How to Deal With Difficult People, According to a Former FBI Hostage Negotiator

As tempting as it is to p0wn them with a witty argument, that’s the wrong approach, buddy

The modern world is full of opportunities to bicker — about politics, money, work, packs of thirsty party animals descending on crowded pools to get crunk in the midst of a ruthless pandemic while you spend yet another weekend in isolation, desperately fighting to save humanity from itself. The usual contenders, y’know. Even if the target of your rage is a distant stranger, inciting fury from across the world, you can easily engage them with a volley of hot-headed tweets — and they can engage you right back.

The usual outcome of these encounters is even more animosity and an even stronger partition between the parties involved. But that could be because we’re all taking the wrong approach, so in an attempt to help the world argue better, I asked Gary Noesner, former FBI hostage negotiator and author of Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, for advice on getting through to stubborn assholes. Here’s his tactical approach…

Get Yourself Together, Man

I know, I know — some guy on Twitter has been calling you a snowflake, and you want to respond passionately, letting him know how much of a dick-weed he is. But as Noesner explains, “The very first thing they teach negotiators, whether it’s dealing with difficult people or anybody for that matter, is self-control, with the premise being, if you can’t control your own emotions, how can you expect to influence someone else’s?” 

So calm down, stay cool and try your best to respond to this person with coming to a resolution as your goal, rather than virtually ripping them a new one. “The main thing is, don’t rise to the occasion,” Noesner adds. “If only one person’s arguing, it’s not much of an argument.”

Take It Offline

You’re not doing yourself (or anyone) any favors by fighting over the internet, so try to meet in-person if you really want to get through to someone. “If you actually sit down face-to-face with someone, it’s much harder to be disagreeable,” Noesner says. “It’s certainly not impossible, but it’s more difficult, because, as human beings, we have this natural inclination to want to cooperate and get along. But on social media, you can just say, ‘You’re a jerk. You’re a libtard. You’re a snowflake. You’re a knuckle-dragging bible-thumper.’ Whatever it is, you can sort of anonymously be insulting, and there’s no immediate negative impact that has on you.” 

In other words, you want the stubborn asshole to be able to see your reaction (or lack thereof) to their stubborn assholeness.

Ask Questions, and Listen

As enticing as it may be, trying to pOwn a stubborn asshole with a witty argument is the wrong approach. “The first thing you have to remember is not to come up with a brilliant argument that’s going to satisfy their issues or concerns,” Noesner says. “Instead, you need to deal with the high emotion and seek to engage that person in a manner that lowers the emotional content of the engagement. If you envision a child’s play-yard teeter totter, if one end of the teeter totter is emotions and the other is rational thinking and behavior, you can imagine that when the emotional side of the teeter totter is high up in the air, the rational thinking and behavior is low. You can see the effects of when you lower the emotional content: The rational thinking and behavior increases. That’s the immediate goal, not the brilliant argument of, ‘Let me tell you why your thinking on this is wrong and why you’re a jerk.’ That’s really not going to help. You first have to address the anger and high emotion.”

The best way to do that is to simply encourage the stubborn asshole to explain their position. “People want to be listened to, and they want to be understood,” Noesner says. “So ask them open-ended questions: ‘Can you tell me more about that? Where did you first hear about that?’”

“You may be certain in your mind at the outset of the conversation that you totally disagree with this person,” he continues, “but rather than just saying that, you should say, ‘Could you explain to me?’ It’s like our political equation: You take our president — people either hate him or love him. There doesn’t seem to be many people in the middle. So, you can say, ‘I understand that you really, really like this president. Can you tell me what it is about him that you like?’ Sometimes when you put people in a position where they have to explain their thinking, it may be the first time that they themselves hear it. Or if they themselves have trouble putting it into words or articulating it, that could create some doubt in their own mind about how valid their position is.” 

At that point, asking them how they think other people feel about (or are affected by) their views could kind of crack open their perspective. As Noesner puts it, “‘So, you feel as though these people that go into the Michigan state house with the guns on their shoulders are expressing their rights. How do you think that might feel to the state legislature or to a policeman who’s there? How do you think it might impact them?’ You kind of challenge the one-sided tunnel vision they have about a particular issue by asking them questions that make them think a little more broadly.”

Take on Some of the Blame

If things start getting fiery, you can explain how frustrated you are, but avoid doing so in a way that puts the blame squarely on them. “Rather than attack the person, you let them know how they’re behaving without attacking them,” Noesner explains. “We’ll use what in active listening and the counseling profession they call an I-message. You say, ‘I’m very frustrated because I’m trying to have a calm discussion with you, but you keep interrupting me and yelling at me.’ You’re saying you’re frustrated, and it comes on your shoulders.” 

By saying “I’m” having a problem, it allows the blame to be shared and prevents the stubborn asshole from feeling completely attacked and at fault, which could cause them to become even more defensive.

Show Them That You Understand Where They’re Coming From (Even If You Don’t)

No matter how crazy their argument, repeating it back can help them feel understood, which in turn can calm them down. As Noesner explains, “You really score big points when you paraphrase or summarize in your words what you hear from them: ‘So, your view is that you think it’s really important that people should be able to take weapons anywhere they want in this country because of the Second Amendment. Is that right? Do I understand correctly?’ They’re either going to acknowledge that and say, ‘Yes, you understand my view.’ Or they’re going to say, ‘Well, no. That’s not what I mean. Here’s what I mean.’ Either way, you’ve learned. You might have gotten a very clear sense of what they’re saying, or they’ve now clarified it for you and you better understand.”

And If All Else Fails, Give Up

“There’s no guarantee, by the way, that any of that will work,” Noesner concedes. “There are just some people who are so hyped up, angry and worked into a frenzy that you’re probably smart to just walk away from that interaction.”

Remember, not every stubborn asshole can be saved, and that’s not your fault.