Crisis negotiators give tips for holiday gatherings

Shortly before Thanksgiving, on Nov. 21, 2014, the “New York Times” published an insightful, humorous article, “Crisis negotiators give Thanksgiving tips,” by Henry Alford. In this article, the writer addresses how might a hostage negotiator help the average American family get through Thanksgiving. Since Christmas can likewise be stressful, it’s worth reviewing the advice.

For instance, suppose a relative uses a holiday meal to launch into a tirade about the evils of GMOs. (While this has not happened with my family, it has with some friends.) A former FBI hostage negotiator suggests the best response is replying with an agreeable tone words like, “I really appreciate your point of view, and it’s great to have an opportunity to hear how strongly you feel; but my own view is different.” This response demonstrates the difference between hostage negotiators and attorneys. Mine was to debate, critique, argue and repeat. Given the emotional issue that GMOs have become, my approach was rather like teaching a pig to sing; it wastes time, and it irritates the pig.

Kent and I discussed this article while we drove several hours to pick up a new air compressor. While our families are enjoyable, we did develop the “working cattle” approach to family dinner dynamics. When sorting and moving cows, the goal is to encourage the animals to go in the intended direction without stressing them. Kent and I developed a list of agreeable topics in the event someone in our presence ventured off into politics, health care, religion, immigration, criticizing farmers, or putting another relative on the spot. The latter often happens when a single relative brings a date to a family gathering. There is always one member of the family who feels the need to inquire if the single person has an announcement to make. So we created our own announcements to quickly take the heat off the single person and change the topic to something non-controversial, non-invasive and pleasant. My personal favorite was Kent’s decision to announce that the Mustang skid loader has 10,000 hours on it. We also thought we could announce we made a trip to Clayton and got a new air compressor. While none of this got mentioned at Thanksgiving dinner, you can bet Kent will have an update on the Mustang skid loader hours ready if necessary over Christmas.

Back to the “Times” article, one of the hostage negotiators explained presenting emotions and underlying emotions. For example, a grumbly grandfather, who does not want to spend time at the holiday dinner table really has an underlying emotion that he feels left out. Instead of addressing the presenting emotion and calling grandpa impatient, the expert suggests addressing the underlying feelings and say, “It is a real treat to spend time with you. We value seeing you because we sometimes feel left out of your life.”

Another hostage negotiator suggested to, “Say you’re sorry when you’re not sorry.” You just never know when the last time you are going to see someone is.

I wish I had that expert available to counsel the domestic relations clients with child support and custody issues that used to make my holidays less than joyful. It was common to get a call after hours from an irate ex demanding contempt charges be filed immediately because the other parent was 12 minutes late dropping off the children. I wish I were exaggerating or making this up. As much as it pains me to quote Dr. Phil, he is correct when he says sometimes somebody just needs to jump up to the plate and be a hero. Be the better person so your children don’t remember holidays as nothing but bitter words, threats and tears.

One thing I have observed over the years is that our families are getting farther and farther removed from the family farm. That separation can lead to some odd opinions and recollections about agriculture. In that instance sometimes the most profound (and nearly impossible for me) suggestion offered in the “Times” article is to “just shut up and listen.”

Here’s wishing you Happy Holidays that are not in need of any of the information contained herein!

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