If It's Broke, Don't Fix It...
At least not right away. Hostage negotiators will tell you that resolving the problem is the last thing they do. Before you solve any problem, you must reach the person inside it: the furious, out-of-control man with a gun, the shadowy figure ready to jump off a bridge.
Enter the Active Listening Skills, “law enforcement’s most powerful nonlethal weapon”. Derek Gaunt drills them into his trainees “every single day, from the afternoon of their first day to the day they graduate from the advanced class. I want these skills ingrained in them.”
And he is merciless. There are no spectators in his classes. This is not a game. In one of the first training sessions he puts two novice students in front of the class, back-to-back in chairs, each with a private script. The Bad Guy might get a 3-line script: “You are a drug- abusing government contractor who just got laid off and your wife is leaving you. You slam the door and keep your son and wife at knife point.”
The Good Guy has a shorter script: “You’ve got a call to this address.”
The role play begins.
“I put them in front of the entire class because it’s nerve-racking to be up there in front of your peers. People are nudging each other, judging everything you say and each decision you make.”
But he is deliberately testing their nerve to get them used to the life-and-death situations they will walk into.
He also is teaching them to avoid the biggest mistake a hostage negotiator can make: using active listening skills like a robot instead of speaking naturally.
“When people are nervous, they fall back on the actions and speech that are most familiar to them. I don’t want that to be something that will damage the negotiation. I want skillful and genuine listening to be so automatic that this is their fall-back in a crisis. I want active listening to be in their muscle memory so that their conversation will be natural and relaxed.”
Muscle memory. Gaunt is determined. He will do anything to get his students to learn this. He makes them practice day after day. He uses analogies. He uses mnemonics. In his trainings you can hear him yelling “MORE PIES! MORE PIES!” as the trainees frantically scramble through their toolbox for the right responses. (More Pies = Minimal encouragers; Open-ended questions; Reflection; Effective pause; Paraphrasing; I-messages; Emotional labeling; Summary)
He coaxes nervous trainees: “Relax ….just talk with him.” It’s crucial that that the agitated person perceives this as a calming conversation with a friend, not a trainee who is practicing active listening skills on him.
But relaxing can be a tense proposition. Which is why Gaunt works on muscle memory. It is the element that brings the art and science of listening together in the hostage negotiator.
The trainings are focused and no-nonsense. Every single student must participate. No one gets to just watch. When one trainee said, “Oh no, I’m only here to observe,” Gaunt told her to go up front right then and start her role play.
There are no spectators here. It is not a game.
Gaunt is especially alert for trainees who use active listening skills in a 1st, 2nd and 3rd step fashion.
Noting how hard it is to latch on to the concept, he offers an analogy to help: think of the conversation as the stew and the active listening skills as the spices. The active listening skills are not the whole conversation; you have to use the right ones at the right time. “Yet, of the negotiators I’ve trained, very few really get the concept of active listening. They are just not comfortable with it.
“Still, as important as the listening is, it’s not the only thing. It’s all about your presentation, your delivery. Reframing what the person is saying can make a huge difference. It can help him normalize his feelings so that he doesn’t feel that he is a bad person and begin to withdraw. Or he may be in a rage but when he hears the negotiator say, ‘I can understand why you’d be frustrated and angry,’ it is more likely that he will feel understood and begin to calm down.”
Social media have had an effect on negotiations. Gaunt notes that he used to be able disconnect house phone lines in a barricade situation in order to keep communication solely between the person and the team. Now the person has access to Facebook, texting and Twitter.
“One guy was texting his girlfriend and talking like a helpless victim, while at the same time he was being belligerent and threatening with the negotiators.” Negotiators working with the girlfriend realized that this was an indicator that he might be manipulating the situation rather than being an actual barricade suicide. The two “faces” of the man helped negotiators understand his motivations better and, finally, talk him out.
Gaunt is a calm man, genuine, relaxed, easy to talk to. He seems unflappable, except for the one thing that really gets him hot under the collar: T-Shirt Negotiators.
“There are always those who like the excitement, the feeling of being important. They want to wear a t-shirt that says Negotiator; they want to be one of the elite and have a ringside seat at the action. But they don’t want to earn it.”
Gaunt weeds those out of the trainings.
“This is real. When the bell rings, you have to be 100% there. I don’t want anyone who wants to be a negotiator just to wear the t-shirt. I want the person who is offended that I don’t choose him or her to get on the phone.”
There’s something else he dislikes: “I personally hate the word ‘subject’: it paints a picture of a superior/inferior role and desensitizes you so that you’re not looking at the person in trouble as a whole human being.
“It has a history that makes sense: it’s how we talk as cops, because we’re taught to be problem-solvers, in the sense that we fix whatever is broken and then get back in the car and go to the next problem.”
So why does he put himself in critical, life-and-death situations time after time? Why has he made it his life’s passion?
“For me there was an innate rush of being able to use certain communication skills to influence an individual into doing something that they had had no intention of doing. There’s no greater sense of satisfaction than getting the desired result without them realizing what’s going on, getting them to stop doing what they’re doing or doing something that they weren’t planning to.”
Underlying this love of transformation is a profound compassion for those who have gone over the line. “We are re-educating negotiators by teaching them to not solve the problem but to lend an ear, to be an avenue for these people who have been denied understanding for a long, long time.”
It is a life-and-death understanding.
It’s not a game.