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Dreading a workplace confrontation? Maybe a hostage negotiator can help

September 30, 2013


Journal Staff Reporter

If the thought of terminating an employee makes you sweat, then maybe Mark Goulston can help: He's a former hostage-negotiation trainer for the FBI.

He's also an author and psychiatrist who teaches seminars on how to handle difficult conversations, and once caught the attention of an FBI agent who heard him give a presentation for parents with rebellious teens.

The agent watched Goulston role-play a teenager hellbent on going to a wild party, and afterwards invited him to do similar presentations for FBI and police trainings on hostage negotiations.

Goulston's other job titles include blogger, business consultant and executive coach. His client list is stocked with names such as IBM, Goldman Sachs, British Airways and ESPN.

Goulston is co-founder of Heartfelt Leadership and the co-author of “Real Influence: Persuade Without Pushing and Gain Without Giving In.”

He lives in Los Angeles, where he was a longtime professor of psychiatry at UCLA. Goulston shared some advice with the DJC about difficult workplace conversations.

Most people will never have to deal with a hostage-taker. But what are a few work situations where hostage-negotiation skills come into play?

When you're dealing with bullies who try to intimidate you or complaining whiners who exasperate you. Virtually any person who agitates you can cause you to not be able to respond calmly and rationally. The most of important skill in hostage negotiation is learning to remain cool, calm and centered.

What's the difference between difficult conversations and difficult people?

Almost any conversation with a difficult person who is easily defensive, thin-skinned, argumentative or whining becomes difficult when you want them to do something they don't want to do or tell them something they don't want to hear.

On the other hand, difficult conversations with good people are when you have to tell them bad news that you know will upset them and you feel guilt about doing that.

What can employers or colleagues do to prepare for difficult conversations?

Don't beat around the bush. It will rapidly make the other person and you more anxious.

Instead think of what you need to tell the other person, why you need to tell them, what are some of their options that you've given thought to, and what is your commitment to helping them figure out their best options so that they can best land on their feet, and set a time to meet with them instead of doing it on the fly.

How do you handle an employee who's getting out of control?

Tell them what you need to talk to them about and why. If the conversation becomes tense tell them that you need to finish the conversation, but if they are too upset for the moment you can schedule a time later in the day.

If of course you think the conversation could escalate and become belligerent or worse, you will do best to do it with other people present.

If an employee pushes back, how should an employer respond?

Don't argue with them. Instead lean into what they are saying and ask them, “What really frustrates you or upsets you most about this?”

And after they tell you that, pause and say, “I can understand exactly how you feel and I would probably feel the same way, but nevertheless this is not negotiable and I think it's best to discuss your best options at this point.”

What are some legal risks employers should be aware of?

There needs to have been adequate warnings with opportunities for the employee to redress the criticisms, and an opportunity to correct any inadequacies. It's also a good idea to check with a labor attorney, because the laws protecting employees change every year and you'll be amazed at all the things an employee can sue over if they have a mind to. That labor attorney can also advise you on do's and don'ts.

Any thoughts about what to say after a difficult discussion?

Tell them that you would like to give them the option to meet with you (or someone in HR or another department that handles such matters) 48 to 72 hours after the discussion has settled in to check how they are doing and to begin to talk about what their most hirable features are and to discuss options with them. They can of course have the option to decline.

Any advice for people who shy away from confrontation?

Realize that it is normal to feel anxious about confrontations and it is normal to feel that confrontations may make a bad situation worse, but that doesn't mean that always happen.

It's also helpful to remember confrontations you have had in the past and remember how delaying them made matters worse and that when you finally got around to them, your biggest regret was not doing it sooner.

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