Negotiating Chaos: For Fun and Profit


Chaos is my friend.  As a hostage and crisis negotiator for well over the last decade, I have come to realize that what constitutes a night's work for me and my team would be considered a monumentally chaotic experience for most people.

Chaos is an old Greek word and rich in meaning.  Commonly, we say chaos when we mean a situation that is full of disorder and confusion.  Our society has been chaotic over these last 13 months.  Between social and civil unrest, a global pandemic, and a contentious political climate, it can be a challenge to "keep calm and carry on."  If we want to begin to bring disorder and clarity from the chaotic environment, we will need a plan.  That's where negotiation comes in.

Negotiation is a human performance art that deals in decisions.  The best use of negotiation is to be able to make better decisions when we are doing business with people and to influence their decisions at the same time.  Doing business with people might mean making a sales transaction, guiding public policy, settling a dispute, leading a team, or in my case, negotiating a surrender and the release of an innocent victim.  

Here are three critical lessons that professional negotiators can offer someone experiencing a little chaos in a decision-making opportunity.

  1. Begin with a Valid Mission and Purpose: When people get emotional or aggressive, chaos arrives.  It is a common experience in a tough situation for us to get sucked into intellectual dilemmas.  There are so many options or so few good options that we can become indecisive.  Lashing ourselves to the mast of our professional or personal mission, and remembering the purpose of this immediate conversation helps us get oriented and gain traction as we sort through the mess.
  2. Put Your Oxygen Mask on First: Manage your own emotions by training yourself to remain curious in the face of an emotional experience.  Feel threatened?  Get curious about why someone feels like a threat is necessary.  Feel accused? Ponder why your counterparty is focused on blame.  Someone putting you on the clock with a deadline?  Explore why time is critical for them.  Did your counterparty go back on their word?  "Hmm, I wonder what changed?"  Negotiation often produces a cocktail of emotions in all parties.  Manage your own and then help the other side manage theirs.  Recognize and speak to emotions, and ask questions that allow storytelling.  This is the natural way we calm down and it is a very efficient process.
  3. Small Agreements Lead to Big Agreements: Be comfortable in discovering your counterparty's position, underlying concerns, and motivations in adopting their interests in this negotiation.  Be comfortable with a certain amount of disorder and confusion as you let them explain.  Look for what you have in common and then build upon that. Rushing to problem solve and emphasizing the points of contention too early will usually lead to frustration and guarded communication.  Don't try to fix the chaos all at once!  Let time be an ally.

If these thoughts are the beginning of something powerful for you, please join me for a discussion of what a strong negotiation habit can do for you in chaos and what a strong negotiation culture can do for your organization!  

March PPMC Chats
Negotiating Chaos: Managing Emotions and Staying Curious to Build Stronger Agreements
with Dan Oblinger, Hostage Negotiator

Thursday, March 18 at 1-1:30 p.m.
Location: Live Online via Zoom 

Register Here!