Hostage Negotation

they’re irrational, unpredictable, and like to make threats. no, i’m not talking about your customers or suppliers – but hostage takers.

so what can commercial negotiators learn from hostage negotiators? on the face of it, the two sets of circumstances are radically different:

  • the pressures are different: when was the last time that lives were at stake if you were not able to reach an agreement with your counterpart?
  • the variables are different: your negotiations probably don’t revolve around such issues as the release of prisoners, passage by helicopter or untraceable cash.
  • the driving forces are different: the hostage takers will often be motivated by political or religious influences rather than money, even if there is a ransom at stake.

however, when you explore beneath the surface you will see that many of the principles used by hostage negotiators are equally applicable to your commercial negotiations. this is especially true when your negotiations involve risk (there is more at stake than just trying to get a good price), or there is a problem to solve.

establish proof

  • of life. this is the first priority for the police negotiator. they need this proof before they will go any further. is there a deal to be had in your negotiations? are you about to invest a lot of time and energy in a process which never had the prospect of a viable agreement in the first place?
  • of ownership. it’s one thing the hostages being still being alive, it’s quite another whether or not the people being dealt with have the power of their release. is your counterpart empowered to make the concessions which you will need? if not, make sure you start dealing with the right level of person – but you need to find this out early in the proceedings, before you start making concessions yourself. as eleanor roosevelt said “never allow a person to tell you no who doesn’t have the power to say yes”.

build trust

at waco in 1993 the negotiators were making progress with david koresh, before the armed law enforcers lost patience when under pressure, and the siege ended badly with the loss of 76 lives. this is why these negotiations are protracted, because the police negotiators are establishing their trustworthiness with the hostage takers. this takes time. what are you doing to establish trust in your negotiations, if it is required? don’t forget that the one thing above all others which determines how trustworthy you are is whether you do what you said you were going to do.

always stay positive

eradicate the word ‘no’ from your negotiations. the minute you start narrowing down the options, you are limiting the choices for your counterpart. when a hostage taker feels backed into a corner, they are more likely to do the thing which they think gets them more power – shoot someone. the same applies to your negotiations; if you limit their options, you are increasing the chance of them doing things that you don’t want them to do. keep everything ‘alive’ so that they have options.

the ransom/sanction paradox

here’s the test of your positivity and solution-minded approach. the hostage takers usually deal in the sanction approach which is negative: “if you don’t give us x, then we will kill one person every hour until you do”. the sanction involves punitive measures and threats. the ransom approach however is positive and involves reward “if you release the kids, we will get you x”. for the reasons set out in the paragraph above, the police negotiators want to remain positive, using the ransom approach. the same should be true for you in your high risk negotiations, but human nature says that when you are faced with a counterpart who is constantly using the threat of punitive measures you will issue counter-threats. no matter what, you should always remain positive and seek the solution until either you have an agreement or you are satisfied that all avenues have been explored.

when you are dealing with individuals who are under pressure, you may feel like a police negotiator dealing with a hostage taker. you know that they can become irrational, threatening and unreliable, so try and work with their ego rather than against it. give them a way out, because after all, it’s not like they are going to shoot someone.


Dan Hughes

He has specialised in negotiation consulting since 2005, and set up his own business in 2012 bringing this expertise to businesses small and large in all parts of the world. This company - bridge][ability ltd - runs behavioural and strategic planning negotiation skills programs which transform capabilities and has a client list which includes Tesco, The FA, Fujitsu, Capita, Reiss, Take 2 Interactive (the company behind Grand Theft Auto), BBC Worldwide and Channel 4. https://www.bridge-ability.com/Home/Client-List

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