An Octopus in a Sock

leadership, parenting, learning

In his book “Never Split the Difference”, hostage negotiator Chris Voss always does two critical things.  He makes the person feel like they are in control by leading with questions, and he mirrors or repeats back to them what they just said so they feel heard and understood.  Both tactics are catering to the emotional needs of the other person rather than trying to use logic.  Since learning some of the principles from Chris, I have tried to apply them through parenting my two kids at home.  Here are a few things that I have learned:

  1. No one wants to be controlled or told what to do, including a two year old.  Chris Voss always guides a negotiation with questions, helping the other person feel in control of the situation.  For example, instead of telling my two year old, “Go brush your teeth”, it is better to simply ask “Is it time to brush your teeth?” We get to the same result but a question makes it his choice.  If he refuses, then a simple how question “How are you supposed to keep your teeth from falling out if you don’t brush them?”  With the right question, you can usually get to the same spot without having to use force or control.  If you have doubts about leading with questions versus force, find a parent who tried to “control” their 16 year old and see how that worked out for them.
  2. Mirroring back what someone has said is one of the best ways to show them that you are listening and that you understand them.  Most arguments consist of two people stating the same position over and over, and instead of actually listening to the other person, they just get louder.  Instead of shouting the same thing at someone, try mirroring back what they are saying.  Once the emotional need to feel understood is met, the limbic brain calms down and the logical part of the brain can start to work.
  3. Be able to recognize the effects of the limbic brain in yourself and others.  One of the biggest lessons I have learned in parenting is managing around their limbic brain.  When someone’s brain goes limbic, it is best to leave them alone for a minute and let them calm down.  When someone is in a limbic state, reasoning with them is like trying to shove an octopus in a sock.  Instead of fighting a limbic action with a limbic response, I simply give them a few minutes to calm down so we can actually talk through the situation and discuss what we learned.


Humans of all ages are emotional beings that have simple emotional needs.  If you want to be an effective leader, you must cater to those needs.  Let others stay in control, make them feel heard and manage around the limbic brain.

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