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Hostage Negotiation Perspective

In this material, the meaning of the term ‘hostage negotiation’ can be broadened to embrace crisis negotiation of several types, including threatened suicide or self-harm.  A separate type of scenario may be kidnap for money, where the analogy to commercial negotiation may perhaps be strongest.  There are mutual lessons to be learned from the different perspectives of commercial and hostage negotiation.  You will see that much of this module has been informed by several types of negotiations and in turn is applicable to all of these.  There are so many widely different scenarios within the various realms of negotiation that the otherwise separate disciplines have some overlaps between them in some areas.  Don’t just think of hostage negotiation as being about one person holding a gun to another in a bank.  Consider the situation in the middle of tribal negotiations over access to safe artesian water when suddenly armed protagonists seize the only well for miles around while a woman and child are there.  In that way, what begins as a commercial negotiation has the potential to deteriorate into a hostage negotiation.  Consider also what happens when a food retail company is taken hostage by people contaminating products in its store.  Think of the reputation of a show business celebrity being taken hostage by media phone-hacking.  Finally, think about employees of an oil exploration company taken hostage by modern day pirates seeking a ransom.  These are just some examples of different forms of hostage situations.

There are at least three big areas of differences between hostage negotiation and commercial negotiation: the start; the middle; and the end.  At the start, in hostage negotiation there are unacceptable consequences of us failing to at least try to agree a resolution, whereas in commercial negotiation we usually have the option of avoiding the situation.  In the middle, hostage negotiation is often saturated with raw emotion to a far greater extent than in commercial situations.  Finally, at the end of commercial negotiations people generally shake hands, sign the contract, deliver the goods and get paid.  At the end of hostage negotiations people often get thrown to the ground, handcuffed and hauled off to a state institution.  However, despite these differences, there are many similarities between commercial and hostage negotiations.  One similarity is that in all negotiations the aim is for everyone to come out at the end with their pride and dignity intact.  Even at the end of most hostage situations, the resolution is often discussed and agreed with the hostage takers so they feel they have contributed to the plan and can accept that they will have to be handcuffed, because that is the standard procedure for the law enforcement agencies.

Let’s consider differences between hostage and commercial negotiation from the start point of purpose and motives.  The purpose in a commercial context is the voluntary and systematic exploration of both party’s interests with the objective of agreeing a mutually acceptable compromise that resolves their conflict and may even create additional profits above and beyond those that either of the parties could generate in isolation.  It’s not very productive to think about motivation in hostage situations in terms of the ‘good-guys’ versus the ‘bad-guys’ because there are so many possible scenarios ranging from domestic disputes and barricaded individuals, threatened suicide or self-harm, through kidnappings and extortions, to prison riots and sieges.  We need to make a distinction between situations where victims are merely ‘instrumental’ in the sense that, to the hostage takers, they represent a means to an end; rather than situations where hostage takers believe they have a personal relationship with their victim.  There may be emotional, political or religious motivations alongside financial ones.  A politically motivated hostage taker may want publicity for their cause; or to undermine the confidence of society; or to free other members of the organisation held in prison.  However, we can simplify the picture by considering the public’s stereotypical example of one person holding a gun on others in a bank.  The superficial motive may seem to be greed; but there is often an underlying motive; and as the situation develops the motives become confused with fear and the desire to escape.  A hostage taker may often be suffering from a temporary suspension of their problem-solving ability.  In many hostage negotiations the ‘conflict’ may be an internal mental state and ‘resolution’ may be the restoration of rational coping functions.

The professional negotiator sent to deal with the hostage taker is in one sense a representative of society and as a courtesy we won’t speculate on their personal motivation, but we will consider what they are hoping to achieve.  Their purpose may be to free the hostages and have the hostage taker submit to the society’s justice system.  The aim is always to get everyone out alive.  If the negotiation breaks down and a rescue attempt has to be made, then law enforcement officers will have to put their own lives at risk, alongside the hostages and the hostage takers.  In these circumstances there is always a chance that someone will get killed or seriously wounded.  On the other hand, if the negotiation can be concluded successfully then everyone can come out alive and uninjured.

When lives are directly at stake, emotions are bound to run high.  In addition, the motivation driving many hostage takers appears to be emotional anxieties and relationship problems.  Their overt demands may be for a helicopter and a suitcase full of money, but they may often be just seeking attention and respect.  The negotiators have learned to listen attentively to the hostage taker and work from the overt demands to try to build rapport so they can begin to understand the underlying motivation and get to the root of the problem.  There is little point in appealing for a rational discussion based on facts rather than perceptions.  When a person can no longer cope and enters a crisis state, their normal rational state seems to subsume under pure emotion.  Thinking seems to be replaced by action.  However, it is often possible to help the person to gradually reconnect with their rational coping functions and to reactivate their normal problem solving abilities.  Hostage negotiation can be described by the following main activities: establish communication; develop rapport; buy time; gather information; defuse the emotion; build influence; and finally, resolution.

The first step, once the situation has been contained, is to open up a dialogue.  The hostage negotiator shows the hostage takers that they care about them simply by being there and listening to them.  Empathy is expressed and rapport is attempted by reflecting back to the hostage takers their own comments.  When the negotiators hear “Nobody listens; nobody cares; there’s nothing else I can do”, they may show concern by explaining how they sometimes feel isolated too.  They may use a variety of expressions to keep the dialogue open and to begin to build rapport, such as the following: “If I were in your situation I would be upset” or “I have the impression that you feel very isolated” or “It sounds to me that you are understandably anxious”.  The negotiators can also say that although they’ve never been in such a situation they can “Begin to imagine how depressed and lonely you must be feeling.”  In this way, a bond is slowly established and from this a relationship is gradually built.  Open questions will be asked to ensure the hostage taker keeps on talking and eventually volunteers useful information.  Much of this is very similar to our commercial negotiation mantras we discussed earlier:

The negotiator talks to buy time in which to help the hostage takers to gradually discuss the situation until they can think more clearly and become more receptive.  They may explore what possibly triggered the crisis, although in some situations this may be judged to be too sensitive.  In time, as the emotional state subsides, the hostage negotiator will look for opportunities to help the hostage takers to reconnect with their rational coping functions.

As time goes by, the negotiator will be expecting mini-demands such as for food and will be ready to use these mini-negotiations in order to find ways to discuss, propose, trade and agree.  The idea is to create small successes where both parties have worked together, so that trust can gradually be built and later used as a lever to influence the hostage taker on more substantial issues.  These mini-negotiations are the direct analogy of the commercial negotiation model we have already covered, as in the following diagram:

Many of the ten golden rules also apply: don’t negotiate with yourself; don’t accept the first offer; don’t make the first offer if you can help it; listen more and talk less; don’t give free gifts and so on.  In the propose and trade phases, each concession must be paid for by an equally valued concession.  For example, we’ll agree to send in some meals if you agree to free one of the hostages.  These mini-negotiations and small successes allow the hostage negotiator to gradually build up the trust of the hostage takers and establish a momentum of positive experiences.  This will be very important later on as if it were accumulated currency that can be spent in a valid attempt to influence the hostage takers on substantial issues such as how the hostage situation is to be ended.

One other difference between commercial and hostage negotiation is that in the latter, the victims may interact with both parties and become an active third party in the complex situation.  The victims may directly influence the resolution in a way that happens less often with other types of third parties in the commercial world.

The final stage of the hostage negotiation is to work out an acceptable resolution and put it into action.  This can be called a ‘coming-out plan’.  In hostage negotiation the superficial conflict and resolution may be about the hostages and the money, but the underlying ‘conflict’ is often an internal mental state and ‘resolution’ may be the restoration of rational coping functions.  A good result is when the hostage taker eventually discusses, internalises, agrees and actions a coming-out plan.  Thankfully, even though there are a very large number of hostage situations, almost all are successfully resolved without loss of life.  It’s just the very small percentage that ends badly which catch the public’s attention.

This blog is an extract from ‘Advanced Negotiation Techniques,’ by Alan McCarthy and Steve Hay, of the Resource Development Centre LTD.