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Negotiating: When The Stakes Are High

by Tom O'Connor on October 19th, 2010
Sgt. Moretti & Sonny Wortzik negotiating in the 1975 movie, Dog Day Afternoon

Sgt. Moretti & Sonny Wortzik negotiating in the 1975 movie, Dog Day Afternoon.

Hostage situations place negotiation skills in sharp relief.

When terrorists or psychopaths are cornered, the tinder-box of danger is always on the verge of igniting.

Emotions are running high and the stakes involved are literally a matter of life or death.

Yet, research (by McMains & Mullins) shows that hostage negotiators achieve a 95% success rate – managing to avert injury or loss of life, most of the time.

How do they do this & what lessons do they hold for normal civilian negotiations?

IMD Professor, George Kohlrieser, himself a former hostage negotiator, sets out 3 key principles in his much-acclaimed 2006 book, Hostage at the Table.

Bonding & Rapport
He couldn’t be more clear on his first principle, stating that:

“The task of a hostage negotiator is to create a bond with the hostage taker”.

He illustrates the point with a story taken from Joseph Chilton Pearce’s Magical Child, involving a grandmother and child awakening in the middle of the night to find a psychopathic murderer in their bedroom.

The grandmother instead of resisting, chooses to heap courtesy on the intruder and so talks him out of hurting them.

Her first words work to disorientate him from his violent ways and respark his deeper need for human attachment:

“I’m glad you found our house. You’ve come to the right place. You are welcome here. It is a bad night to be out. You are cold, wet and hungry. Take the firewood you have there and go stir up the kitchen stove. Let me put some clothes on, and I will find you some dry clothes, fix you a good hot meal and make a place for you to sleep behind the stove where it is good and warm.”

There are obvious parallels here with similar stories recounted by others in the context of emotional intelligence and NLP.

Daniel Goleman’s story (in his 1996 bestseller, Emotional Intelligence) of how a violent drunk on the train is empathically disarmed by another passenger and Richard Bandler’s mirroring approaches to treating schizophrenia, both immediately come to mind.

The Mind’s Eye & Secure Bases
Koldrieser’s second principle relates to providing the hostage-holder with what he calls a secure base – by which he means the negotiator has to refocus the mind’s eye of the hostage-holder away from fear, cynicism, negativity and despair and to embrace trust, optimism and hope, instead.

An early scene from Sidney Lumet’s 1975 movie, Dog Day Afternoon, has police negotiator, Sgt. Moretti (played by Charles Durning), trying to do exactly this with the main hostage-holder, Sonny Wortzik (played by Al Pacino). The dialogue goes as follows:

“What hope you got? Quit while you’re ahead. All you got is attempted robbery.”

“…. armed robbery ….”

“Well, armed, then. Nobody’s been hurt. Release the hostages, nobody is gonna worry over kidnapping charges, the worst you’re gonna get is five years — you can get out in a year.”

A little later in the same movie, we see the FBI negotiator, Sheldon (played by James Broderick), trying the same tack on Sonny – assuring him that he need not be concerned with his partner Sal’s intransigence:

Sonny, you handled yourself real well. A lot of men would have choked, and we’d have a lot of chaos and panic and maybe a death or a multiple death on our hands, but you handled it. I respect that. Don’t you try to take Sal. We’ll handle him. You just sit tight and you won’t get hurt.”

“Wait a minute! What are you tryin’ to tell me?”

“What I said. You just sit quiet and we’ll handle Sal.”

This point is elaborated on further in the 1998 movie, The Negotiators, where the main protagonist and master negotiator, Danny Roman (played by Samuel L. Jackson) advises a rookie negotiator, Farley (played by Stephen Lee):

“Never use ‘no’, ‘don’t’, ‘won’t’, or ‘can’t’. All right? It eliminates options. The option that remains is to shoot someone. Understand?”

Maintaining Dialogue At All Costs
Koldrieser’s third principle is to maintain dialogue no matter what – to control focus and attention throughout. He illustrates this point powerfully with the following example:

If you are walking down the street and someone comes up behind you, puts a gun to your head and says: ‘I am going to kill you’ …. you still have the power to think, feel, breathe and speak. You can ask the hostage-taker a question: ‘Will you please put the gun down and let me help you get what you want?’ If the response is: ‘No, I am going to kill you right now’, change the goal, and with another question you can say: ‘Please, will you just give me five minutes so you can tell me what you want? I am George and I have four children.’ If the gunman says: ‘No, I am going to kill you right now.’ Ask again: ‘ will you give me just four minutes, then? I really want to help you get what you want’

If the gunman still sticks to his line: ‘No, I am going to kill you right now!’, we might think your negotiation hasn’t been very successful, but Koldrieser asks us to think again. In fact, this negotiation is actually going great: after all, you are still alive. Keep the dialogue up and you’ll probably survive long enough to be rescued!

Relationship & Content
All three principles speak to the relationship involved in the negotiation, as opposed to the content.

I can hear Sonny Wortzig ask: “Wait a minute! What are you tryin’ to tell me?”

Answer: all negotiations demand an enabling focus on the counterparty – in terms of bonding, providing a secure base and maintaining dialogue.

Workplace negotiations too often overlook these considerations.

PS. For details of a related Torc training programme, please leave a message in comment box below. Title: Learning From The Movies© – Negotiation Skills

PPS. For related negotiation blogs, please click on the following Torc links:
1. Cool Hand, Hustle & Sting
2. Women make better negotiators
3. The art of the haggle
4. Negotiating – eyeball to eyeball
5. Humphrey Bogart’s dual duel
6. Streetwise tactical negotiation
7. Stand-offs … & face savings

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