FBI Hostage Negotiator On How To Talk To Strangers About Masks

A worker places a placard on the window of a liquor store while wearing a face mask on April 10, 2020 in Jersey City, New Jersey. (Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

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It's been a month since California required face coverings whenever you're in public and can't keep six feet away from others.

But not everybody is on board with the mask thing.

Clashes between pro-mask wearers and anti-mask people seem to be happening daily and are showing up as viral videos in our social media feeds. Masks, like so many things in our country in recent years, have gotten politicized, and it's getting hard to have civil conversations with strangers when people get so invested in their different camps.

Warning: The video below is loaded with graphic language (it's Howard Stern, after all).

To find out how best to navigate these situations, A Martinez, host of Take Two and an admitted mask advocate, sought the advice of an expert at handling high-conflict situations. Chris Voss is a retired FBI special agent who served as lead international hostage negotiator. He also wrote the book: "Never Split The Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It."

Here are the big takeaways:


Voss stressed the value of speaking in a calm, non-confrontational tone. He says that the "late night FM DJ voice is magic."

He didn't realize it back when he was working for the FBI, but that voice can trigger a neurochemical reaction in the listener that can de-escalate a high-stress situation: "It hits your mirror neurons and it actually starts a chemical reaction in your brain that calms you down."


Voss says that "nobody understands reason," so don't try to reason with people because "everybody cherry picks their facts. If I come up with a fact that you don't like or you come up with a fact that I don't like, then I'll just say, 'That's not relevant or that's not fair.'"

So if you get out of this power dynamic where you're trying to reason with them using your facts, then you may be more successful.

"We're all calling for empathy, we just want everybody else to go first," he says.


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Recognize that this is a very difficult time for people, with widespread unemployment and the surge in cases, so you don't always know the personal stressors that people are experiencing. Rather than approach people confrontationally, give "them the humanity that we're hoping from them," Voss says. Try to imagine what may be going through their minds. Be curious.

If you see someone in a store who's not wearing a mask, you can approach them like we're all in this together. Even though you're wearing a mask, you can say something like, "Don't you just hate masks?"

That may get their attention because you're articulating what's in their head. "You've got them glued on to your next words which is where you want them to be if you're going to get them to change their minds," Voss says.


Voss says that he walks away from a negotiation when he knows it's not winnable or it'll take too long to get through the negotiation. But "withdraw with honor, don't withdraw with anger." That is, don't leave calling someone a name — better to walk away in silence.