Wednesday, May 14, 2014

In This Corner: Negotiating With Cults

By Lynne Kinnucan


When what works ….. doesn’t

The conflagration that ended the siege between law enforcement agencies and the Branch Davidian sect in Waco ignited a sudden firestorm of debate throughout the nation. Too big to be fully comprehended and its discrete elements too many to be fully explored, the tragedy remains where it stood more than 20 years ago – a standoff finished, but never resolved.

Experts acknowledged that it was easy to second-guess the failed strategies, BUT they could not provide others that might have worked. Yet In the hundreds of analyses written since then, a core problem emerged: “Given the techniques and strategies traditionally used at the time –the Behavioral Staircase, searching for common ground, reframing, etc. - could there have been any other outcome? Is negotiating with violent sects a world unto itself?’ This began to further refine itself as “How do you find common ground in negotiating a moral conflict with a religious cult?”

In exploring these, some insights were revealed about the nature of violent sects and cults. First defining what they mean by cults, the authors researched in this article limit their work to those groups that both have a religious basis and are potentially violent, as in the Branch Davidians and their store of weapons. In addition, the groups contain no hostages: the people who join remain there as a matter of choice.

Milton J. Bennett, in his “Communicating With Cults”, posits that it is difficult, if not impossible, to find common ground by trying to “talk religion” or to speak the cult’s inner language. Cults, he says, deliberately create secret nuances which automatically define “outsiders” as people who cannot possibly understand. These secret redefinitions can be traps for unwary outsiders who believe they are speaking the cult’s language and are then exposed as phony or worse, saying something unintentionally blasphemous. For a negotiator trying to demonstrate good faith and create common ground, this can backfire by solidifying the group against a common outside enemy.

Bennett believes that understanding the structure of the cults and how they work may prevent significant errors on the part of a negotiator.


In spite of the immense diversity of cults, one element remains consistent, and that is the conversion process. This is the lived process that members go through as opposed to the philosophical one that they argue later, and two of the stages offer, says Bennett, possibly the only portals through which a negotiator might reach a member.

· The culting process begins with Control: behavior in the groups is strictly prescribed and rewards and punishments are just as exacting. Here the “potentially violent” capabilities of the group begin to evidence themselves. Implied or outright threats keep members in line; on some occasions, the punishments have been not only ostracism but death.

· Next, Coercion: cults limit the information, and thus the number of choices of their members, by creating the impression that outside information is suspicious; by circumscribing their living spaces; and/or forbidding any contact with outsiders. This leads to a powerful pressure: the absolute truthfulness of the leader’s philosophy is not to be questioned and believing anything else will lead to eternal damnation.

· Finally, Conversion: in which the person’s beliefs are broken down and replaced by a new “truth” which is defined solely by the leader. Unlike military or religious orders, their ultimate goal is conversion. In pursuit of this goal, the culting groups, according to Bennett, all tend to use a particular four-stage process.


· The first stage is Seduction – offering the targets the possibility of fulfilling their deepest wishes: their desire to be a member of an elite, select in-group; the wish to belong to a powerful independent group such as survivalists; or simply a loneliness fulfilled.

· The next stage is Disorientation, which is used through all the culting stages to disrupt the person’s accustomed ways of feeling and thinking, and keeping him off balance. This is followed by

· Snapping: a total submersion into the group’s core and, finally, when the target person experiences a transcendent feeling -- likened to an altered state or personality change -- solidifying his alignment with the group and its beliefs and becoming more pliable to its directives. Snapping is followed by

· Maintenance: First, a sort of “us/them” mentality is created, followed by what Bennett calls a “hardening” into a “superiority group”: those who consider themselves more important than those who don’t understand the teachings. These two levels are important, says Bennett, because it may be possible to communicate with members here. Outsiders are not yet automatically considered evil; the members may still be open to communication with them. However, at the next level, the “restricted contact group” level, it becomes clearer to the group that outsiders may be evil, and the structure of the group becomes more restricted and authoritarian. Now only certain spokespersons who can withstand outsiders “contamination” are chosen to communicate with them.

At this stage, it is easy to see the challenges posed by the Branch Davidians to hostage negotiators – examples of those will be quoted from transcripts later in this article.

As Bennett points out, it may be possible to establish a common ground or use a logical/philosophical discussion with a person in the first stage and in some parts of the last one, but this is tenuous at best. Beyond these stages, he believes, the negotiations become intractable.

In his “Reframing Practices in Moral Conflict”, Robert Agne of Auburn University has another take on negotiating with cults, examining how the classic FBI technique of reframing backfired at Waco.

He analyzed telephone conversations between the FBI negotiators and the Branch Davidians to show how reframing - traditionally used to create common ground and win-win situations - was turned into a verbal duel with the FBI at strategic points. He concludes that interactions with cults whose basis is both religious and violent may, by their very nature, be intractable.

The conflict at WACO revolved around the FBI’s wish to have the Branch Davidians surrender peacefully versus the Branch Davidians’ conviction that surrendering to the FBI was surrendering to Satan; that the Seven Seals were now unfolding; and that this conflict was, in fact, the Day of Judgment. This was their Armageddon.

The negotiation changed from a siege to a standoff at the moment David Koresh, who had promised to surrender peacefully in exchange for broadcasting his message, reneged on his promise, saying that God had told him to not go.

The FBI became mired in their attempts to renegotiate the situation while the Davidians continually reframed the conversations from a bargaining frame into a religious one, as shown in the following strategies.

RECONTEXTUALIZATION: changing one part of the discourse so that what was central is now peripheral. The negotiator had promised Koresh that he could broadcast his message nationwide and pleaded with him: “For God’s sake don’t let this opportunity go! Seize it, for God’s sake, seize it!”

But Koresh believed he was the Chosen, the Lamb of God, whose opportunity to complete God’s plan was finally at hand. He reframed the word “opportunity”. “For 6,000 years I’ve waited for this opportunity. It is written aforetime…” Opportunity became not something to be seized quickly but something ageless whose time had come. It was the opportunity to finish his work on the Seven Seals, and there was no hurry about that.

In another exchange, the negotiator asked him to “do what is right” – meaning, keep his promise to come out. Koresh reframed this phrase by saying “I cannot go beyond the commandment of my father. I am doing the right thing now.”

Divisive cooperation is a strategy within recontextualization: the words are cooperative but the frame of reference is not. Here is an example from the transcripts:

· Negotiator: “I need to know if you are going to live up to your promise, planning on coming out? Yes or no?” Koresh says, “Well. See verse. Look. Let me explain. See in verse two.” The negotiator says, “Yes or no. Please tell me what you’re going to do. Please.” And Koresh responds, “I am trying. Please look at verse two of Nahum.”

As Agne points out, Koresh’s saying “I am trying instead of I’m underscores his apparent good will, but he already has shifted the frame of the conversation away from his coming out to verses in the Bible, thus creating the divisive cooperation.


This occurs when, without realizing it, one becomes trapped in the other party’s frame and the more they attempt to correct the misinterpretation, the more the misinterpretation grows. Here is an instance from a Koresh/negotiator conversation.

· The negotiator wants the children in the compound released and asks Koresh, as a friend and as a personal favor, to “help him out.” Koresh says he would “love to but” that is not what God wants him to do (the FBI equivalent of having to ask the boss). He then reframes “helping out” by saying, “Well, here’s how I can help you out. Would you like to know about the Seven Seals?” The negotiator, wanting to maintain good relations, says well yes, but I have to check with my boss, and then becomes stuck in an extended conversation about God and the Seven Seals, the issue of the children fading into the background. The conversation stays in the frame of reference of learning the Seals. Koresh has, in effect, used the negotiator’s good faith as an instrument to dominate the conversation.


According to Harvey Sacks, this is when a member of a group claims that he has the expertise and authority to be the guardian of the group standards, and the one who can legitimately determine if another person who claims to be a group member is actually qualified to be one.

· In one instance, the negotiator attempts to introduce a commonality about a universal God, saying that we all pray to the same God, and then speaks about a minister who had prayed and God said the children should be released. But Koresh replied, “Why would God tell him one thing and me another? Maybe God wants us to fight. You have to watch this God.” He proclaims his superior contact and intimacy with God. The mediator is one down.


Intended to create a win-win, common ground situation, reframing can also be turned against a negotiator. In dealing with a religious group for instance, whose envisioned end is a violent standoff, reframing can act as a weapon in a duel, creating further conflict.

Agne also believes that it is useful to see which side has the burden of proof. Since the FBI had initiated the siege, the burden of proof as to why the Davidians should come out was on them. All the Davidians had to do to maintain the status quo was to reframe the situation so that the FBI’s attempts at proof were continually unsuccessful. This could go on forever or come to a violent end, both of which were in the Davidians’ frame of reference.

In addition, says Agne, the negotiator should show good faith so that the negotiation may be productive, but not in a way that invites the other party to take advantage of that good faith in order to dominate as Koresh did.

Although the examples of strategic reframing in Agne’s article were limited to negotiations with the Branch Davidians, they can serve as highlights for law enforcement in similar situations. He does not suggest that reframing not be taught or practiced, but that seeing how it could be a problem and where and when it may or may not be able to be successfully used, could be a useful perspective.