Dear CMO:

Nothing you do in your work day is as important as what Victor Bazan does in his.

I met Vic through a mutual friend. He describes what he does in an off-hand manner, the way you or I would talk about how we dole out marketing development dollars to a difficult buyer. We roll our eyes and nod, saying that it’s all about working with the disparate personalities we’re handed in our professional lives. And while the stories have a similar twang to them, the stakes he plays for are higher than the ones we play for.

Vic is a hostage negotiator, and what he has to say about defusing high stakes situations is a good reminder of how to deal with any situation where emotions are in the way of a successful outcome.

  1. Let them vent. When your client, your customer – or the convicts who have taken over the cell block – are physically and verbally in the heat of the moment, you simply have to let it happen. “The (convicts) who took over the jail were so emotionally charged that you couldn’t talk to them right away… it was only after five days of venting before I could talk to them.”
  2. Return to a normal functional level. “You have to let them get back to their normal functional level. If you’re dealing with a depressed person, you need to build them up. Give them a sense of worth – build them up so they can be rational. They can’t make a good decision when they’re irrational.”
  3. Remember it’s about them. Especially with sociopaths. “Everything you do, you have to do in terms of how it affects them… you help them formulate a decision so they can understand how it benefits them… and make sure they understand the potential outcome when it doesn’t benefit them.”
  4. Saving face. Give the marginal converts a means to be captured with honor. “If you get captured, you save face. You put up a little fight and you’re OK. You won’t get beat up if you go back to prison… saving face is extremely important.”
  5. Strategic shifting. You need to move away from ‘you versus me’ to a third option. “In this case, we used the family. The girlfriend.” Eliminate the zero sum game. It’s not me versus you anymore – it’s your girlfriend telling you that you need to give up now, before someone gets hurt. Now, you’re no longer negotiating. You’re just two guys talking.
  6. Stress fatigue wins out. “Five days is a lot of venting, but they were venting on the other negotiators. I was the last guy to talk to them.” There’s a lot to be said for just staying in the discussion. Wearing the other side out often wins. When was the last time you were jet lagged, sitting in an airless conference room on the other side of the world trying to finish off a deal and wishing with every fiber in your being that you could just go to bed? Not an accident.

Hostage situations – as well as badly spiraling business negotiations – happen because something didn’t go as planned. You thought you were getting another half a million in MDF. You thought you had a deal on the circular ad. You thought you were going to be in and out, except the one guy on the floor made a cell phone call and now there’s a hostage situation. Something didn’t go as planned. Expectations weren’t met, egos got involved and things went sideways.

When this happens – in life or in business – we all need to get the emotion out of the way. We need to focus our negotiation on what’s in it for them – not what you thought they thought you promised. You need to provide a means for everyone to save face because you’re going to have to deal with these people again and again. Strategically shifting from a zero-sum, “either you win or I win” confrontation is a smart and generative means of defusing a volatile situation. And eventually, we’re emotionally done. We’re at a functional level again and our desire to fix it and move on outweighs our desire to keep going with the fight.

This is a better outcome than burning mattresses or demanding the helicopter to Libya. Given this backdrop, figuring out stray return-authorizations isn’t so bad anymore, is it?