What I Learned From a Former FBI Hostage Negotiator About Relationships

Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

I want to share something I learned this week that I’m super excited to try. 

I was watching a Masterclass* called Chris Voss Teaches The Art of Negotiation. Chris Voss @VossNegotiation is a former FBI lead hostage negotiator and bestselling author of Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It. In his Masterclass, Chris teaches the concept of “labeling”. He talks about labels in the context of negotiations (during hostage negotiations and business negotiations), but I think it’s a brilliant tool that can be used on our significant others!

So today, I’m going to teach you what I learned from Chris Voss’s masterclass about labels: what they are, how they work, and the right and wrong way to label emotions. 

Warning: The ideas and examples you are about to read are completely plagiarized (is it still plagiarism if I tell you from whom they were stollen?). Just to be safe: 

Dear Chris Voss, 

If you’re reading this, I think you’re brilliant. Please don’t sue me. 



Here we go…

Labeling (or “Emotion Labels”) and What They Do

One of the most effective tools in the toolkit of an FBI hostage negotiator is something called labeling. Labels are simply verbal observations. They’re used to de-escalate heated situations. Here’s how they work. 

Imagine an angry terrorist shouting this into a telephone:


Now, imagine the hostage negotiator on the other end of the line, responding with this:

Hostage Negotiator: “You seem angry.”

“You seem angry,” is a label. 

Labeling a negative emotion causes that emotion to decrease in intensity.

Let that sink in for a second. 

Is your mind blown? No? Let me say it again: Labeling a negative emotion causes that emotion to decrease in intensity.

My first thought after hearing this was “How can I use this?!”

Use Labels to De-Escalate an Argument With Your Partner

Labels can be used during any kind of negotiation, but I’m interested in using them to de-escalate heated discussions with my husband. You know the ones I’m talking about – the discussions that start all friendly and normal but then take a turn towards argument territory. 

Here’s how to do it:

STEP 1: Identify your partner’s emotion. If you feel like your partner is getting upset, angry, or annoyed, you’re probably right. Trust your gut. 

STEP 2: Label it. A good label starts with: 

“It seems like…” 

“It sounds like…” 

“It looks like…” 

“You look like…” 

“It feels like…” 

Then, just fill in the blank. If you think your partner is (or will be) upset, instead of saying “Don’t be upset,” (which is what I always say), try saying It seems like you’re upset.”

Triggering Contemplation

When you label your partner’s emotion, you’re triggering contemplation on their part, (which is exactly what you want). If you say “It sounds like you’re upset,” your partner will think to themselves, “Am I upset?” 

Good labeling triggers contemplation, and contemplation is what reduces the negative emotion.

The WRONG Way to Label

Don’t Say “I”

Don’t say “What I’m hearing is…”  When you say “I” in a label, it communicates that you’re more interested in your own perspective rather than your partner’s. Stick to the script and don’t say “I”.

Stop Talking

After you’ve labeled your partner’s emotion, stop talking! Be silent. Let the label sink in. Resist the urge to explain it. Let it work its magic. 

Labeling a Positive Emotion Amplifies It

If you really want to get wild and crazy, try labeling a positive emotion. Labeling a positive emotion boosts the positive feelings. 

“You seem happy.”

“Sounds like you’re having a good day at work.”

“You seem like you’re in a good mood.”

Try it. Let me know how it goes.

I just learned about labels this week, so I haven’t had a chance to properly test drive them with my husband, but I’m going to try it out over the next few weeks and let you know how it goes. If you think using labels might work for you, give them a try and let me know how it goes!

That’s all for today. 

If you’ve found this interesting, please consider sending it to a friend.

Get in touch! You can email me (nelly.mosstaghimi@gmail.com), add a comment below, or message me on Twitter (@nellymosstag). Please follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and subscribe to my blog so you don’t miss future posts! 

And to my Canadian friends, have a great long weekend!


*Masterclass is one of the few subscription services I actually pay for. Stay tuned for a complete (but short) list of my favourite subscription services.


  1. This is amazing! My husband and I sometimes do the positive labeling, but never thought about the reverse. Thank you!


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