An FBI Negotiator's Guide To Resolving Your Next Fight

Photographed by Lula Hyers.
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When my husband Tom and I became new parents and were deranged from sleep deprivation, we got in one argument after another. I kept wishing there was a way to calm our tempers, fast. Then I saw a live bank holdup on TV, and was amazed at how quickly the crisis negotiators persuaded the robber to calm down and surrender his weapon. Maybe their techniques could apply to relationships?
Enter Christopher Voss, the FBI’s former lead international hostage negotiator, and Gary Noesner, former chief of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit for a decade. They spent their careers reasoning with highly agitated people in hostage situations, kidnappings, and prison riots, and say that the strategies of crisis intervention can definitely apply to relationships. Here are their tips to cool an argument quickly.
Adapted from How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids (Little, Brown, 2017).
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Tone Is Key
Noesner says that the harder we push — our usual impulse in a disagreement — the more likely we’ll be met with resistance. “It’s a universal human trait that people want to be shown respect,” he says, “so negotiators must avoid intimidating, demeaning, lecturing, and criticizing subjects.” (Ironically, these are all my favorite go-to strategies during arguments.)
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Contain The Situation
“When we show up to a dangerous, evolving situation, we know we have to contain it so it doesn’t spread beyond its current confines,” Noesner says. During a fight with your partner, don’t allow the specific issue that’s prompted the fight to overflow into yelling about that time an ex invited them out for a drink three years ago.
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Try Active Listening
Want your beloved to change? Pay genuine attention to what they are saying. “Despite the popular notion that listening is a passive behavior, abundant clinical evidence suggests that active listening is an effective way to induce behavioral change in others,” says Noesner. And when you actively listen to your partner during a quarrel, he adds, they tend to listen to themselves more carefully, and clarify their own scattered thoughts and feelings. They also grow less defensive and oppositional, and more open to solving problems.

As you’re actively listening, put your own swirling thoughts on hold, adds Voss. “No one can listen and think about what they want to say at the same time,” he says. “It truly is an either/or. And hearing the other side out is the only way you can quiet the voice in the other person’s mind. A full two-thirds of people in negotiations are more interested in being heard than in making the deal.” He thinks for a minute. “Also, just as an aside, if you let them go first, it gives them the illusion of control.”
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This is simply restating the person’s message in your own words, which Noesner says is immediately disarming. “It’s powerful stuff,” he says. “I don’t tell them they’re right or wrong, I just paraphrase the way they feel. It’s a way to say, ‘I get it. I understand.’” (Like when my husband said, ‘So you’re saying that when I told you to unload the dishwasher more quietly because I was watching TV — that was annoying.” Yes! Yes, that was annoying.)
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Emotion Labeling
This technique helps a keyed-up person identify their emotions, some of which they may not even be aware they’re experiencing. Don’t use definitive language in case you miss your mark; use phrases such as “You sound as though” and “You seem as if.” (Like my husband, who once said, “You sound as though you are angry that I have no idea who our child’s pediatrician is.”) Naming and validating the person’s feelings instead of minimizing them — or, worse, ignoring them — can take the person from a purely emotional, reactive frame of mind to a more rational state. (Research has found that the act of identifying our feelings makes anger or sadness less intense.)

Concentrating on the other person’s emotions also keeps your own blood pressure from soaring, adds Voss. “We have research that says the more you’re focused on the other person’s emotions, the more you’re away from your own. It automatically makes you rational.”
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Offer Minimal Encouragements
As the person is talking, use short phrases to convey interest and concern: Yes. Okay. I see. “It’s hard to argue with somebody who’s saying, ‘Mm-hm. Yep. Yep,’” says Noesner.
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Use “I” Messages
An “I” message is a way to express how you feel in a non-provocative way without being pulled into an argument. For instance, a negotiator might say to a hostage taker, “I’m trying to understand what you’re saying, but when you scream at me, it’s hard for me to comprehend.”

“So instead of saying, ‘Don’t scream at me,’” says Noesner, “you’re kind of putting it notionally on your shoulders, like, ‘I’m having trouble understanding — my bad.’ But you’re still telling the person why, so it’s sort of a roundabout way to get them to quit behaving in a certain way.”
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Effective Pauses
Remaining silent at the right times and deliberately using pauses is tough to do, but it’s helpful during highly charged emotional outbursts, says Noesner. Why? Because when the person fails to get a response, they often settle down to see if the negotiators are still listening. Eventually, even the most overwrought people will find it difficult to sustain a one-sided argument.

As nutty as it sounds, these F.B.I. techniques have been extremely effective when a fight is brewing, because it forces us to pay real attention to each other. You can’t fake a paraphrase — if you do, you have failed to contain the situation with the "agitated individual." I have found that when it comes to arguments, it’s absolutely true what Noesner and Voss told me repeatedly: People just want to be heard.