Learning how to listen well is a valuable relational skill. It’s an important tool we all need to understand others and to impact their lives for good. Listen in to today’s episode where listening well is a matter of life and death.

You would think an article about what a hostage negotiator does would focus on what they say to hostage-takers to get them to release the people they’ve captured. I was surprised to learn in an article I read that succeeding as a hostage negotiator begins with learning how to listen.

Today’s episode is about helpful ideas we can adopt from this unlikely career to improve our listening skills and deepen our relationships. You’re going to like this one, so keep listening.

“A Hostage Negotiator’s Lesson in Listening”

The article I mentioned appeared in The Wall Street Journal several years ago, entitled “A Hostage Negotiator’s Lesson in Listening” written by Massada Siegel. It’s a short piece that I’ll share with you, interjecting a few of my own thoughts.

Siegel begins:

“Is listening a lost art? On TV news and talk shows, everyone seems to be interrupting one another. Likewise in the political arena. Listening is especially rare on social media, where people are eager to talk and loath to hear other points of view.

“So recently I challenged myself to talk less and instead to actively listen, ask more questions, and think about the responses. In particular, everywhere I went I asked people if they feel listened to and if they listen to others.

“At a media conference, one lady told me sometimes she gets nervous around new people, so she thinks about what she will say as she listens so that she can be part of the conversation. Another said that she wished people would listen and not respond with a solution, because sometimes she’s only looking for a sounding board.”

Let me comment on this for a moment.

A better way to fit into a conversation

I can understand wanting to be part of the conversation. But I think there’s a better way than looking like you’re listening, when you’re actually just rehearsing in your mind what you’re going to say when you get a chance to talk.

To be “part of the conversation” reminds me of the title of that wonderful book by Cal Newport, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. The subtitle is Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. It’s a book every high school graduate or college student should read. The premise of his book is that passion for any area of life doesn’t mean much. To be successful in life you need to have skills that are so good, that people can’t ignore you.

I bet that would work in being “part of the conversation.” To be a conversationalist so good they can’t ignore you would mean instead of working to get your voice heard, you would focus on getting other people talking. It would mean saying things like, “Jake, that’s interesting. Renee, what do you think about what he said?”

And there’s the person who said she doesn’t want to hear solutions to what she’s talking about, she just wants a sounding board. I think someone should write a book about verbal processors like this. I have sympathy for people like that.

People who solve their own problems when they slide their thoughts out of their head, onto their tongue, and out into the air where they can hear them. They’ll come to their own conclusions when they’re able to verbalize them.

But I don’t have any sympathy for self-centered people who want to hold court to be the center of attention. Though it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes

Self-described poor listeners

Back to the article.

“One evening at a restaurant, I struck up a conversation with a couple and asked their opinion. They both said they weren’t good listeners and frequently interrupt people because they want to participate in conversations. ‘I talk a lot because I’m insecure and want people to like me,’ the husband acknowledged. ‘Ironically, I’m reading lots of leadership books, which all say if you want people to like you, you need to be a better listener.’”

Let me stop again.

I like the admission of the husband who says he talks too much because he’s insecure. Both people readily admit they are poor listeners. Yet they don’t appear to have any remorse or willingness to change. Do they perceive listening to be too hard?

A few years ago I was giving a talk at a break-out session on how to listen better to each other. The talk was part of a larger conference with a big-name plenary speaker. If I told you who he was everyone listening to this episode would recognize the name.

To my surprise, this well-known speaker headlining the conference sat in on my little break-out session, sitting at the back of the room. After I finished my talk he came up to me to say he enjoyed the session, and then said, “I’ve been told I’m not a very good listener.” He said it with a smile on his face as if to laugh it off as something not all that important. He’s a great speaker and has had a stellar career leading several large Christian organizations. But I wonder what it would be like to work for him, this self-admitted poor listener.

Learn from a hostage negotiator

Well, back to Spiegel’s article on how to listen like a hostage negotiator.

“Glenn Cohen, who recently retired as chief psychologist and hostage negotiator for the Israel Defense Forces, told me that listening can mean life or death in his line of work. There are five steps to negotiating a hostage’s release, he said: the first is listening to the terrorist.

“The biggest mistake to make is to jump to the last step, which is behavioral change,” he said. “In a volatile situation where someone’s life is on the line, there can be no shortcuts. You must listen, as the hostage-taker is all charged up, emotionally and physically.”

I’ll stop here again and add that often when we listen to those going through difficulties, we too are looking for a behavioral change in the other person.

“Stop what you’re doing or thinking and do what I’m suggesting,” is often how it goes. It’s usually well-meaning, but advice not asked for can be interpreted as criticism. It can be seen as setting up a power dynamic, “I know more than you.”

Back to the article.

“‘The hostage-taker has his goal, so you must hear him out and understand want he wants to accomplish,’ Mr. Cohen said. ‘As a negotiator, you are looking for a win-win situation, and a hostage-taker needs an opportunity to vent and let off steam, as their adrenaline is pumping as they are in the moment. Unless they unload their demands, they don’t have the capacity to hear and consider behavior change.”

Listening is an influential skill

The author concludes with:

“Listening is an influential skill. The more you give others space to talk, the better you understand them and the more willing they are to listen themselves.”

In our own conversations with people, it's helpful to think of the person we’re talking to as having a goal. We often are too concerned with our own goal, like the person mentioned earlier whose goal was to fit into the conversation.

I so appreciate Seigel’s comment that “listening is an influential skill.” What a great way to influence people, by listening to them. When we make the effort to learn how to listen we bring out the best in others, and in ourselves. And like any skill, it takes practice.

It’s never too late to start perfecting how we listen to people. You can start today.

So what does all this mean for YOU, and for me?

I wonder about the people in your life, and in mine, who while they are not hostage-takers, still would like to have a voice, to be heard. I think of the quiet people in our life who are shy and never say much. You know they’ll never take any hostages, but you wonder what they’re thinking about. Why don’t they ever say much? Why are they so quiet?

Maybe their personality has been shaped this way because they don’t feel safe with people. They may not trust others. Or maybe they feel people don’t care what they’re thinking, that they don’t have a voice. It’s possible when they’re with lots of talkers, and they can’t get a word in edge-wise, they just give up. Or in gatherings where the topic of conversation changes faster than a ping pong ball in an Olympic table tennis match, they think “what’s the use?”

My guess is that if we learned how to listen to people like this there would be fewer of them.

Here’s the main takeaway I hope you remember from today’s episode

Learning how to listen well is a valuable relational skill. It’s an important tool we need to understand others and to impact their lives for good. No one is born a good listener. It’s something we can learn to deepen our relationships with people.

As always, I’d love to hear any thoughts you have about today’s episode.


In closing, I hope your thinking was stimulated by today’s show, to reflect on how you could find more joy in your relationships by learning how to listen better to the important people in your life. Because after all, You Were Made for This.

That’s it for today. In the meantime, spread a little relational sunshine with your relationships this week. I’ll see you again next time.

Related episodes you may want to listen to:

139: Why Should I Listen to This Podcast?

065: End With Asking This Important Question

064: Start with this Important Question to Ask

063: Six Reason Why We’re not More Curious About People

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