Listening, empathizing and building rapport to handle crisis
February 16, 2011
WEST POINT, N.Y. (Feb. 16, 2011) -- West Point Class of 2013 Cadets Chris Beatty and Christian Zarnke recently attended the 32nd annual FBI and Baltimore County Police Department Hostage Negotiation Seminar in Baltimore, Md.
The two cadets, along with 600 law enforcement agents from around the country, learned about negotiating in crisis situations. The largest and oldest conference of its kind, the seminar combined guest speakers and case studies of recent hostage taking and suicide prevention activity.
The two days covered a variety of situations which showed the extent of scenarios a leader might face. The essential tasks for any crisis negotiator include buying time, active listening, showing empathy, building rapport and exerting influence to cause a behavioral change that results in the crisis being resolved peacefully with minimal damage.
For professional negotiators this means honing ones skills through the sharing of best practices. Both cadets gained valuable knowledge through every interaction and presentation, and learned that even if the negotiator arrives fully prepared and does everything right, the suspect might still harm himself or others.
"It is sad how sometimes you see these case studies and the negotiators do everything perfectly, but in the end the bad guy still decides to pull the trigger," said Beatty.
Buying time is one of the most essential tasks of a crisis negotiator.
"In a crisis situation-where there is homicide, hostage taking or suicide-the suspect is generally not thinking rationally," Beatty said. "If you just keep a person from doing whatever it is they are intending long enough, they will calm down, think about it, and realize how bad of an idea it is to harm themselves or others."
"It really was interesting to see how their style of negotiation tied in to what we're learning in class," said Zarnke, who is currently enrolled in MG390, Negotiation for Leaders. "Most of the process of hostage negotiation is building a relationship through communication and convincing them to commit to a less harmful resolution."
Another important tool of police negotiators is a third party intermediary. The police are sometimes aided by having people respected by the suspect help convince them to end the crisis peacefully. TPIs can come in all forms, from family members to, in one case studied, an EOD expert. This plays well to military applications: having an imam or tribal elder aid in the negotiation may well provide legitimacy to an officer seeking to successfully negotiate in a village or region.
The interest in West Point was high among conference attendees, including former FBI negotiator Gary Noesner, who spoke to members of the West Point Negotiation Project and cadets in the Negotiation for Leaders course at West Point on Feb. 10. Every summer, two cadets attend the FBI hostage negotiation two-week course, in addition to spending an additional week with the Crisis Negotiation Unit and the Hostage Rescue Team.
"As a negotiator, you act as the shield for your team," said FBI Agent Mark Flores, who helped arrange the cadets trip. "If you do your job, they might not have to go in and that means fewer people getting hurt."
In the same way as a hostage negotiator, an officer can act as a shield for his platoon by negotiating successfully with village elders for a peaceful resolution to protracted conflict in a region. By using valuable negotiation skills, officers can place the mission first while still ensuring safety.
-Editor's Note: Class of 2013 Cadets Chris Zarnke and Chris Beatty contributed to this report.