by Therese Tiffany Ang
This blog post is the second of a three-part series focused on how crisis negotiation skills can be applied in the practice of mediation. For ease of reference and the convenience of readers, Part 1 can be found here:
In this entry, I would like to explore two more micro-skills of active listening – emotional labelling and summarising.
(6) Emotional labelling
It is hard to separate people from the problem when their emotions are the problem. This is why, instead of trying to remove emotions from the picture, crisis negotiators strive to identify with and understand the feelings of their parties. In doing so, the aim is to increase their influence over those parties and guide them towards more collaborative problem-solving behaviour.
One active listening micro-skill that crisis negotiators rely on in this aspect is that of emotional labelling. This skill is an additive empathetic response that validates someone’s emotions by identifying and acknowledging those feelings, rather than judging or minimising them.
There are two steps to emotional labelling –
(a) Detecting feelings: A lot of information can be gleaned from a person’s words, tone and body language. Crisis negotiators detect a party’s feelings by paying close attention to any changes these three areas undergo when that party responds to external events. For instance, if a party’s voice goes flat when a colleague is mentioned, there could be some animosity between those two.
(b) Labelling: Labels generally start with “it seems/sounds like …” instead of “I’m hearing that …”. The latter puts people’s guards up as it suggests that the asker is more interested in himself and is superimposing his impressions on them. It also makes the asker take personal responsibility for the words used and any offence they might cause. Conversely, when phrased as a neutral statement of understanding, an emotional label encourages a party to be responsive and elaborate on his feelings. Even if he disagrees with the label, the asker can distance himself from it by saying, “I didn’t say that was what it was, I just said it seemed like that”.
By giving emotions a name, the mediator shows that he empathises with how the party feels. This operates as a shortcut to intimacy – it establishes an emotional connection between the mediator and the party without the former having to agree with the validity of those feelings. Additionally, if the party’s negative emotions are running high, exposing those feelings to “broad daylight” defuses them as it makes them less frightening. When people engage in the task of labelling their emotions, the raw intensity of those emotions is lessened, and this helps to bring back a degree of calmness and rationality into the mediation.
If used well, emotional labelling enables a mediator to influence the party to become more collaborative and trusting. Labelling a negative feeling and replacing it with polite, solution-based thoughts induces the party to appreciate that the mediator understands what he is feeling and is making efforts to empathise with him. Indeed, such displays of tactical empathy have helped veteran police talk angry, violent people out of fights or get them to put down their weapons. By empathising with the parties involved, these police know that they can use those negative emotions as a platform to influence people to become more cooperative.
Summarising is a combination of paraphrasing and labelling – it is rearticulating the meaning of what was said and the emotions underlying those meanings. Through this, the party will know that he has truly been heard and understood by the negotiator, fortifying the rapport and trust that has been built throughout the entire process
The ultimate goal of using all the micro-skills discussed above and in Part 1 is to get the party to say, “That’s right”. In crisis negotiations, this has been observed to mark a crucial point in the negotiation where the party feels heard and acknowledged, showing that a connection has been established between him and the negotiator. This is when the negotiator gains the party’s “permission” to persuade him, opening the door to previously impossible solutions. The more a person feels understood and is positively affirmed in that understanding, the more his urge for collaborative behaviour takes hold. This is because sometimes, underneath all of the substantive demands and positions, people actually just want their feelings to be understood.
Jeffrey Schilling’s case is an illustrative example. Schilling was a 24-year old American who had been taken hostage after travelling near the base of the Abu Sayyaf in 2000. Sabaya, the rebel leader, demanded US$10 million in war damages for the oppression Muslim Filipinos had went through. No matter how negotiators tried to reason that Schilling had nothing to do with the war damages, Sabaya refused to listen. Then the negotiators changed their approach – they empathised with the group’s predicament, used mirroring, encouraging, and labelling to soften Sabaya up and begin shifting his perspective and finally, summarised his story and emotions. Sabaya was silent, and then he spoke, “that’s right.” From then on, the war damages demand disappeared, and Schilling ultimately escaped from the camp and was rescued by Philippine commandoes. 1
This concludes Part 2 of the series, and I hope that what we have explored thus far will prove helpful in helping you build rapport and trust with parties. In Part 3, I will be concluding the series by looking at some influence techniques crisis negotiators have used to help them disarm and redirect parties in a relationship-affirming way such that conflict is transformed into collaboration.
Therese is a graduate student from the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Law. During her time as an undergraduate, she studied both Mediation and Negotiation as elective modules and trained youth in peer mediation at the Peacemakers Conference.
Peacemakers offers the services of internationally accredited mediators with extensive experience in resolving local and international conflicts. If you are involved in a dispute, let us know your requirements via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will recommend you the mediators that best meet your needs.
- Chris Voss & Tahl Raz, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It (Random House, 2016) at pp103-107. Chris Voss, a former FBI negotiator, was in charge of Schilling’s case in 2001. For more information about the case, please refer to https://abcnews.go.com/International/story?id=82735&page=1 and https://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/13/world/american-hostage-freed-in-philippines.html.