Leaders should treat their employees like children. Or like hostage-takers. Wait! Before you start that complaint email bear with me for a minute and see if you don’t agree.

Eric Barker – one of my favorite bloggers – recently published a great article with advice for parents on how to talk to kids, especially during highly emotional conversations. As the parent of a 12-year old daughter with whom I frequently have emotional conversations, I was eager to pick up a trick or two. The more I read, the more I realized Eric’s advice is great advice for leaders too.

The basic idea during these high stakes conversations is to acknowledge and understand the feelings of the other person (this is similar to the article I wrote last week on empathy). People don’t want to be told how they feel or how they should or shouldn’t feel; they first and foremost just want to be heard.

Child psychologists list 4 steps for dealing with upset kids:

  1. Listen With Full Attention: Everyone needs to feel understood. The big mistake is thinking kids are any different.

  2. Acknowledge Their Feelings: Paraphrase what they said. Don’t say you understand, show them you do.

  3. Give Their Feelings A Name: “Sounds like you feel this is unfair.” It calms the brain.

  4. Ask Questions: You want to resolve their underlying emotional needs, not get into a logical debate.

Barker compares this strategy to the FBI’s “behavioral change stairway” – used to resolve hundreds of hostage negotiations each year:

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What I really like about these two models is how each step builds to the next, higher connection steps. Both models start with Active Listening. In the 4-step conversation with children the goal isn’t so much to change behavior (like in the hostage negotiation model). But those next two steps certainly build empathy and rapport. Asking questions, especially if you ask the right questions, is also a great way to begin to influence someone. Finally, both models make clear that this is at the end of the sequence not the beginning.

As I read each of these models I considered how important these same steps are in connecting with employees. The two models of course reminded me of the Approachable Leadership model:


The Approachable Leadership model is more about mindset than it is the steps you take, but it ends up in the same place. You build connection (or a calmer child, or rapport and influence with a hostage-taker) first by creating the right space. In the Approachability world this is about making the other individual welcome, safe, and shrinking power-distance. The exact same idea applies in these other high-stakes situations.

The second part of the model is about understanding the other person. This is the empathy and rapport step. Notice how it happens only after you have created the right, safe space. Finally you get to action, but this is the last step and very often isn’t needed – many times people just want to be heard and understood. If action is required following through and being trustworthy builds confidence in all relationships, including with children and I assume hostage-takers (thankfully I don’t have personal experience in that last situation).

When our Workshop attendees start their 30-Day Challenge we always remind them that Approachable Leadership skills don’t just apply at work. They apply in every relationship. So go ahead, treat your employees like children. Just don’t tell anyone I told you to do it. I have enough highly emotional conversations!

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