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Tension simmering at home? Defuse it by avoiding this 1 word

A former FBI hostage negotiator shares his tips to help avoid arguments while quarantined at home.
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Found yourself reverting to your 12 year-old self lately? It can’t be just me. As the weeks of confinement with loved ones stretch on, tempers stretch thin as emotions run high. The sort of emotions we may all be experiencing now aren’t dissimilar to those that might be encountered in another high-stress scenario, a hostage negotiation, says Chris Voss, founder and CEO of strategy consultancy Black Swan Group, a former lead international kidnapping negotiator for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and author of "Never Split The Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It".

People feel trapped right now, Voss says. “To state the obvious, negative emotions are getting triggered and negative emotions are a downward spiral of anger and frustration.”

I went to Voss after bingeing on his Master Class on negotiation. His techniques — which employ empathy and real listening — work to improve communication in situations ranging from terrorist negotiations to business deals to curfew-setting and car-buying. How about defusing some of those hot quarantine emotions?

Yep, we can use the same principles Voss has used in bank robbery scenarios when we’re about to blow up with a partner at home. And one essential key is to avoid the use of one word.

Why v. how

People hate to be asked why, Voss says. “We feel accused,” he says. “We’ve all had it beaten into our heads that when we hear ‘why,’ we’re wrong.”

So when I noticed my husband making a second Nespresso from our limited supply of the spendy capsules (the single splurge we still allow ourselves since our income was slashed as a result of the pandemic) I opened my mouth to say “Why are you doing that when you know we’re rationing them?”

Then I thought about what Voss would say, and closed it.

Instead I asked, “How do you think we can make sure we don’t both run out of coffee before the month is up and we get to order more?”

People love to be asked how, Voss says. And even though my husband watched the classes with me and knew exactly what I was doing, that’s fine, according to Voss.

Negotiation isn’t about opponents pitted against one another, he says. It’s about the two of us against the situation. Yes, the situation of running out of coffee sounds more than a little ridiculous as I write this, but in these circumstances the smallest thing can ignite a cascade of negative emotions, the kind that Voss says are bad for our thinking and decision making.

When we’re in that negative mindset, our thinking accelerates, Voss says. “You're dumber, is what it really boils down to.” Not only that, “but you're even more convinced that you're right so you kind of get a double whammy.”

When people are trapped with each other, he explains, “they start to get caught in a little bit of a downward spiral and then they think that their feelings are justified and they're right and they start to lash out at the people around them. And then their thought patterns are ‘of course I'm angry, I'm entitled to be angry,’ and they're even more convinced that they're right. So the first problem is getting out of the downward spiral.”

I didn’t want to start that spiral before I’d even finished my own coffee. Luckily, asking my husband how he thought we could resolve the problem caused him to think about the situation. And that’s the goal, Voss says.

Lean on words like 'seems like'

Here’s another quarantine situation: Maybe your partner just grabbed a paper towel and your instinct is to ask why they’re using paper towels when we all know you can’t buy any more.

Another alternative to asking why is to make an observation that gives the other person the chance to pause in their thinking, a technique Voss calls labeling.

“Seems like you had a good reason to use that paper towel,” Voss suggests saying. That sounds awkward, and he acknowledges these communication techniques can feel stilted at first. It takes repetition, he says, with the magic number being 63 times before it comes naturally.

The key is to practice in low-stakes conversations before rolling it out in a fraught situation. (Though six weeks into isolation, the use of a scarce resource like a paper towel can in the moment feel as high stakes as a bank robbery!)

“If you start switching over to ‘seems like, looks like, sounds like, feels like,’… your life will change,” Voss promises.

Why is what sounds like a simple hack so effective? The shift “triggers a more thoughtful response on the other side,” he explains. “It kind of bypasses a whole bunch of defense mechanisms and hits their brain from the side and triggers contemplation.”

In that scenario, the person who grabbed the nearly last paper towel might stop and think about the reason and realize they could have used a dish towel. Or maybe the reason was valid, and a fight is stopped before it can start after they share their reasoning.

In our case, asking how to solve the coffee problem was the path to a quickly defused situation. “We could divide the coffee when the order comes,” my husband suggested, “and each have our own container.” Much in the spirit of how children are taught to share (and again, aren’t we all 12 now?) this lets him burn through his allotment as quickly as he wants — or slow down and make them last. It’s his call and I don’t watch and fume as those precious capsules hit the recycle container.

I got what I wanted (to not run out of coffee), we avoided spiraling into a huge fight before retreating to our separate corners of the house to work, and one of my 63 repetitions was checked off. A win for everybody, which is all we can ask for at the moment.