"The sincere and genuine demonstration
of your interest and understanding of the
other person's problem/point of view
is far more important than your ability
to provide a quick solution."
How do you start a conversation with an armed and dangerous person who refuses to talk and whose only demand is that you go away?
Gary Noesner, retired Chief Negotiator of the FBI’s Hostage Negotiation Unit and author of the best-selling “Stalling for Time: My Life As An FBI Hostage Negotiator”, has worked through times like this from the moment he did his first hostage negotiation more than 30 years ago.
Retired from the FBI in 2003 after a 30-year career as an investigator, instructor, and negotiator, Noesner was a hostage negotiator for 23 years. He spent the last 10 of those years as the Chief Negotiator for the FBI. He retired as the Chief of the FBI's Crisis Negotiation Unit, Critical Incident Response Group, the first person to ever hold that position. He also created the FBI’s Behavioral Change Stairway, taught in all FBI classes.
Noesner knows the elements of crisis negotiation from beginning to end. For this reason, he seemed the perfect person to answer the question posed in this article:
What do you say after you say hello?
Perhaps the most important thing to know when you arrive at the scene of a barricaded subject, says Noesner, is that the person in there is in a crisis state of mind, and therefore probably not thinking clearly and not able to make good decisions. I would reach out to them. I would say “Mr. Smith I’m Gary, I’m a negotiator with the police department, and I want to help you get out of this.” Addressing him as “Mr.” is a sign of respect, and one that I hope will help build the relationship.
The first thing you do is concentrate on him, to let him know you care and don’t want him hurt. I would ask him what happened today and how he is feeling about what happened. Rather than focusing your efforts on what you want him to do, you should be concentrating on how he is feeling about what is happening. You want to show him that you care, you want to help him and don’t want to see him hurt.
Don’t take “no” for an answer.
Disregard his attempts to disengage himself from you.
Say, “I can hear that you are angry (or fearful) and you don’t think I can help you, but I want to try to get you out of this. I’d really like to help you if you’ll let me.” Just get a foot in door; keep the discussion open. A person in crisis has tunnel vision – our hope is to help them widen that vision, to see alternatives.
Because he’s thinking only with his crisis brain, he is in no way ready to talk or to problem-solve. So this is definitely not the time to jump in with your perfect solution; this is the time to go carefully into the emotions, to be caring and genuine. Think of it as a teeter totter: when emotions are high, rational thinking is low. At this moment, you are not there to put forth your brilliant argument but to forge a relationship. Your right to influence has to be earned through the negotiation process.
So how do you get him unstuck; how do you move him into problem-solving ways of thinking?
- Show respect - “I” statements and “we” statements. For instance, “I hear your frustration, Charlie. I would feel the same way.” “We both know that what you really want is to have your relationship the way it used to be.” “Charlie, you and I, we can work this out together.” We want words that show respect while leading to solving a problem together.
- Stay calm and controlled – don’t allow his anger to spill over onto you.
- Be careful in your wording - Instead of “I know how you feel,” say something like, “I can tell you’re upset; I haven’t been through the same things but I can imagine how it hurts.’
- Persevere - “I really want to help.” They expect the tough cop old Jack Webb voice. And instead of that they hear, “This is a really tough situation and I want to help.”
- If you have some common experiences, let them become part of the conversation. For instance, if he says the only things he enjoys in his life is his family and working on his car, there’s your opening to say, “Oh yeah you enjoy working on cars? I do too.” Try anything to start a neutral conversation and keep it going, because time is on your side. Slowly work on building trust.
- Buy time: for one thing, if he’s talking, he’s not shooting anybody. Then there’s the physical and emotional fatigue that sets in. And finally, there’s the ambivalence. Part of him wants to kill her but part of him still loves her and that ambivalence gives us the opportunity to intervene. Time is one of the most important tools a negotiator has.
- Don’t argue and plead. Be honest and caring.
- Don’t promise what you cannot deliver, and always remember he probably has had negative interactions with the criminal justice system in the past, so you have to convince him you are different, that you are reliable and helpful.
What do you say to someone who won’t talk for hours?
You have what we call a one-way dialogue.
Based on the information and circumstances you have at hand, you can begin to articulate what you think their fears are and address those. Instead of saying repeatedly “we need to talk,” you should go ahead and say, for example: “Mr. Smith, I know you must be concerned about why these police units are here outside your home. I want you to know that no one here wants to harm you and that it is our desire to peacefully resolve this in a manner where no one is hurt in any way. That is why we need to talk so we can work this out together.”
What do you say to someone ready to jump off a bridge?
If you’re dealing with someone who’s ready to jump, don’t try to fix their problem, no matter how urgent you may feel the situation is.
- First get in tune with what happened to them, and how it affected them. Tell them, “I can hear that your suffering is terrible.” or “You don’t know where to turn; you sound really confused to me; is that right?” If he says you’re wrong, it can lead to further clarification and conversation and a connecting sort of humility. Don’t minimize his suffering but don’t let go of the hope either. Keep the conversation going. Postpone and delay.
- Don’t talk about long-term options or their future: they need to be shown there’s help right now. “I know you’re hurting and you want to do this to stop the pain now. But it’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem. All I’m asking is that you give this one more day.”
- The anti-social should be approached from the standpoint of articulating what is in fact in his best interest based on his being self-serving. The very depressed are hard to deal with in that it may take them a very long time to formulate a response to your questions. Extreme patience must be exercised. This is your active listening part.
|The Behavioral Change Stairway was created by Gary Noesner and is used in many trainings.|
- It is absolutely critical to listen and gain the subject’s trust first. Keep the Behavioral Change Stairway in mind. The guy is not in a problem-solving frame of mind; he is in a crisis, and if you don’t establish rapport with him, he will just think you are one more person against him. The way you get cooperation, the last step on the Behavioral Change Stairway, is to use the influence that you have earned, through the relationship-building that you have been doing since your very first words.
Perhaps the answer to “What do you say?” is really “What do I hear after I say hello?” Active listening is the signal that someone cares. And it’s not just for sociopaths or suicidal persons or depressed people who have suddenly hit the wall.
“All of life,” says Noesner, “is a negotiation.”