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  • Writer's pictureCarole Stizza

Hostage Negotiation at Work?

Updated: Oct 21, 2022

HAVE YOU EVER WANTED TO ASK “WHY?” Perhaps: “Why does that matter?” “Why do you want to do that?” or, “Why should we be doing it this way?”

Or, as a manager, you want to jump up and ask an employee, ‘Why did you do that?!’ ‘Why didn’t you do this instead?’

If you stopped and identified exactly what you wanted to achieve, you wouldn’t ask ‘why’.

HAS THIS EVER HAPPENED TO YOU? I was once accused of acting like an inquisitor with my why questions and I had no idea how to change that. I’m a ‘why’ thinker. I want to link everything to the bigger picture and evaluate if my efforts are efficiently geared towards the end goal. When I ask why, it’s because I need to know how to link the why to everything I’m doing. Then I learned something new.

ASKING “WHY” JUST DOESN’T WORK! I was on the phone with a potential client and she inquired if I’d read a particular book. At first, I didn’t get why she suggested it; we had been having a conversation on my rates and prices for a future workshop. I hadn’t been asking why exactly; instead I was being flexible in offering a variety of workshop packages. I wasn’t clear on what I expected, what I offered, and what price.

After I looked the book up, I realized why she had suggested it.

She was giving me a huge clue that my negotiation tactics weren’t the best.

Humbling? Sure.

LOOK FOR THE TEACHABLE MOMENTS: One thing you need to know about me, I look for the teachable moments in everything. This was a great favor. The book was a huge turning point in my knowledge of how to guide others in better interactions – including negotiating anything and why asking ‘why questions’ put people off.


I encourage you to read Chris Voss’s book, Never Split the Difference. His work in hostage negotiations really made me think.

Then I discovered that many of his hostage negotiation tips will work at work when you need to neutralize emotions and be able to step into productive conversations a lot faster. ASKING ‘WHY?’ IS NOT THE BEST TACTIC TO START WITH – EVER.

#1: Employees Aren’t Hostages I’m fully aware that employees and clients aren’t hostages (although some will laugh at the feelings associated with being tied to their job or their need for an income) and yet, many don’t know how to step into the right conversations to achieve a productive outcome on most days.

Helpful tools are just that, tools that we can actually utilize to become more productive. When you don’t have them, you keep using what you’ve used before, even when they don’t work. Putting people on the defensive is a common outcome of using tools that don’t work: asking ‘why’ is one of them.

#2: Don’t Put People On The Defensive Putting people on the defensive is not a productive way to start a conversation. In a recent LifeLab blog, writer Kay White shares that asking ‘why’ does 2 things:

  • It sends people straight to the word ‘because’ so they can justify their actions or decisions (a defensive stance); and

  • It closes down information-gathering in the request for ‘the reason’.

This second one is the real show stopper. When you need to work with an employee or a new client, even an established and maybe difficult client, asking why will not get you the progress you desire. It shuts down the conversation and instead breeds feelings of mistrust and accusation.

To learn more about useful tips and tools in communicating at work, watch out for workshop announcements or reach out to Carole directly at either email: or

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