IN THIS CORNER
“When you’re negotiating with the mentally ill,
you have to really care
and they have to know it."
Jack Cambria, Commanding Officer, NYPD HNT
Hostage negotiator Dwayne Fuselier (FBI, ret.) once wrote that “the majority of incidents that negotiators actually confront involve a perpetrator characterized by a mental or emotional disorder.”
With a statistic like this, a knowledge of personality disorders is an invaluable tool.
Used correctly, it is invaluable in understaanding a subject’s worldview, thought patterns and emotional needs... and developing flexible strategies to meet them.
Used incorrectly, it can become a deal-breaker for even the most successful negotiation
Talking to a person who shows classic schizophrenic traits, the negotiator would know, for instance, to not contradict him with “the real world”; the effect of which will be to create distance and resistance.
The subject may say that God talking to him and telling him what to do. Because of his tendency to feel easily slighted and frustrated, the strategy here is to not argue with or contradict him, but to deal with the illusion without entering into it. The negotiator you might say something like, “I’m sure God is talking to you, but I can’t hear Him.”
As one negotiator put it, “It would be worse if you pretended to enter in. And you need to make sure that you are not competing with the voices in the head, that you don’t become just another voice.”
Classifying a subject allows the negotiator to understand the style and motivation of the subject and therefore choose a negotiation strategy appropriate for the situation.
Misused, it can have the opposite effect. Since personality types often share similar symptoms, the negotiator must be alert to changes and flexible enough to deal with them. If negotiators stick to a communication strategy for one type while other traits are emerging, things can go very wrong, especially since some of the traits are shared by different diagnoses. The anti-social may share some of the needs of a histrionic and act those out while still maintaining the distrustfulness and rage of the antisocial personality. To ignore the needs of the histrionic is to ask for trouble.
The negotiator may fail to realize that the subject with paranoid traits may hear something radically different from what the negotiator is saying, or that a histrionic personality, that has a tendency to believe in sudden, deep intimacy, will often translate the negotiator’s friendly manner as a perceived sexual intimacy. When it is discovered that this is not the case, the histrionic personality may act out further.
What strategies, then, does a negotiator consider when faced with possible mental disorder in the subjects? The following are examples from Conflict and Crisis Communication (ed. By Ireland, Fisher and Vecchi; Saving Lives, by Dr Mitchell Hammer; and On-Scene Crisis Negotiation, by Frederick Lanceley).
The Anti-social Personality
The subject may exhibit some or all of these traits:
- Extreme irritability and aggressiveness
- Inability to see the effect of his behavior on others, and lack of conscience or remorse
- Impulsive behavior and poor inability to plan for the future.
- In a negotiation, these traits can manifest themselves in extreme distrust of the negotiator as well as extreme self-centeredness. The anti-social’s mantra is “what’s in it for me?” and an effective strategy can be assuring him that his continued participation in the negotiation will be valuable to him. The negotiator’s calm presence, and refusal to respond in kind to irritability or anger, is essential.
Several risks in this situation are worth noting in dealing with the antisocial personality.
- What the person says cannot be trusted. They can give the impression of a positive relationship when in fact such is not the case, and reveal seemingly important information that, in fact, is not true. The watchphrase for this is don’t lie to them and watch out for being deceived. This trait, combined with the anti-social’s inability to plan for the future, can make surrender plans difficult.
- The anti-social personality might be more inclined to hurt any hostages if he becomes irritable so keeping him distracted can be a good strategy. Stalling for time is not a good strategy in this case
- If he also displays histrionic or dramatic traits, let him be the center of attention; don’t challenge him. Negotiators should be alert that their level of annoyance and frustration at this personality doesn’t rise.
- Grandiose sense of importance and a desire to be excessively admired, be regarded as unique and special
- Sense of entitlement
- Envy is a primary emotion and easily triggered.
- Feel entitled and upset when others don’t comply with their demands
- Don’t challenge their sense of self importance; instead use phrases such as “you seem to me to be the kind of person who knows what he wants and isn’t afraid to speak his mind….”
- Use active listening to support their need to feel valued
- Check your pulse -- Fisher warns that their inflated sense of self importance and arrogance can be irritating to the negotiator.
- Keep onlookers away – narcissists like to play to an audience.
You are dealing with a very frightened individual whose hallmark is extreme suspicion. He will be afraid to give you any information for fear that you will use it against him; he will suspect your motives; your most innocent remark may be open to misinterpretation. He perceives threats where others don’t and is fundamentally suspicious of attacks on his character.
- It is essential to be open and sincere with this person, and to do your best to make sure that this comes across. The subject may read hidden meanings into what you are saying, and be suspicious of giving you information that you might take and use against him.
- Don’t pretend.
- Active listening with a minimum of probing for information may be the best route.
- If communication becomes too difficult, it may be best to acknowledge this.
- Feels like a failure.
- Consistently ineffective behavior in response to social situations and emotional pressures.
- Often has not completed high school.
- Taking hostages in this case may be an attempt to prove he is competent.
- Let them vent.
- Communicate empathy and understanding of their situation and develop a theme of confidence that, working together, this situation can be resolved.
- Present the surrender in such a way that they don’t feel like they’ve failed one more time.
- Since they often have uneasy relationships with people in their lives; don’t bring in any third-party intermediaries.
It pays to remember that these are observable traits, not the whole person. They are markers along the way about what techniques might be effective and when. Because in the end, the strategies are only as effective as the mediator’s sincerity and sensitivity. Especially when dealing with the mentally ill, as negotiator Jack Cambria says, “you have to really care, and they have to know it.”