Sustainable Peace Conference workshop preview: “Learning From Hostage & Crisis Negotiators” by Jeff Thompson

Learning From Hostage & Crisis Negotiators

Jeff Thompson

profile2013-2Don’t rush the process.

A crisis and hostage negotiation is a tense situation that can be volatile with lives being at risk so is it absurd that a critical skill for hostage and crisis negotiators is to slow the process down? That is exactly a mistake that has been made however by negotiators- rushing the process.

Reflecting on what these negotiation experts have done effectively can allow other conflict resolution practitioners to apply it to their practice that includes other negotiators, mediators, ombuds, and conflict coaches.  Equally, understanding actions that these negotiators have done that are detrimental to a peacefully resolution can also help as it sheds light on what to avoid.

In my presentation titled “10 Mistakes Hostage & Crisis Negotiators Have Made & How You Can Avoid Them” at Columbia University’s AC4 Sustaining Peace Fall 2013 Conference, it details 10 examples of negotiator actions that hindered the negotiation while also offering what researchers and experts have detailed as alternative options that promoted a peaceful resolution.

One of the mistakes that hostage and crisis negotiators have made is moving to fast and rushing the negotiation process.  In these situations when negotiators move too fast and attempt to address substantive issues it prevents the person experiencing the crisis from being able to explain their story.

Scholarship on hostage and crisis negotiation repeatedly emphasizes the negotiator to slow the process down.  The passage of time is described as the negotiators “greatest ally” as well as being the most important tool of a negotiator in crisis and hostage settings.

Why is time, and more specifically slowing the process down, so important?

Slowing the process down firstly helps calm the other person down.  Remember, these incidents are tense, emotional, and stressful.  By slowing things down and letting the other person speak, the expert negotiator is guiding the incident away from being dictated by overwhelming emotions to one that is more cognitively based.

Next, one of the most effective ways a negotiator slows the process down is by using one of their most important skill sets: active listening.  Active listening calms the situation down by allowing the other person to speak and explain what led to the incident.  Active listening on the part of the negotiator also acknowledges and validates the person’s emotions and their narrative.  This acknowledgment contributes to a new narrative being constructed.

Further, by slowing the process down and utilizing active listening skills, the negotiator is developing rapport and building trust.  Rapport and trust create an atmosphere that allows the person to reappraise their situation and work collaboratively with the negotiator to explore options to resolve the incident peacefully.  Beyond the affective advantages, slowing down the process and allowing the other person to speak also importantly gives the negotiator and his or her team time to gather vital information about the reasons (or “interests”) behind the current position the person is taking.

Therefore, moving too quickly can have the opposite affect: diminishing rapport, maintaining or escalating negative emotions, preventing trust from being built, and further decreasing a voluntary peaceful surrender from occurring.

Slowing the process down though is not limited to this specific negotiation setting.  Experienced mediators and other negotiators can reflect on how this might have applied in their previous sessions while also realizing its advantages for future situations.

It is the interconnectedness of slowing things down that exposes its value.  Rapport building, developing trust, and creating a calmer atmosphere are grounded in this dedication to slowing the process down.

In hostage and crisis incidents the result of moving too fast can have consequences where injuries can occur that can be serious and fatal.  Although other negotiations and mediations fortunately are not threatened with the same alternative to a negotiated agreement (talk about a dire WATNA), they still can have serious implications that can be devastating both short and long term.  Negotiations over contracts, mergers, sales, and attempts at avoiding prolonged litigation have been thwarted due to a negotiator trying to move too fast.

Although it might seem natural to move expeditiously towards addressing the issues that an have led to the dispute or conflict from arising, fortunately research in crisis and hostage negotiation has revealed slowing down the process calms emotions, develops rapport, and builds trust- all of which can contribute to any negotiation in being resolved.

 

Jeff is an NYPD Detective currently on academic leave as a Research Fellow at Columbia Law School. These views are his own and not that of any organization he is a member of. Jeff Thompson is presenting at 3pm on Thursday, October 24. Register for his workshop and the conference [HERE]. 

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