with all ten as a cohesive framework.  I have read this book carefully and revisited many parts as I’ve tried my best to apply them to situations encountered in my life. Some of these situations have been professional, within my capacity as an educator.  But, many of the situations where the ideas in this book have been impactful have been in my personal life.  By learning to better negotiate conflict we can be better friends, parents, partners, and community members.  It is because of these ideas that I would put this on a shortlist of books a person should read.

Let’s answer the question, “How can these ideas take some of the sting out of the conflicts teachers face regularly?”  To do this, let’s put on the table a brief overview of some of the principles shared by Chris Voss. Then, we’ll dive into a view examples.

  1. Connecting with the Counterpart

    Idea:  We are sometimes tempted to push those we are engaged in conflict with away from us.  Conflict is unsettling and unpleasant.  However, to resolve the conflict, we must create a resonant connection with the other party.  Conflict often places us (you and the other party) in separate boxes.  Create a box that includes all.

    Take-Away:  Establish trust by making the other person realize that you are perceptive and insightful.  They need to understand that you do not want to win a “Me v You,” contest, but to find a solution to their problem and your problem at the same time.

    1. The F-Word

      Perhaps the most powerful word in the human language is “fair.”  Here is one great way to use it to help establish polite discourse. “Fairness is very important to me.  So, if at any point during our discussions I am unfair, please immediately stop me and let me know.  I will fix it!”

  2. Active Listening

    Idea:  Turn off your internal dialogue and work to hear and understand what the other person is saying.  To be insightful and perceptive, you must work to understand everything you can about where the other person is coming from, what they want, how they’re feeling, and why.

    Take-Away:  Ask questions about their concerns or needs in a calm voice.  Be patient, and clarify what you understand with further questions.  Be upbeat and positive while also being sincere.  This person has an issue and you can help them solve it.

  3. Mirroring

    Idea:  Mirroring is using similar language and phrases as your counter-part.  It is not an imitation of their voice or cadence, but quite simply reusing phrases they use.  It shows that you are listening. 

    Take-Away:  Key in on the last three words of a statement and insert those three words into your response, in a way that aligns with their sentiment.  For example, if a parent says, “I am very upset that you didn’t notify me sooner!”  Your response could be, “I am sorry that I did not notify you sooner.”

  4. Tactical Empathy

    Idea:  Empathy is recognizing the need in another and acting to serve that need.  Sympathy is sharing that need.  Tactical empathy is recognizing the need in another, vocalizing that need to signal that you understand.  By understanding through empathy the person’s behavior will make more sense and their actions will become more predictable.

    Take-Away:  By creating trust, actively listening, and mirroring, you are opening communication avenues and can gain insight.  This insight is tactical empathy.  It is understanding what the person really wants.

  5. Labeling

    Idea: Labeling is vocalizing the other person’s fears, stress, and desires.  It involves saying what you believe they want and are afraid of. 

    Take-Away:  By putting the scary stuff out in the open, it gets less scary.  The objectives become clearer.  When doing so, be sure to phrase things non-offensively by offering a hypothesis.  I believe I am hearing this …  is that accurate?

  6. Accusation Audits

    Idea:  This is similar to labeling, but deals with negative perceptions the other party might hold of you.  By carefully getting those ideas out in the open, some of the heat and aggression from the other party can seem disproportionate or unfair to them.

    Take-Away:  By accusing yourself of possessing or displaying those exaggerated negative the other party can see their own feelings as unreasonable.  An example of how to do this is, “I know I might seem like an unreasonable, stuffy, old-fashioned, and maybe even downright mean and vindictive teacher, but …”

  7. Getting them to say “no”

    Idea:  Negotiations only exist because there is a deal that is disagreeable to one or both parties.  By getting the other party to say no to something, it makes them feel they’re in control.  When they believe they have agency, that they have a say in the matter, they’re more likely to be reasonable.

    Take-Away:  Get them to identify what they do not want.  This opens the door to what they do want. 

  8. Summarize to evoke “that’s right!”

    Idea:  This is verifying that you correctly understand the other party’s position by repeating it to them.

    Take-away:  By actively listening and mirroring, and then getting to “no,” you can summarize the position of the other party.  In doing so effectively you can get them to say, yes, that’s right.  When such a thing occurs, the other party believes you see things their way.  The truth is, you can appreciate their way, but do not necessarily agree.  This is not lying because you’re not putting forth your agenda, just trying to understand and verify their agenda.

  9. Reframing the Discussion

    Idea:  Change the focus from what the person hopes to gain to what it is they hope not to lose. 

    Take-Away:  This changes the perception of the person from gaining something to preventing them from losing something.  We are far more motivated to act to prevent a loss than we are to gain a reward!

  10. Calibrated Questions

    Idea:  These questions make the other person feel like they are in the driver’s seat while also making your deal-breaker their problem.

    Take-Away:  By asking simple “how,” or “what,” questions the other party becomes the problem solver. 

  11. Implementation

    Idea:  A false promise is easy to secure.  For a solution to work, there must be a follow-through on the part of the other party.  That follow-through begins with a “how.”

    Take-Away:  It is often easy for us to see the problem and map out the solutions.  However, it is imperative the both the problem and solutions are articulated by the counter-part in this conflict.  If is then that the “how,” is most likely to be carried out.  Only after the solution is carried out is the conflict resolved.

This is not an exhaustive list of the ideas shared by Chris Voss, but a few things that I have found particularly applicable and effective as a teacher.  Let’s explore a few examples.

An Unhappy Student

Student:  Why is my grade so low?

Teacher:  Well, let’s take a look.  You seem upset.  Do you think your low grade is unfair?

Note:  This response is receptive, places you in a position of a helper, and pre-emptively uses the word unfair to disarm the student.  From here, the student could respond in several ways, but it has typically gone like this for me.

Student:  Well, I want a better grade.

Teacher:  So you’re not happy with how things are going?

Student:  No.  (Sometimes this question opens the door and the student identifies potential obstacles to their improved performance which can be addressed.)

Teacher: Are you afraid your parents will disown you, or that you’ll be destitute because of your current grade in my class? 

Note: This would be said with a light touch and some level of transparent humor.  This is labeling their fears but also exaggerating them.

Student:  Well, not that far, but I am going to get in trouble and I want to get good grades for my GPA.

Teacher:  What I understand is that you are afraid of getting in trouble at home and also worried about not getting into college? 

Student:  Yes, that’s right.

Note:   At this point, the desire of the student has already been flipped from what they want to gain to what they wish to avoid.

Teacher:  Well, look, my job is to make sure that you’re ready for college (provided that is an appropriate purpose for this class).  I want to do a good of that for you.  If I’m being unfair, please let me know.  Let’s take a look at what I can do to help you with your grade.  What can I do to help you?

Student:  Can I do extra credit?

Teacher:  Extra credit might help your grade, but by bumping your grade up with extra credit you might not really be prepared for college.  I’m not sure that’s the best way.  Let me ask you a very important question that might help us understand your grade.  What is it that is causing your bad grade?  Is there anything you’re doing to hurt your own performance that might also carry forward with you to college and cause even bigger problems there?

Student:  I don’t always pay attention well in class.  Sometimes, when I’m confused, I don’t ask questions and I space out.

Teacher:  Yeah, I have done the same thing.  I see that happen a lot with students.  You know, I have seen some students correct that habit.  Do you want to know what they did?

Note:  This observation might be a white lie, at least at first.  If this student engages in this solution, the next time it will not be a lie! 

Student:  Well, I don’t want to hear that you just ask the question.  It makes me feel stupid to ask a question in class.

Teacher:  Do you think Jo is stupid when she asks a question?

Student:  No, because she’s super smart.

Teacher: Well, she feels stupid asking, I promise you.  But she understands that learning and becoming smart is more important than people thinking she is dumb.  But, let’s talk about the other solution you can try.  When you’re confused, write your question in your notes and leave space for the answer.  Maybe you’ll feel courageous enough to ask it right then.  Courage is acting in the face of fear, by the way.  You cannot show courage unless you’re afraid.  Anyway, ask me, or a friend, that question later. 

Note:  If the student asks you the question, ask if you can share that question with the class.  Use it to address the confusion that many students have, but also demonstrate that other people also have that same question and benefit from it being asked and addressed.  This can be used in future discussions with the student to encourage them to ask questions as they come to the student.

The transition from the grade being your responsibility to empowering the student to exert control over their performance has been made.  Healthy dialogue and engagement has been created.  This might seem like butterflies and rainbows, but it is how this conversation can go, with practice.  This of course takes time and cannot be done if a student approaches you immediately before or between classes.  But, a simple invitation to an appropriate time to hold the discussion can open the door.

In his book, Chris Voss explores quite a few scenarios where a person he is coaching is learning to deal with a difficult boss, or with a work situation with difficult expectations.  Those are important tools to have.  As such, let’s skip dealing with coworkers and administration and explore one last example. 

Dealing with an Angry Parent

Mother:  It is unfair that my child is failing your class.  She has gone through so much this semester and deserves a break. 

Note:  This is a tough beginning because the mother has already used the word fair and done so to suggest that the treatment of her daughter is unfair.Teacher: I am sorry to hear of the problems outside of school.  I want to understand where you’re coming from so we can make this fair.  Can you tell me a little bit about what happened?

Mother:  There’s been a death in the family that has been very hard on her.  She’s been dealing with depression and her grades cause her a lot of anxiety. 

Teacher: Sometimes, dealing with academics needs to take a back seat.  Personal health and family are more important than grades.  It must be really hard for her to have fallen behind because of those issues and now have to feel even worse because of her grade.  I can see how this would seem unfair, like life is just piling on one issue after another, like a snowball effect!

Mother:  Yes, that is how it feels.

Teacher:  I do not want her grade to cause her anxiety.  What can I do?

Mother:  Can you let her turn in her missing work?

Teacher:  What is it that we are really trying to accomplish here? 

Mother:   I want my daughter to have a passing grade.

Teacher: I do, too.  She’s a bright kid with a lot of great things ahead of her.  Let me ask you another question.  What barriers does this class provide to her goals in adulthood? 

Mother:  She wants to go to college to be a veterinarian. 

Teacher:  That would be a cool job.  There’s a lot of school involved there.  It’s a competitive admissions process, too.  She’ll have to get great grades in college.  I know she can do it!  I want to help her with this.

Mother:  Yes, she’s very bright and a hard worker. 

Teacher: Would you be concerned that just passing this class without learning the content might provide roadblocks for her in the future?

Mother:  She’s very bright and will get caught up, I’m certain of it!  If you could just let her turn in her missing work, she’ll pass and be back on track.

Teacher:  My job is to make sure that she has fulfilled the requirements of this course by demonstrating proficiency.  That way we know she is on the right path when she leaves this class.  How can I let her turn in all of the semester’s work at the last minute?

Mother:  I just want her to pass the class.

Teacher:  We both want her to be successful in her future pursuits.  I am very concerned about further compounding the struggles she facing right now by trading a short-term reward with a long-term consequence.  I don’t want to put her in an even worse position.   Is there a way she can demonstrate proficiency with the course? 

Note:  At this point, the problem has been rephrased to show what might be lost, which is a greater motivation than what might be gained, even though in this case they are the same thing.  You can also offer viable and appropriate options for the student to the mother in a way that will resolve the real issue. 

The real issue is that the mother is upset for her daughter.  She wants to relieve the daughter’s frustration, but she always would like to see her daughter gain something in the future from this engagement. 

By practicing and rehearsing these ideas they’ll eventually be incorporated into your own schema.  You’ll develop your own style and be a more effective teacher as a result.  Not only that, because navigating and resolving conflict will become easier, you’ll be less hesitant and less likely to avoid necessary conflict. 

Let me know what jumped out at you here?  What made sense?  What are you going to try?  Do you already do any of these things?  Let me know.