An FBI Hostage Negotiator Tells Us How To Talk To People About Masks

Published Sep 23, 2020

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Masks, like so many things in recent years, have become intensely politicized. And such a dynamic does not typically lead to casual, civil conversation among strangers. Or family. Or friends.

Yes, masks can help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Yes, they are required by both the county and the state. Yes they are recommended by the CDC (and even half-heartedly recommended by the WHO in some situations).

And yes we've all seen this play out: viral videos of clashes with anti-maskers abound on social media.


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


Turns out, this type of communication requires a highly specialized skill set and years of training.

So we called in a pro at handling high-conflict situations.

To find out how best to navigate these situations, A Martinez, host of Take Two, sought the advice of Chris Voss, 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 his expert tips.

- USE A MELLOW VOICE -

Voss stresses the value of speaking in a calm, non-confrontational tone.

A "late night FM DJ voice is magic," he says.

He didn't realize it 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."

- APPEAL TO EMPATHY, NOT REASON -

"Nobody understands reason," Voss says. 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.'"

If you get out of the power dynamic where you're trying to reason with someone using facts, you may be more successful.

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

- APPROACH STRANGERS WITH CURIOSITY -

Recognize that this is a very difficult time for people and you don't always know the personal stressors 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.

- KNOW WHEN TO WALK AWAY -

Voss says he walks away from a negotiation when he knows it's not winnable, or that it'll take too long to see it through.

But "withdraw with honor, don't withdraw with anger."

That is, don't leave calling someone a name -- better to walk away in silence.

- WHAT DO YOU WANT TO KNOW? ASK US QUESTIONS -

Screaming into the abyss has its merits, but the abyss doesn't typically respond with useful feedback. Try us instead.

Is there something you want to understand better? We've answered thousands of questions since the world turned upside down. Yours could be next.


Image Credit (top): Composite by Chava Sanchez | Photos by Anastasiia Chepinska and Artem Gavrysh via unsplash

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