All of life is negotiation


Crisis negotiation is a law enforcement technique used to communicate with people who are threatening violence (workplace or domestic violence, suicide, or more rarely, terrorism), including barricaded subjects, criminals attempting to escape after an unsuccessful robbery and hostage-takers.

The quote in the title is taken from Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator. This book was written by Gary Noesner who spent 20 years in the FBI as a hostage negotiator and 10 years in charge of the FBI’s hostage negotiation team. He worked hundreds of hostage taking situations both in the United States and overseas. His very well written book was the inspiration for this article and inspired me to research the topic further.


So, who takes hostages? A political activist or terrorist, a criminal, a mentally disturbed person or a prisoner. It is a negotiator’s responsibility to talk to people who are attempting to commit suicide as well as those attempting to kidnap for monetary gain. Negotiators and other law enforcement professionals can encounter a suicide-by-cop scenario in which the subject’s intention is to give the police no choice but to kill them in self-defence; it is important to notice this intention early in order to prevent it from occurring.

The next, logical question is why do people take hostages? A terrorist would take hostages to: demonstrate that the government cannot look after their citizens; for publicity; or to demand release of incarcerated members from their organisation. A criminal would take hostages spontaneously to protect their own lives when they cannot complete their crime. Mentally disturbed people would take hostages because of hallucinations or delusional beliefs as they are trying to prove that they are not inadequate. Finally, prisoners would take hostages in order to protest the conditions within the prison systems and/or to get media exposure.

So, How to Negotiate?

One of the methods that the FBI developed for Hostage Negotiation is the Behavioural Change Stairway Model. When used properly, 5 main steps can be implemented in order to get the other person to change their point of view and what they are doing.


The first step in hostage negotiation is Active Listening. This means you have to listen to what they have to say and you have to let them know that you are listening. This is identical to Active Listening used in the Psychological Communication a practical for psychology students at Erasmus in courses 1.6 and 2.6. Active Listening involves demonstrating willingness to pay attention and show you are interested in hearing their side of the story. This can be done by using minimal encouragements. This technique is used in everyday life, you have probably used it yourself. This can be as simple as nodding, making small noises of encouragement or even simple phrases such as ‘yes’, ‘okay’ or ‘I see’. These responses will encourage the subject to continue talking and gradually relinquish more control of the situation to the negotiator.

Step 2 is Empathy. During this stage it is important that you start to understand how they are feeling. This stage is related to Carl Roger’s Therapy Methods which consists of unconditional positive regard, genuineness and empathy on the part of the therapist or in this case the negotiator. The idea is to get the client/hostage taker to feel safe and understood. Some techniques to go about this are: Emotional Labelling. If you give their feelings a name you can demonstrate to them that you can identify with how they feel. This is very similar to the Reflection of Feelings used in Psychological Communication in which the aim is to show the client that they are trying to understand how they feel – either during the therapy sessions or during the situation they are describing. In both cases, it is important not to comment on the validity of the feelings – they could seem totally crazy to you – but you still have to show that you understand.

Step 3 is Rapport. In this part of the negotiation process it is important that the person begins to empathise and identify with you and begins to trust you. In hostage negotiation this can take a lot of time; from hours to days and even weeks! Rapport is created by using the previously mentioned techniques as well as a couple of others. For example, Paraphrasing/Mirroring which involves repeating back what the client/subject said to you in your own words. This is another technique also used in Psychological Communication to try and show them that you understand their situation. It is a discovery process on both sides. Firstly you are trying to discover what is important to them and secondly, you are trying to help them hear what they are saying in order to find out if what they are saying makes sense to them. Another example of a technique used is Positive Police Actions. This is when the negotiator reiterates all the things that they and the police working with them have done to help the subject. This could be delivering them food or water, keeping their distance or calling a lawyer for them. Hopefully this will lead to the negotiator gaining the subject’s trust. Which leads us to Step 4.

Step 4 is Influence. Now that you have gained their trust you have earned the right to start problem solving the situation with them and recommend a course of action. Once emotions are better controlled, communication has been established and the triggering event [of the hostage taking] has been discussed, the subject is more likely to be receptive to problem solving. There are 6 basic steps of problem solving in crisis negotiation which have been adapted, once again, from Psychological Communications and behavioural research. First comes defining the problem, brainstorming possible solutions and eliminating unacceptable solutions. Next involves choosing a path that both the negotiator and the subject find acceptable and then planning the implementation (e.g. the logistic -when, where, how- of a surrender). Then the plan needs to be carried out. This leads us to the final step of hostage negotiation.

Step Five in hostage negotiation is Behavioural Change. During this stage it is up the other person to act and change their behaviour. Ideally, in hostage negotiation, this would be surrendering. Behavioural change will most likely occur when the previous 4 steps have been successfully completed. The key to Behavioural Change is the achievement of a positive relationship between the negotiator and the subject. If the previous stages have been carried out effectively the subject will likely follow the negotiator’s suggestions.

These stages are not only useful in hostage situations. As mentioned above, they are used in Psychological Communication, but they are also used in Business Negotiation or any negotiation you undertake in daily life. However, when used in life, most people end up doing it wrong and missing out the most important steps. People tend to skip the first 3 steps, diving right into Influence and expecting the person to change their behaviour – which rarely works. Negotiators can make similar mistakes by moving too rapidly through the stages or leaving out stages. For example, in Business Negotiations it is often pretended that emotions don’t exist. The common saying (first used in the Godfather in 1972) ‘it’s not personal, it’s just business’ applies here. I personally think that there are only a few things more personal than business. Not taking emotions into account would work if humans were entirely rational and logical – which of course we are not. This is why it is important for hostage negotiators to take emotions into account and use them to influence the situation.

There are a few other techniques that negotiators can use which don’t fit into just one of the steps mentioned above. Firstly, there is Effective Pauses. These can be used at any time for emphasis on a point the negotiator just made to encourage someone to keep talking or to diffuse an emotional situation. Gary Noesner has said that ‘even the most emotional subjects find it hard to sustain a one sided argument and so will return to a meaningful dialogue’. In this way, by remaining quiet, the negotiator has moved the negotiation process forward.’ Next, asking Open-Ended Questions is important (in any situation) because you want to hear about the situation from the subject (or your partner or your child) so instead of asking them in a way that yields a yes or no answer, you open them up by asking them to explain. A good example that is useful in a hostage negotiation would be: ‘Why don’t you tell me how this all happened?’ This also demonstrates that you are willing to listen.

Another technique used by negotiators when subjects are unresponsive is to attempt contact. The key in these situations is to vocalise the fears and concerns which are likely driving the subject’s refusal to talk; e.g. fear of the police or the consequences of their actions. An example would be: ‘I know you’re afraid and concerned that we want to hurt you, but I want to assure you that no one out here wants to harm you in any way.’ This technique could also be utilised by parents to children behind locked bedroom doors.

The similarities mentioned above with the techniques used in the clinical psychology setting is why mental health professionals and clinical psychologists are being used as consultants to police hostage negotiation teams. They are especially helpful in terms of contributing to the gathering information about the subject and helping to work out the negotiation strategy as well as serving post trauma counsellors for the hostages.


The Paradox of Hostage Negotiation

As Gary Noesner states in the first chapter of his book: ‘A large part of an negotiator’s job is to establish trust, yet there are contradictions in that. Because, in order to convince someone that despite all evidence to the contrary, everything will be okay, you have to project sincerity. You have to make him believe that you are honest, and to do that sometimes you have to lie.’

This image is from the award winning, Canadian Hostage Negotiation Series ‘Flashpoint’ (s1 e1). The scene depicted below demonstrates the paradox of negotiation that Gary Noesner describes frequently in his book. The idea that you have to gain trust with the person but at the same time be ready to take lethal action if anything goes wrong.


Nosener believes that negotiations without a show of force are ineffective as the hostage taker doesn’t feel any sense of pressure or threat, they get overconfident with the fact that the police won’t do anything to stop them. Similarly, force without an attempt at negotiation in equally ineffective often leads to the deaths of not only the hostage takers but also the police and tactical teams sent to disarm them.


Controlling the Situation

Another quote from Gary Noesner Book highlights a very important aspect of a negotiator’s job. He says that ‘The most critical skills of a negotiator are self-control and the ability to help those around you [other law enforcement officers] keep their cool.’


It is a negotiator’s job to create a trusting relationship with the subject however the extent that they are able to do this depends upon the behaviour of the tactical squad that is there to assist. For years, there was prejudice that negotiators were seen as the soft option, trying to make deals with criminals. As a result their work was under appreciated and often ignored.

An example of what happens when negotiators and tactical officers didn’t communicate is the famous Siege of Waco,Texas; where Gary Noesner was the Chief Negotiator. In February 1993, the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) attempted to raid the ranch of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church which lead to the death of 4 government agents and 6 Church members/Davidians. What followed was the 51 day standoff. During the siege, negotiators spoke with the leader, David Koresh, and other Davidians and managed to convince 35 people to leave of their own accord. However, the negotiators were constantly working against the tactical team who were undermining the trust the negotiators had created. For example, whilst the negotiators were trying to convince the Davidians of their wish for a peaceful resolution, the tactical commander was ordering the power to be turned off in the compound (potentially ruining the food that was stored in the fridges for the children within the compound) or sending large imposing tanks to right outside the compound entrance. As a result, the negotiators had to continually dig themselves out of the hole that the tactical team had dug for them. The siege ended on April 19th when the FBI launched a tactical assault and initiated a tear gas attack in an attempt to force them out of the compound. However, the Davidians left within, set themselves and the compound on fire leading to the deaths of 75 people including the remaining children.

There are also examples when negotiators and tactical teams worked well together and brought about the rescue of hostages and saved the lives of the hostage takers. One of these was a prison riot of Cuban inmates in the Talladega Federal Correctional Institution in Alabama. The Cuban’s cases had been in limbo for some time and they wanted answers about what was going to happen to them next: whether they were going to be sent back home, released or imprisoned in the United States. Ten days into the siege, the leadership that had been established by the inmates inside the prison was beginning to crumble so it was decided that it was time to take action. It was the negotiator’s job to soften the inmates up in order to minimize their ability to resist and maximize the chances that the hostages could come out unharmed. The plan was to give them the food they had been demanding (steaks, gravy, potatoes, cakes, pies – the whole works). The men were used to a limited prison diet and it was suspected that they would gorge themselves. The Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) waited until midnight, stormed the premises, and easily apprehended the inmates who were sleeping of their feast from the evening before, without a single bullet being fired.

The Talladega Siege was so successful as negotiation had worked to soften up the opposition and gain critical intelligence information from released hostages. This enabled the tactical forces to move in with a far greater chance of success. It is a glowing example of how negotiation and tactical operations should work hand in hand to bring dangerous situations to a close without bloodshed.


Alternative Uses of Hostage Negotiation Techniques

The tactics that negotiators gain through their training and experience can be implemented successfully and usefully in other area of law enforcement. For example, in interviewing/interrogating situations. In 1985, Gary Noesner was a member of the Terrorism Squad and he was called to interrogate an airplane hijacker who had been captured. Using his negotiation training Noesner decided to approach him in an open and unthreatening manner.

Prior to his arrival other countries representatives had attempted to interrogate him using direct and confrontational approaches and hadn’t got anywhere. This knowledge allowed Noesner to fill the role of ‘good cop’. Beginning with simple questions about his background, the hijacker was clearly surprised by the nonthreatening delivery of the questions. As time passed, he became less tense and began to open up giving longer answers.

Noesner and his translator then appealed to the hijacker’s vanity by complimenting him on the boldness and efficiency of the operation. They also embedded questions that encouraged him to give important details about the hijacking – such as who the leader was. When the hijacker they were questioning admitted to being the leader, Noesner immediately responded with ‘how were you able to keep control of your comrades?’ This acknowledgement of his ability to lead a team resonated well with the hijacker leading to even more information being gained.

This situation demonstrated the distinction between interrogation and interviewing. Although interrogation is generally defined as ‘questioning’ and usually associated with people who have committed crimes, interviewing is generally defined as conversation. Interviewing does not tend to be used with criminals even though the goal is to find out useful information and approaching a person in a non-threatening and relaxed manner whilst attempting to project empathy is more likely to lead to this.

I think that this is not just important for law enforcement officers to understand, it something that anyone can use. For example, parents wanting to know more about their children’s lives and what kind of trouble they get themselves into, may find a more relaxed approach more effective than just demanding information. This is a technique that I will try and use in my daily life.

Here is some parting advice taken from Gary Noesners book, which can easily be applied to your life and the lives of your friends and family to make them better. ‘From what I observed, the happiest and most successful people tend to be those who are able to remain calm at difficult times and put aside emotions, such as pride or anger that stop them from finding common ground with people. We all need to be good listeners and learn to demonstrate our empathy and understanding of the problems, needs and issues of others. Only then can we hope to influence behaviour in a positive way.’

By Olivia Hobden



  • Noesner, G. (2010) Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator.
  • Van den Molen, H., Lang, G., Trower, P., Look, R. (2014) Psychological Communication: Theories, Roles and Skills for Counsellors.


  • Fuselier, G. D. (1988). Hostage negotiation consultant: Emerging role for the clinical psychologist. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 19(2), 175.
  • Donohue, W. A., Ramesh, C., & Borchgrevink, C. (1991). Crisis bargaining: Tracking relational paradox in hostage negotiation. International Journal of Conflict Management, 2(4), 258-274.
  • Soskis, D. A., & Van Zandt, C. R. (1986). Hostage negotiation: Law enforcement’s most effective non lethal weapon. Behavioral Sciences & the Law,4(4), 423-435.
  • Vecchi, G. M., Van Hasselt, V. B., & Romano, S. J. (2005). Crisis (hostage) negotiation: Current strategies and issues in high-risk conflict resolution.Aggression and Violent Behavior, 10(5), 533-551.

TV Show:

  • Flashpoint: Season 1 Episode, Episode Released July 11th 2008.

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