A hostage negotiator’s simple strategy for difficult political conversations with people you love

If they can be civil, so can we.
If they can be civil, so can we.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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Pop quiz: A man takes two people hostage. He has a gun. He threatens to kill the hostages, and then himself. To change his mind, do you:

  1. Tell him he is wrong, and has a deranged outlook on life
  2. Explain that everything will be fine if he’d just hand over the gun
  3. Try to create a bond with him and see where it goes

According to George Kohlrieser, a seasoned hostage negotiator who has himself been held hostage four times, the answer is, unsurprisingly, number three. You do not persuade people by insulting or coercing them.

Now, another quiz: Your Dad voted for Trump. You voted for Hillary. You are angry, he is delighted. You are heading home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or some other special occasion, hoping to enjoy your family’s company instead of engaging in a scorched earth battle. Do you: 

  1. Tell him the country is going to hell in a hand basket, and it’s his fault
  2. Say that, the last time you checked, a racist, bigoted billionaire isn’t uniquely qualified to solve America’s problems
  3. Ask genuine questions about why he voted the way he did, showing yourself to be curious and open-minded

Yep. Three again

For families fractured by the US presidential election, Thanksgiving is ominously near. Many will choose to skip politics altogether in a bid to enjoy the food and football, and not frighten the children. But for others, there’s no avoiding it. That means Clinton supporters, who are angry and despairing, will face off against Trump supporters, who are elated and energized. The same applies for any politically charged conversation between friends or family members—Brexit in the UK, Modi in India, Erdogan in Turkey… the list goes on. 

Kohlrieser suggests the following tactics to defuse tension with people who don’t agree with you:

  1. Know your emotions and be prepared to manage them
  2. Be curious: listen with an intent to hear, rather than react
  3. Acceptance does not mean agreement

“We have to recognize that there is deep grief all around,” he says. There’s the grief that underlies the decision by millions of American voters to choose a renegade leader who used coarse and divisive rhetoric on the campaign trail. “We have to try and understand their alienation,” he says. And there’s also the grief of those whose hopes for a more inclusive and diverse country, embodied by Clinton becoming America’s first female president, were seemingly dashed. “There’s a lot of sadness and fear and anger,” he adds.

Recognizing the grief—on both sides—leads to tactic number two: not using it against people with opposing views. “A family dinner or dinner with a friend shouldn’t be a source of ventilation,” Kohlrieser says, “it should be a source of conversation.” 

Pulling this off requires epic levels of self-control. It means asking questions, rather than insulting your Trump-loving father or Hillary-loving sister. Why did you vote for Trump? What do you think will happen now? What will happen if he does some of the things he said he would do? What does a “great” America look like to you? 

It’s good to listen

Of course, all these questions are useless unless you actually listen to the answers. “Be curious,” Kohlrieser advises.

If you are thinking, “this guy has no idea what a small-minded nincompoop my uncle can be,” consider this: When Kohlrieser was negotiating with kidnappers, he was not trying to persuade them of his very rational viewpoint (namely, “put down the gun, hand over the people”). He had to convince hostage takers to make decisions; he had to give them options. That usually meant figuring out why kidnappers took the hostages, and what they hoped to achieve as a result. Kohlrieser didn’t judge; he inquired.

“You don’t persuade by arguing, you persuade by questioning, and engaging in dialog,” he says.

You see where this is going. You don’t have to agree with your father, but you have to hear him out. For too long, the left has demonized the right, and vice versa. You won’t win anyone over by shouting at your mother, or de-friending your father on Facebook (leaving him to read only posts from his Trump-loving friends).

Shutting someone’s opinion down does not create the space for change. You have to control your amygdala, the control center of the brain—when it is hijacked, it makes you do and say the things you regret. Kohlrieser explains it this way: it’s when the limbic system, including emotions, take over cognitive function, i.e. reason.

Find common ground

For a long time, the right has felt like elites have taken America hostage. The left now feels like it’s being held hostage by Trump. There is common ground there.

But Kohlrieser stresses that there’s a key difference between a real hostage and a psychological one: You can decide not to be a psychological captive. Come equipped with the things you can say to deflect: “I don’t share that view. Pass the potatoes.” Or, “That’s not my vision for America, but I sure am glad we still live in a country where you are free to express your opinion.” This is not encouraging silence, but engagement. If it’s impossible to engage, agree to disagree and limit the chat about how bad the Cleveland Browns are this year.

For what it’s worth, Kohlrieser doesn’t think Trump will govern on the basis of his inflammatory promises. He’s a narcissist, and narcissists want to be loved. “Destroying America will not achieve that,” he says. And you shouldn’t destroy your family dinner over Trump.