A gallop study recently found that 50% of resigning employees did so, to get away from their manager. Those who stay with poor managers become disengaged, creating this negative work environment that costs US companies billions in lost productivity each year. In the 21st century, it takes more than technical skill to be an effective manager, productive work environments also require tactical empathy, the same fundamental skill that forms the basis of hostage negotiator leadership, forging the quick empathetic bonds that are vital to a highly productive workplace. 

With plenty of cautionary tales about the damage that unchecked ego and authority can wreak in any organization, Ego, Authority, Failure, will help you change that story, providing actionable techniques for a solid foundation of trust-based influence that can motivate and inspire. Here’s my conversation with Derek Gaunt.

Welcome to The Author Hour Podcast, I’m your host Benji Block and today, we have the honor of being joined by Derek Gaunt who has just come out with not a new book but a second edition, right? The book is called, Ego, Authority, Failure: Using Emotional Intelligence like a Hostage Negotiator to Succeed as a Leader. Derek, we’re glad to have you here.

Derek Gaunt: Thanks, Benji, I appreciate you inviting me. 

Benji Block: Okay, let’s start here because that title is loaded and some are going to be familiar with you but others may not be. Just give us some context on your background and this book. 

Derek Gaunt: Yeah, I spent the better part of my adult life as a hostage negotiator, a law enforcement hostage negotiator. I started my law enforcement career in ‘88 and became a negotiator in ‘97, became the team leader in 2001, team commander in 2004. That’s a position I held until I actually left law enforcement for good in 2017.

My background is using my interpersonal communication skills, saying specific things in a specific manner to elicit specific responses so that I can get the information that I need to influence people into doing what I needed them to do. In essence, what I’m talking about is a difficult conversation and leaders, managers, bosses, whatever title you want to give people who have others under their charge, are in those type of difficult conversations daily.

Now, not to the extent that it’s life and death but they’re still having to navigate conversations where negative emotions and negative dynamics are present and need to be dealt with before you can move on to whatever your ultimate goals and agenda is. As a part of The Black Swan Group, we started to do that for the corporate world in earnest back in 2010 but it didn’t dawn on me until 2015, 2016, somewhere around there that these skills could be applied to leadership. 

Benji Block: I want to go down that road with you over the next few minutes so we’ll kind of press pause on your story there for a second and let’s just stay with the book just for a couple of questions here. This is the second edition, maybe give us some context on when was it first released and why the want and desire to come out with a second edition now, Derek.

Derek Gaunt: It was first released three years ago in 2019. Yeah, the conventional wisdom and some of the advices that I was given when I was pinning this thing was in fact — I asked the original publisher, “When will it be time for my second book?” He goes, “We’re not going to do a second book, we’re going to do a second edition, that’s the way this thing usually plays out.” I’ve been thinking about it since the publication of the book three years ago and the time was right last year to start repairing some of the things that needed to be repaired in the first edition and to offer some additional content, which will act as a bridge to the next book.

Benji Block: That’s great. You mentioned it earlier, you’re thinking of leaders when you’re writing this book. Do you get any more specific when you think of the ideal reader that you wrote this for?

Derek Gaunt: Yes, the ones that can’t get out of their own way, the one that think it’s all about them. The ones who put the mission of the organization above the needs of the people that actually run the organization. Part of the motivation for the book was, we have been beaten about the head and shoulders over the last 30, almost 40 years now, about the importance of emotional intelligence in the business world. 

We’re told when we have direct reports that we need to create an inclusive environment, we need to create an air of collaboration, we need to be more emotionally intelligent and we need to display empathy and 40 years after the fact, we’re still having the same conversations. And a lot of that has to do with all those pie in the sky ideas about empathy, [which] are great but how do you do it? 

That’s what I found missing in most of the books, most of the articles, most of the blogpost written about empathy in the business world is, they don’t go beyond the generic.

Benji Block: Yup.

Derek Gaunt: Beyond, “Don’t be a jerk.” Okay, well, how do I do that? It’s just focusing in on the other side. How is your message going to land with the other side? What impact is your goal or your objective going to have on the other side? If leaders would just look at their jobs from that perspective, they’ll take the focus off of themselves and the focus will go to the people that they’re dealing with on a regular basis.

That’s what creates the inclusive environment, that’s what creates collaboration, that’s what creates teams who will do something simply because you ask, not because they felt like they were forced to, because they want to. That’s what you want ultimately is, a group of people who, if I call them tonight and say, “Tomorrow morning, I’m going to assault the gates of hell” their response is, “What time do you need me to be there?” That’s what you’re trying to create. 

Many times, it gets lost because the leaders have their own aspirations, they’re under their own pressures, they’re trying to do better for themselves and that’s not a bad thing, it’s only a bad thing when you do it at the expense of other people.

Implementing Tactical Empathy

Benji Block: We’re going to get more down that road here in a moment and I want to dive into the content here. I got to tell you something upfront. I was reading the introduction and I was sad to find out that I’m in the most typical line of thinking because as I read, the title in the intro, my only thought was, “Man, he’s got to be like Denzel in Inside Man”, then you literally address it and you say that you get that question all the time, along with questions like, “Have you shot anybody or how many times was your life in danger?” 

I was like, “Man, that is exactly my line of thinking.” Any other kind of common misconceptions from your background, Derek, in your line of work?

Derek Gaunt: Common misconception. You go back to the Denzel reference or the Kevin Spacey reference from The Negotiator. I would love to have that type of power and control during an actual event but the reality is, there is a whole team of crisis managers that are helping to support the effort in getting the bad guy to surrender his weapons, to surrender his hostage and to ultimately surrender himself.

When you see Denzel and Kevin Spacey walking around, making command decisions about the direction that the operation is going to go, that’s just Hollywood taking some liberties with what actually occurs. I’m just a wheel in the cog.

Benji Block: Creative liberties.

Derek Gaunt: Or ‘cog in the wheel’ I think it’s called. Yeah, sorry.

Benji Block: Yeah, that’s good context for us. Okay, so you alluded to something right off the top that back in 2015, 2016, you started to realize that your background as a hostage negotiator and then leadership, they actually coalesce. You see similarities and you had time obviously in your position to draw some conclusions and see transferable skills but, take us back to that moment of realization or the journey that you were on that brought those two things together?

Derek Gaunt: I started to think about going back to what I said earlier. The difficult conversations that leaders have to engage in regularly. Performance reviews, the direction that the team was taking is now being changed and we’re going in another direction.

Disciplinary conversations, those types of discussions bring with them negative emotions and negative dynamics and it dawned on me that hostage negotiators are the masters at navigating conversations where there are negative emotions and negative dynamics.

You take the stakes off the table, the stakes are not the same in either environment but the emotional response during the conversation is almost identical because as a leader, I’m going to be telling my direct reports, things that they’re not going to want to hear.

I’m going to be sharing bad news with them. I’m going to be making an ask of them and any time that you make an ask of anybody, you’re changing the status quo and people are uncomfortable with status quo changes because you’ve now injected uncertainty into the conversation.

As a result of that uncertainty, uncertainty is the mother of fear and when that amygdala fires up, people can’t hear your message unless you deal with the negative emotions and dynamics from their perspective. Your brain works up to 31% smarter or more efficiently when you are in a positive state. 

As a leader, when I know I’m going to share news with my team, that they’re not going to want to hear, I want to take care as many of those negative as I can because I want them —when I ultimate get to my ask, when I ultimately state what my goals and objectives are — I want them to be as clear of mind as possible.

Same thing in hostage negotiation. Deal with the negative emotions and dynamics, when emotions are high, rational thinking is low. We deal with the negative emotions and dynamics and if you think of a fulcrum on one side of that fulcrum is negative emotions and dynamics, on the other side of that fulcrum is logic and reasoning and the more of the negative emotions and dynamics that I take care of, the lower that fulcrum gets on the emotion side and the higher it gets on the logic side.

Benji Block: Give me an example of dealing with a negative emotion first.

Derek Gaunt: If I’m dealing with a team and let’s say, I’m going to tell them that the project they’ve been working on has been killed by the C-suite and we’re going to start working on something else and they’ve poured their heart and soul into this project for six months. That’s not going to land very well. 

Before I even jump into the crux, or the meat of the conversation, I’m going to say to them right upfront, “I know you’re going to think that we are disorganized and we have no clear direction on what we want to do next. Some of you are probably going to take offense to the fact that you’ve poured your heart and soul into this project over the last six months and it’s all for naught.”

“You may be thinking to yourself that we are incompetent, you may be thinking to yourself that we don’t have your best interest at heart. You may even believe that we don’t appreciate everything that you’ve done as it relates to this current project” and then I let that sit, just let it sit for two, three, four, five seconds.

Because I took the time to articulate something that they have not articulated yet, there’s no clearer demonstration to that team that this conversation is as much about them and where they’re coming from as it is about me in the organization.

Being courageous enough to get out in front of it tamps down those negative emotions and dynamics, so that they’re more cognitively proficient and then when I get to that point in the conversation where I start explaining to them what we’re going to do next and more importantly, why we’re going to do it, they’re not schizophrenic. 

They’re not listening to their own internal monologue, they’re actually clear of mind because I took the opportunity to take care of those negatives before jumping into the purpose for the conversation.

Benji Block: I feel like — I mean, I love both those lines. I know you’re going to think and you may be feeling that pause is also a key part of communication. 

Derek Gaunt: Critical.

Benji Block: You learn in communication, the silence is important as the words, the pacing, right? I know I’m guilty of talking way too fast sometimes and something that I’ve had had actively worked on. What happens in that pause, Derek? What have you found that to be so effective about that time and you can tell me if in the way you’re talking, you have space and could create pacing.

Derek Gaunt: Yeah, it gives them a time to digest.

Benji Block: For sure.

Derek Gaunt: It gives them a time to reflect on whether or not they’re actually feeling or thinking those things. When I do something like that, accuracy is not as important as the attempt, this is one of the few cases in life where accuracy doesn’t really matter. You may hit the nail on the head, you may not but the point of them getting out in front of those negatives is the demonstration, that’s the first demonstration of tactical empathy.

When I can — before you articulated and when I can tell you what the lay of the land looks like from your perspective, that’s huge. What goes on in that moment of silence is, they go to the far end of the fear spectrum, they have no idea what’s going to come out of my mouth next and so they’re bracing themselves for the absolute worst. 

They’re on the far end of that fear spectrum and in their mind, they’re going, “Oh my gosh, what is he going to say or, are we getting laid off? Is somebody getting fired, is somebody getting demoted, is somebody getting transferred?” They’re thinking of all the worst possible things, so that when I ultimately get to my ask or get to my goal and objective, it’s a relief in comparison to what they were thinking about. 

That’s what that silence does. It provides them an opportunity to think about worst-case scenarios so that ultimately, when I get to my ask, they shrug their shoulders and like, “Ah, that’s not a big deal.” 

Benji Block: I love this idea of tactical empathy that you’ve brought up and it is one of the core principles that you discuss. You say the following, “Tactical empathy takes conscious effort but also is very similar to intuition. Your gut is telling you this is how they see things but intuition is not enough. If you do not vocalize it, it matters not. Articulating what you are seeing or hearing is where most people struggle.” Would you expand on that a bit and what you see when it comes to tactical empathy? 

Derek Gaunt: Yeah, so where most people struggle is intuitively, you are picking up data from your counterpart all of the time. Some of it is surface level stuff, some of it is actually what they verbalize but there is other pieces of data that you are picking up from them that your intuition is telling you, “This is what they’re thinking, this is what’s going on with them” and what I meant by most people struggle is, we’re afraid. 

We’re afraid to articulate what our intuition is telling us based on the data that we’re receiving from the other side. We are afraid of getting it wrong. We are afraid of embarrassing ourselves. We are afraid of an adverse response from the counterpart and so we choose not to articulate it and the problem with that is if I don’t articulate it, you don’t know that I get it. I can say that I get it but if you can’t articulate it, you are not sending me the message that you understand on a deeper level. 

That is a driving motivator of everybody on the planet, everybody. I don’t care what walk of life you come from. I don’t care what your skin color is, I don’t care what corner of the planet you hail from, everybody has a desire to have someone else understand what they feel, what they are going through, what their environment looks like and if you can articulate it, you’re not satisfying that need. 

Tactical Empathy: Get Out of Your Own Way

Benji Block: Let me ask you this because it is such a common fear because you don’t want to get it wrong, so is it way forward potentially to use that phrasing, “I am picking this up, am I right or is this” — like how would you phrase that to go about giving — saying, “Hey, this is what I am experiencing.” Is this anywhere near what is actually going on internally in you?

Derek Gaunt: No, I don’t look for validation. I just tell them, “This is what I’m picking up” and that in it of itself is enough. If I am wrong, what are they going to do? They’re going to correct you. You may not like the correction, it may come by way of an expletive laden response but you are going to get more information. These difficult conversations are designed also to uncover information, uncover hidden motivation. 

If I throw something out, if I say, “Benji, it sounds like switching from this project to another is going to cause you a certain level of discomfort because of the lack of confidence that you have in your other team mates” and you come back at me and say, “It is not about the other team mates, it is about the fact that you guys can’t make up your mind which way you want to go.” Okay, now I’m smarter, now I know it has nothing to do with the team mates and his angst. 

Your angst is with me and with the organization and so, don’t — my admonition to everybody, don’t ignore what’s going on in your subconscious, your intuition. Your conscious brain processes 20 bit or — I’m sorry, 40 bits of information per second. Your subconscious brain processes 20 million bits of information per second, that’s you knowing something without knowing how you know it. 

That intuition, that subconscious, that gut feeling has kept us alive as human beings for thousands of years. It is never going to betray you.

Benji Block: Let’s dig here for one more minute because you also talk about how tactical empathy is not emotional empathy and the definitions definitely matter in this case, so would you clarify the difference between the two? 

Derek Gaunt: Think of tactical empathy in terms of a deliberate attempt on your part to recognize and vocalize what’s going on with the counterpart, the deliberate attempt. This is not you feeling what they feel. Most people talk about emotional empathy. Emotional empathy is a subjective state that is usually brought on by emotional cotangent. You’d start telling me a story about how you lost your dog, I am a dog lover, I get choked up. 

I am feeling what you feel, that’s emotional empathy. I like what you are saying about your love for your dog and as a result or by extension, I kind of like you. Tactical empathy, there is no liking necessarily, it is not necessarily for you to like the other side. It is not necessarily for you to feel what they feel, you just have to acknowledge the fact that that is how their frame of reference is set up. 

If you think about it in conjunction with where I came from, hostage negotiation, I never liked anybody that I was on the phone with. I never agreed with anybody that I was on the phone with. Liking is not necessary, agreement is not necessary. It is just you being able to articulate that this is the way this person sees this circumstance. It may be fair or unfair, it may be crazy, it may be sane. It doesn’t really matter, it is their perspective. 

That’s the ultimate difference, you don’t need to feel what they feel in order to demonstrate tactical empathy. You just need to be deliberate in your attempt to convey to them that you understand this is what they’re going through. 

Benji Block: Okay, so we’ve taken the last few minutes to breakdown one of the core principles but you have an entire framework. What are some of those other core principles you see when it comes to this hostage negotiator leadership, these principles and this framework? 

Derek Gaunt: All right, so the framework basically, the base of the framework is tactical empathy. That’s the foundation upon which everything else is built and then it is just a matter of as I said at the beginning of the call, getting out of your own way. Stop thinking that this is all about you. Yes, you have drive, yes, you have desires for further advancement within the company but you are not going to pursue that and leave a bunch of broken employees in your wake. 

All of the skills that we talk about at The Black Swan Group, all of the skills that I talk about within the book itself are designed to convey to the other side whatever that other side looks like that I am just as concerned in this conversation about what’s going on with you as I am with what’s going on with myself and so labeling pre-emptively, which is what I did earlier. The accusation’s audits where I jump out in front of the negative emotions and dynamics. 

Using an accusation’s audits right before I make an ask, using accusation’s audit right before I share bad news or I say anything else to the counterpart that they are probably not going to want to hear. I am going to set it up with an accusation’s audit. That is my attempt at tactical empathy. That is my attempt to diffusing the negative dynamics and emotions associated with me with the conversation with the organization. 

The bottom line is understanding it’s not about you. Most leaders create toxic environment because they keep it all about them. They are worried about the perception of their peers, perception of the people above them primarily and the perception of the teams that they lead and what John Wooden said one time, your reputation is who people think you are, your character is who you really are. 

Benji Block: Right. 

Derek Gaunt: If you focus on being character-driven, doing the right thing for the right thing’s sake — I mean, this is not rocket science, man. Again, that is one of the reasons why I wrote the book. I am like, “Why are we still struggling with this? This is not very hard, you can get to your goal and objective faster and have it receive better if you first extend the courtesy of tactical empathy to the other side. 

It’s just no more complex than that. That’s what hostage negotiator leadership is all about, treating your employees, your direct reports, your peers, even your bosses with the same level of deference that we showed to hostage-takers, people who were easy to hate because they were involved in some very vile things. 

Benji Block: I love that. I think that’s extremely key and I think it drives home really the book at its core. I think hearing you discuss it and having written a book on it is very inspirational in a sense in a conversation like this where we only have 25 to 30 minutes together but I would love to hear an example of leaders that you’ve worked with, those that have actually gone about implementing it because I know you’re big on action. 

That is a huge chunk of this book is going how are we going to implement, how are we going to act on this and obviously being character-driven is going to drive you to act differently, behave differently so — 

Derek Gaunt: Think differently, yeah. 

Benji Block: Yeah, think differently, motives are different. Derek, give us just an example as we start to wrap this thing up of someone that has applied this and it’s maybe changed their leadership style the way they interact in their business and in the world. 

Derek Gaunt: Sure, I am working currently with a coaching client. I have been working with him for four years now and the transformation of this person has been unbelievable to the point where he has mandated and started to systemically infuse the entire organization with The Black Swan Method and this guy is in an interesting position because the industry that he’s in he has to deal with blue-collar construction guys. 

He’s got to deal with white collared financial guys and he’s going to deal with labor unions not only here but in Canada, so he has taken our skills and apply them to some of the most difficult corporate conversations that you can think of and he is hitting home runs with it every time, out of the box. Now what’s most impressive to me about him is that not only has he embodied it, he has pushed it down within his organization. 

He pushed it down not in a “because I said so” fashion but he pushed it down with a level of deference and respect that the people that he wants to engage in the same type of behavior that he is engaging in. They are doing it readily and his company has made a dramatic — and they were making money before they met us. They are making much more money now and it’s because they’ve gotten out of their own way and they’ve learned how to defer to the other side and to this individual, I could not be more impressed. 

I could not be more proud of the fact that he went all-in on making sure that his entire organization had adopted The Black Swan Method. 

Developing The Habit

Benji Block: We’ll wrap it up here but I know we hear it all the time, leaders are learners. We obviously want people to go pick up the book and we want them to actually apply it but if I was to go, “All right, Derek, I want to leave this episode and actively work to improve my EQ and my leadership,” what’s a practical place you’d encourage us to start? What is a way you are kind of constantly sharpening that tool in your tool belt as well? 

Derek Gaunt: Yeah, so The Black Swan Method has espoused, it never split the difference, has espoused an ego with already failure is counterintuitive. It flies in the face of all convention and so as a result, it is tantamount to learning a new language and if any of your listeners are fluent in the language other than their native tongue, think about how long it took them to get to that level of fluency and it started out with them with low stakes practice. 

They didn’t learn to speak Spanish for a week and then get dropped in the middle of Mexico City and say you’ll find yourself around. They started with low-stakes practice where they were engaging people in small conversations with small amounts of Spanish, this is the same thing. Low-stakes practice, conversations that don’t mean anything to you where you don’t have any skin in the game. There is nothing hanging in the balance. 

For example, the example I like to use for the low-stakes practice is Starbucks. Go to Starbucks, order a cup of coffee, ask the barista how they’re doing and when they respond, use a technique that we call the label where you’re just saying it looks like, it seems like, it sounds like based on the data that the other side gives you. That’s low-stakes practice, it takes 64 to 67 repetitions to develop a new habit. 

Not to be perfect at it, just to develop that new habit. Well, that interaction with that Starbucks person, that’s your first repetition and you are starting to groove that neural pathway. We want ultimately for this to become a part of your DNA so you’re not reacting in conversations, you are responding and you are responding appropriately. The only way to get better at it is take a Monday and say this is going to be my label day and I’m going to see how many times I can label people in the conversation to get more information. 

Tuesday is going to be my mirror day, the mirror is just repeating back the last one to three words. I am just going to mirror many times in a conversation, in my conversations today, just to see if I can get them that counterpart to continue talking and you are starting to groove that neuro pathway. You are starting to solidify or strengthen those and have the connections so that it becomes second nature. 

Benji Block: It has been a very insightful conversation, Derek. I love this book, I love the effort that you put into this second edition and we’re grateful to have had you here on the show. Besides checking out the book, where can people find you and the work that you guys are doing? 

Derek Gaunt: Yeah, [email protected], that’s the email address if you want to engage with us. blackswanltd.com is the website, we’ve got it to replete with a lot of resources on there that won’t cost you a dime where you can start to dip your toes in the water. Ultimately, we would love to get you in our coaching chain, if you are a corporation we’d love to get you in our corporate chain. 

We offer a variety of online courses, so we are spreading the gospel if you will, it is just a matter of you wanting to take advantage of it. So, blackswanltd.com is the best place to contact us or to find out more information about what we offer. 

Benji Block: Again, the book title is, Ego, Authority, Failure: Using Emotional Experience Like a Hostage Negotiator to Succeed as a Leader. Derek Gaunt, thank you for joining us on Author Hour, it’s been an honor. 

Derek Gaunt: Thank you, Benji. I appreciate it.