How do cadets prepare to deal with the mental and emotional pressures that come with guiding their Soldiers once they commission into the Army? How much self and situational awareness must a cadet build before tackling future emergencies that require psychological finesse? Special Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other members from law enforcement agencies arrived at Thayer Hall to answer these questions with the aim of mentoring cadets on the finer points of crisis hostage negotiation Aug. 2-6 at the U.S. Military Academy.
The event has been held annually since 2011 and has been a partnership with the West Point Negotiation Project and the FBI offices out of the New York Field Office and the Crisis Management Unit out of Quantico, Virginia.
“The goal here is to make sure the 23 cadets who are participating in this exercise leave the program with better preparation to, ultimately, lead Soldiers,” Maj. Travis Cyphers, the director of the West Point Negotiation Project, said. “When these cadets commission into the Army, they will likely have a Soldier who will come to them and say, ‘sir or ma’am, my world is falling apart, right now,’ and through training experiences like this one, they will be better prepared to help that Soldier.”
This training experience will also prepare cadets to deal with potential, high-level threats that require nonphysical strategies to devise an effective solution to lessen the severity of a life-threatening situation, Cyphers added.
“For those of you who are very experienced, the cadets are not,” FBI Supervisory Special Agent Brian Wittenberg said as he briefed law enforcement. “They are amazing learners, very smart. However, our goal here is not to evaluate them on a grading system or operationalize them. We are looking to increase their capabilities and confidence.”
Cyphers explained the cadets spent eight hours each day learning various techniques the FBI teaches their agents and local law enforcement when dealing with ‘someone in crisis.’
The FBI defines ‘someone in crisis’ as an individual who’s in a situation that has drastically exceeded their ability to cope mentally, Cyphers said. For example, a hostage-taker lost his or her job, the spouse threatened to file for divorce and take the kids, and the hostage-taker becomes suicidal, decided to barricade all family members in the home, and threatened to harm them. So, essentially, how does a trained hostage negotiator talk with someone in that situation?
The answer lies in developing three core skills, Wittenberg said. The first skill deals with communication, not just of the people in crisis but also their colleagues, peers or familial counterparts who hope to resolve the situation. To properly communicate, the cadets had to focus on developing active listening skills, which is one of the foundations for effective hostage negotiations.
The second and most challenging skill to develop is assessing. Paying scrupulous attention to what the troubled individual says is crucial to understanding the psychological nuances of the situation. It is also likely that the troubled individual can confer fabricated or inaccurate information. With that, negotiators should mind the type of questions they ask. For example, close-ended questions limit responses to one or two basic answers, Wittenberg said.
“Those types of questions don’t invite further information, which is what we thrive on. So, broad questions like, ‘are you angry?’ If they answer yes, or no, that gives you some minimal information,” Wittenberg said. “But if you ask, ‘how are you feeling?’ Sometimes people will tell you exactly how they are feeling, which gives you more information to assess.”
The third is making recommendations to decide how to adjust their communication to facilitate behavioral change, Wittenberg added.
“Behavioral change is sort of broad term, but what we are looking for is someone to cooperate and come out, without any further violence,” Wittenberg said. “That might be trying to convince a loved one of a high-value target that their cooperation, in this narrow timeframe, could make the difference in preventing further bloodshed and the situation can be resolved without further loss of life, which would be a common interest. So, those are three core skill-sets.”
Consequently, the negotiator must build a rapport with the hostage-taker and get him or her to an emotional point where the negotiator can influence the hostage-taker’s decision-making, Cyphers added.
“When you have erratic emotions, you have low rational decision making. So, the idea is to talk rationally until the hostage-taker reduces his or her high emotional state to a calm and rational point of view,” Col. Andrew Hagemaster, the PL 100 (General Psychology for Leaders course) program director at the Department of Behavioral Sciences & Leadership said. “In other words, the longer you spend talking with the hostage-taker, the more likely the irrational emotions will wind down and the reasonable thinking will improve.”
And so, on the fifth day of the exercise, cadets were tasked as hostage negotiators during four notional crisis scenarios that lasted an hour and 15 minutes each. The law enforcement agencies broke up into different roles to assist the cadets in immersing them in the experience. Some law enforcement members were role players in the scenarios posing as hostage-takers, disturbed individuals with suicidal tendencies and family members, while others functioned as team leaders overseeing each scenario and helping cadets coordinate their efforts by effectively negotiating and gathering pertinent information to complete their goals.
“I was expecting an experience like the FBI TV drama in a sense. I was also expecting these advanced tips and tricks on how to read people,” Class of 2024 Cadet Ryan Mitchell said. “What I learned was, it’s really about connecting with them on an empathetic level, talking about emotions, being a human being.”
As notional hostage negotiators, each cadet on a team is assigned a position. Position one is the primary who speaks with the hostage-taker and is the only communication between the troubled individual; position two is the coach, who gives the primary suggestions on how and what to communicate to the disturbed individual. Position three is the team leader who oversees the entirety of the negotiation process. Finally, Positions four and five will focus on intelligence gathering. Position four records and organizes information on the situation board, writing down any and all clues related to the situation. In contrast, position 5 investigates clues and relays the information to the team.
As the exercise concluded, the cadets believed this weeklong course allowed them to understand nuances about human behavior they wouldn’t have noticed before taking the course.
“My main interest in attending the course came from an eagerness to learn from seasoned FBI agents with years of negotiations experience. Listening to and interacting with FBI agents was the major highlight for me,” Class of 2024 Cadet Jacob Woodruff said. “What was most surprising was that although negotiations is certainly a skill and an art, the concepts were simplistic in its design. I expected the methods to be highly adept, but it really came down to effective listening skills and gaining the subject’s trust.”
Class of 2023 Cadet John White also had a strong interest in working with law enforcement agencies and has a strong interest in the art of negotiation, he said.
“I definitely want to improve my communication skills at a higher level, I just finished another communications course last Friday, and getting another opportunity to work with the bureau was pretty interesting to me, so I took advantage of doing it,” White said. “I think this exercise gives you a pretty good understanding of how it’s going to go during real-world scenarios. This training is definitely applicable to our career, and in order to be a good leader, you got to be a good listener.”
The cadets also reflected on their performance during the exercise. Mitchell was surprised at how thorough and realistic the exercise was and he felt this exercise showed him what deficiencies he needed to work on when communicating his intent in any situation.
“One of the things I could have improved on as a whole is there were a couple of times I tried deceiving a hostage-taker to save the hostages,” Mitchell said. “We talked about sports teams we didn’t know much about, so just focusing on our strong suits and understanding that it’s OK to admit you don’t know something will help streamline the negotiation process.”
As future leaders in an unpredictable environment, Woodruff added that every cadet commissioning from West Point would benefit significantly from this course.