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A kidnap negotiator’s tips for keeping cool during tough conversations


In Scott Walker’s 15 years as a kidnap negotiator, he learned how to get his message across quickly, calmly and efficiently.


“If I messed up, people could die,” said Walker, a former Scotland Yard detective who has helped resolve hundreds of cases. And those high stakes, he said, “tended to focus the mind a little bit.”
While asking for a raise, establishing your teen’s curfew or coordinating a visit from the in-laws might not be quite as fraught, tough conversations can still inspire dread. All successful negotiations require preparation, said Walker, author of the new book “Order Out of Chaos.”

“Negotiation,” he added, “is simply a conversation with a purpose.”

Walker shared his best strategies to reach a compromise during high-stress situations.

Tap into your ‘red center.’

First, establish what Walker’s crisis team called a red center. In kidnapping cases, it’s a physical command center, but in everyday negotiations, it’s a state of mind.
Jitters and fears can be contagious, Walker said. He writes in his book that he makes sure to arrive at every case “grounded, switched on, and focused, with an agile mind.”
Before your conversations, practice deep breathing or anything else that makes you feel centered.

And before you negotiate or have a tough conversation, he said, ask yourself this clarifying question: What do I fear losing the most in this situation? Is it freedom, reputation, money, power?
Going straight to what you fear the most, as painful as it may be, will increase self-awareness and help you manage any surprise emotions that could derail your talks, such as frustration, jealousy or anger.

Pay attention to your tone.

“You always want to approach a negotiation in a friendly, calm manner,” Walker said, because the way you speak can make or break a deal.
He prefers speaking face-to-face, over the phone or on video, rather than via email or text, which can be easily misconstrued, he said.
He has also found that smiling, even if you’re on the phone, can help keep your tone friendly.

Don’t rush to fill every silence, Walker writes in his book. He keeps a stress ball on his desk that features the acronym W.A.I.T. —which stands for “Why am I (still) talking?”— as a reminder.

If you are dealing with someone who is difficult, Walker suggested reframing that person in your mind as a “worthy opponent” to help you get into a more positive mind-set.

Clarity is power.

While negotiating, we are often led by a need to control, which is a mistake, Walker said. So leave your ego at the door, he said. In order to gain someone’s cooperation, you first have to understand that person’s point of view, beliefs and values by being curious and empathetic, Walker said. Unless the person truly feels understood, “there’s always going to be a bit of pushback.”

Ask open-ended questions and reflect back the person’s answers, Walker said. He recommended using phrases such as “Tell me about …” or “What needs to happen for you to …”

“Curiosity without shame, blame and judgment is not easy, but it’s a negotiating superpower,”
Walker said. “We can’t influence someone unless we know what already influences them.”

If negotiations stall, ask yourself these questions.

The ultimate goal is to reach an agreement. But if things stall, Walker takes a quick break and asks himself some questions.

  • These questions include:
    • What can or can’t I control right now?
    • What am I not seeing here?
    • And what opportunity am I missing?
  • Those questions, he said, shift our attention from what has gone wrong to what still has the potential to go right.
  • Then, he gets back in there.

While Walker has had success negotiating with violent criminals, his two teenagers can still knock him off balance. “They know all the tricks in the book,” he said.