Tune in and transform difficult moments

I’ve written before about Chris Voss, a chief hostage negotiator with the FBI who uses a term that fits very well with TUF training. He talks about ‘tactical empathy’ for building a relationship with anyone. He used this when negotiating with terrorists, bank robbers and other dangerous criminals. Your circumstances might not be quite as extreme as his, although you might feel like they are when you are right in the middle of tense and awkward situations. Either way the same skills will be useful.

Listen and validate

To work well in challenging situations, you first need to understand what the other person actually needs and how to help them feel safe enough to talk about what’s going on. This process begins with listening to them, validating their concerns and emotions, building trust, and creating a safety net that allows for real conversation.

Angry char woman
“You are really annoyed and want to make sure I’m listening, right?”

With tactical empathy you don’t need to agree with the other person. You don’t even need to like the other person.

You just need to understand the world from their point of view and somehow validate their feelings. Make sure that your tone is non-judgmental and that you are accepting, open and receptive to what they may say next.

Possible openers

Some of the phrases that you can use to indicate that you are on their side are:

  • It seems like you are under a lot of pressure right now.
  • This is really important to you, isn’t it.
  • You haven’t had it easy.
  • That sounds really hard.
  • It seems like you are worried about …

When people ‘feel felt’, that is, you ‘get it’ that they are distressed in some way, then they are more likely to calm down and be open to engaging with you. Sometimes they may actually say a feeling word, in which case reflect that back to them. Always listen for the feelings that are underneath their problems and reflect those feelings back to them. You might need to tentatively offer a suggestion as to what their feelings are. If you aren’t right they will most likely correct you and tell you what they are feeling. In which case you simply acknowledge what it is they do say they are feeling.

Less is more

You don’t have to say too much. Less is often better. Stay engaged. Use what counsellors call ‘minimal encouragers’ such as nodding your head and using affirming words like ‘yes’, ‘oh dear’, ‘goodness’ or making positive sounds like “mmm”, “oh”, or “ahh”. Let your response sink in with them. Don’t rush. People aren’t used to being listened to and acknowledged like this. You really know you have hit the mark if they say something like: “That’s right, I am”.

Just do it

Try tactical empathy with anyone you are in conversation with, not just those who are highly agitated. Notice what impact this has on them. You will strengthen all your relationships and build trust and understanding.