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Hostage negotiator warns against ‘negativity spiral’ in battle of the bulge

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NEW YORK — Is hoarding a box of fried chicken alone in your apartment comparable to holding someone hostage? Maybe, according to Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator who now advises a health startup.

“Taking hostages or barricading yourself in somewhere is an extreme form of a negative behavior,” said Voss.

When it comes to weight loss, he said we take ourselves hostage. It happens when we go into a negativity spiral, telling ourselves that we need to eat better and exercise.

Voss wants to stop that cycle of negativity, and he says the principles of hostage negotiation are just the way to do it.

He spent 24 years working for the FBI, but for the last year, he’s worked with the startup FIX: Fitness Interactive Experience. The company encourages healthier lifestyles by turning exercise into a game people play together. In the most recent game, participants work as a team to run from zombies.

“Swapping out a game becomes a hack to eliminating the negative behavior,” Voss said.

Everything that happens to us, he says, hits us on two levels: A rational, intellectual level and an emotional level. Rash decisions happen when the emotional response beats out the intellectual one.

In hostage negotiation, telling a person with a gun, “What you’re doing is stupid,” doesn’t work. More successful: “You say you love your wife but you want to kill her.” That response is less alienating.

“One of the things Chris had to do as a hostage negotiator is very quickly assess the personality of the person he was talking to, what their core needs or values were, and what approaches would let that conversation continue,” said Mike Tinney, CEO of FIX: Fitness Interactive Experience.

Tinney took those negotiation concepts and baked them into how the user interacts with the fitness game — there’s a community element and continuous positive reinforcement.

It stays away from directives like, “Eat better,” which is the weight-loss equivalent of “what you’re doing is stupid.” That doesn’t change anyone’s behavior — it just chastises it.

Tinney says if people can change their behavior by using his product, it will improve their lives.

Once people engage with the game, the results are pretty positive — 86% of people who do something like the zombie challenge report an increase in the amount of exercise they do, and 75% say they’ll come back for a second challenge.

He said Voss’ input is crucial to keeping people engaged.

“We’re making sure that the person feels comfortable and that we’re not doing anything to upset that person or put them off right away. There’s a parallel to some of the principles of hostage negotiation there.”