How to “talk to the hand”…and get an answer

“Talk to the hand”—anyone alive during the 1990s will recall that classic retort, not generally heard at the Oxford Debating Society. Here’s the Urban Dictionary’s definition:

“A saying used to ignore and disregard a comment or an insult when you can’t think of a way to counter it.”

It seems to me we’re going to be doing a lot of talking to hands in the next four years. Democrats say something like, “Maybe you shouldn’t de-fang the only ethical watchdog we have in Congress.” And the Republicans say—well, to be fair we can’t hear whatever they said because they said it in a closed-door meeting. So let’s just fill in a hypothetical response:

“Talk to the door.”

When legislators offer a response that’s more suited to a middle school cafeteria or a Real Housewives episode, what recourse do we citizens (or our journalist proxies) have? And yes, the de-fangers backed down the next day, but we can expect they’ll try, try again. So we need to figure out a way to counter them.

The kind of synchronized screaming that passes for political debate on cable news gets us nowhere. Those things aren’t shows, they’re show-downs. And who wants to be seen backing down on national television?

talk to the hand - or the closed doorWe can shout “No fair! No fair!” all we want. That at least will accomplish something: it will bring the level of discourse from middle school to Kindergarten. No, we need a new way of talking—a way that will get the hands or doors to respond.

I’d like to direct your attention to someone who has spent his entire career talking very successfully to doors, master hostage negotiator Chris Voss.

“How” opens the hand — and ears

Before Voss quit law enforcement to open his own consulting firm, he used to be the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator. He’s dealt with everyone from stone cold terrorists to hapless bank robbers and kidnapper-bros just looking to score some quick weekend party money. Voss and his co-writer Tahl Raz recount his exploits in a fascinating book called Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It.

Whatever kind of hostage the bad guys are holding—whether it’s your great-aunt Minnie or your democracy—the key to a happy ending is conversation. Unless the hostage-taker is flat-out nuts, if you can start a conversation you at least start down the path of a peaceful resolution.

Here’s one of the words Voss suggests using:


He writes, “…’how’ engages because ‘how’ asks for help.” Consider this exchange:

“Give me a million bucks or the old lady dies.”

“How am I supposed to do that? The banks are closed and my ATM limit is only $500.”

You’re not saying NO to the kidnapper—you’re hinting that you both have a problem. You’re asking him to engage in helping you solve it.

“How” can be a very useful word—in business as well as politics and the previously unrelated pastime, hostage-taking. But you have to be brave enough to use it.

Know-it-All Disease

If you’re anything like me, the prospect of admitting that you don’t know everything may give you pause. And asking “how” is a pretty clear sign that you’re clueless, so the word has often stuck in my throat.

But deploying “how” as a tactic—intentionally—now that’s smart. So “how” is making its way into my vocabulary. So are a few other choice words, like “perhaps,” “maybe,” and “it seems.” Voss’s other suggestion, “I think” was drilled into me at a young age. But that’s another story.

Voss suggests using these words as part of “calibrated open-ended question.” People who conduct interviews for a living will recognize the technique, but in hostage negotiation the idea is not just to get a good story—well, it’s partly that. The more the bad guy tells you, the more you have to work with. But open-ended questions often get a hostage-taker 0ff-balance.

He’s expecting to meet with absolute opposition, which he will counter with absolute opposition—and there you are, on a cable news show. But Voss explains:

…the calibrated open-ended question takes the aggression out of a confrontational statement or close-ended request that might otherwise anger your counterpart. What makes [open-ended questions] work is that they are subject to interpretation by your counterpart instead of being rigidly defined. They allow you to introduce ideas and requests without sounding overbearing or pushy.

And that’s the difference between ‘You’re screwing me out of money and it has to stop’ and ‘How am I supposed to do that?’

The real beauty of calibrated questions is the fact that they offer no target for attack like statements do. Calibrated questions have the power to educate your counterpart on what the problem is rather than causing conflict by telling them what the problem is.”

Remember questions?

Imagine what those cable news shows would look like if instead of trying to out-shout each other, people actually asked and answered questions. As Voss notes:

“The implication of any well-designed calibrated question is that you want what the other guy wants but you need his intelligence to overcome the problem. This really appeals to very aggressive or egotistical counterparts.”

He must be talking about people who abduct human beings rather than human rights. Surely we don’t have “very aggressive or egotistical” people trying to hijack our democracy, telling us to “talk to the hand” (or door) instead of engaging in rational debate.

Well, it seems like good advice to me. Use it as you will.

EXTRA: The Congressman behind the—er—”strengthening” of the ethics watchdogs put out a press release. Of course he did. My invaluable colleague Josh Bernoff has run it through his bullshit-ometer. Read and learn, my friends.

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