How to Listen When Emotions Run High, with Hostage Negotiator Dan Oblinger

This episode provides essential listening guidance and tools for leaders and lovers - or anyone who regularly finds himself in emotionally charged situations.

Dan Oblinger is a hostage negotiator, author of ‘Life or Death Listening’, a keynote speaker on leadership, listening and negotiations and a father of five adopted children. His work is built on a simple premise: everyone has a unique and valuable story to tell. When we invite those stories and intentionally listen, we become better leaders and lovers.

In this extra-long episode, Dan explains how leaders, parents and lovers can harness the power of emotions to build trust and transform their relationships. We also discuss Dan’s first encounter with a jumper, how to rewire your listening brain and why leaders should ask more scary questions.


“Emotions are the most complex and rich kinds of communication that people are ever going to provide you in your life, so you should thank them.”


Show Notes:

0:40 – The power of listening for leaders and lovers

2:32 – How Dan – a trained priest - became interested in becoming a master listener

4:42 – Dan’s first encounter with a jumper

6:54 – Why power and authority won’t get you anywhere in hostage negotiations

8:26 – Listening for ambivalence

11:04 – Fail forward as you develop your listening skills

12:33 – The importance of inviting someone’s story

14:33 – Why listening trumps power and authority in emotionally charged situations 

16:23 – The source of most bad listening habits

18:56 – How to listen to 3-year-olds: the power of personal connection 

22:00 – Active listening: the better alternative to using power

22:46 – ‘Having power and not wielding it to accomplish your goals, is an incredible act of leadership’

25:16 – The option to set aside power and authority and build consensus

28:21 – Creating a collaborative corporate culture

29:06 – Why leaders should ask scary questions 

32:35 – How to become a better listener 

34:06 – Pride and ego: the enemies of effective listening and leadership

37:50 – How Dan is able to shift the focus to other people in high-stakes situations

39:21 – Introducing 1 of the 8 active listening skills: emotional labeling 

41:43 – ‘When people are aggressive and emotional, they are trying to communicate’

43:30 – Dealing with emotions at work

44:45 – The importance of building trust in hostage negotiations

46:02 – How submission affects your corporate listening culture

47:49– What listening success looks like for a leader

50:47 – Prefacing and other ways to ask better questions

52:11 – How people decide whether to tell the truth or not

53:06 – Bad questions and how to rephrase them to invite stories

54:27 – Why ‘why-questions’ are dangerous with emotional people

56:12 – Tailoring questions

57:22 – Why you should focus on the here and now in crisis situations

58:50 – Why Dan likes to deal with angry people

1:01:50 – Our tendency to avoid difficult conversations and how it affects corporate culture

1:03:48 – The most important active listening skills

1:05:09 – The power of silence

1:06:43 – How paraphrasing can help leaders listen to the unsaid and build buy-in for change

1:10:12 – QUESTION BOX: How to negotiate with someone if you don’t even get past the reception desk

1:13:42 – Sales funnels in hostage negotiations: converting text to voice

1:16:19 – How to listen to someone who loves his story so much that he just keeps talking

1:18:33 – How to influence bad listening with good listening and change your culture

1:22:40 – Building a habit of authentic, faithful listening

1:25:03 – Why Dan would like to be a polyglot


Links to people, books and resources mentioned in this episode: 

- Dan is very active on LinkedIn. I’d encourage you to check out his Common Objection video series and his Question Box posts, in which he answers questions from the LinkedIn community on how to deal with challenging listening situations.

- I enjoyed reading Dan’s book ‘Life or Death Listening’, which is available through Amazon. He’s also the author of ‘The 28 Laws of Listening’, which helps you put Dan’s most important lessons into action and rewire your listening brain.

- We also talk about ‘Never Split The Difference’ by former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss. Here are my reflections on the book, which I also discussed in my earlier podcast conversation with investor Ted Seides.

- And here’s my take on becoming a better listener and the crucial balance between humility and confidence.


If you enjoyed this episode of the Meeting Strategist podcast, you might also like these:

Ep. 04 - Exploring the Unsaid: Deep Listening With Oscar Trimboli 

Ep. 05 - The Power to Walk Away: Influence in Sales Meetings with Will Marshall

Ep. 10 - How to Become More Conversationally Intelligent, with Bob Pointer


To relive the episode, here are a few key quotes from Dan Oblinger:

“Listening is perhaps the most powerful thing that one human being can do for another.”

“We look for ourselves in our own environment.”

“Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down because you yelled at them… You have to find a better method and for me it’s active listening.”

“Conflict is natural when you put human beings in a confined space.”

“Listening is love in motion.”


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