Set boundaries like a hostage negotiator

Students, parents, and counselors all occasionally struggle with setting boundaries. Taking on too much, staying reachable all the time, refusing to decline invitations and opportunities—it’s no wonder so many people of all ages are overworked and over-stressed these days. To take some productive steps toward relief, consider following the advice of someone for whom setting boundaries can actually be a matter of life and death.

Chris Voss spent 24 years as an FBI hostage negotiator, including a 7-year stint as their lead negotiator for every American who had been kidnapped overseas. While interviewed for Adam Grant’s latest podcast episode, “When work takes over your life,” Voss shared three tips that can help anyone set boundaries, whether or not the stakes are hostage-level high.

Voss said that hostage negotiators rely on three skills.

1. Ask a strategic question.

When fielding a request that’s just not realistic or reasonable, try asking—in an inquiring, not challenging way—“How am I supposed to do that?” Voss calls this technique “forced empathy” because it forces the other side to take a realistic look at your situation fairly, which is a form of boundary setting.

Example: You’re a student who routinely goes to school from 8-3, to band practice from 3-5, to SAT tutoring from 6-8, and then does homework until midnight. Your parents suggest you add another activity to your resume to appear more well-rounded to colleges. Instead of arguing, just ask, “OK, how am I supposed to do that?” as if you’re genuinely interested in finding a reasonable way to make it work. See if they can actually be a part of a solution, or if they’ll see that there really are only so many hours in a day.

2. Practice labeling.

Research has shown that the best hostage negotiators use a tool called “labeling”—restating what you think the other person has said, which forces the other party to own or reject it. Labeling usually begins, “It feels like…,” “It sounds like…,” “It looks like…,” etc.

“It sounds like you believe I have enough influence to change the admission decision with a phone call?”

“It feels like my grades and accomplishments aren’t enough to make you believe that I’m taking this seriously?”

“It seems like you’re not that interested in our opinions about your college choices, but you also want us to do the work to find the schools?”

3. Get a Yes by getting a No.

People are more persuadable once they’ve had a chance to say no to something. So start by asking a question deliberately intended to get a “no.”

“Do you disagree that it’s unhealthy for me to get 4-5 hours a sleep during the week?”

“Is it a really bad idea for you to take time to learn more about the colleges you want to apply to?”

“Do you feel strongly that I should take an action I believe will hurt, not help, your son’s chances of admission to this school?”

It may not be easy. But whoever you need to set boundaries with, chances are they’re more reasonable than the kidnappers Voss routinely dealt with.