This item by James Vega was originally published on December 3, 2012.
Immediately after the debt limit debate in 2011, GOP Senate minority leader “Mitch” McConnell made the following profoundly illuminating comment about his party’s basic negotiating strategy:
“I think some of our Members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting. Most of us didn’t think that. What we did learn is this — it’s a hostage worth ransoming.”
Many commentators minimized the importance of this comment because, on the surface, it can be viewed as merely a metaphor. But when one considers how the GOP actually negotiated in regard to the debt limit, it becomes clear that McConnell’s comment actually represents something substantially more significant. His comment describes a clear and distinct negotiating strategy – one that is quite different from other well-known negotiating strategies such as “seeking a win-win outcome” or “getting to yes” that are widely used in business or international affairs.
If we look at President Obama’s current negotiations with the GOP from this distinct perspective, one excellent place to find expert advice is on the PoliceOne database, “the most comprehensive and trusted online destination for law enforcement agencies and police departments worldwide.” On that site there is a quite detailed description of the negotiating strategies that are used in hostage situations, a description written by police expert Lawrence Miller PhD – author of “Hostage negotiations: Psychological strategies for resolving crises.”
The following are some of Dr. Miller’s recommendations for negotiating in hostage situations. These recommendations are actually remarkably illuminating when one systematically compares them with the actual negotiating strategies that President Obama is currently using in his dealings with the GOP. Although the GOP currently has less leverage to hold the economy “hostage” than they did in 2011, they still have a very substantial ability to threaten to damage the economic recovery if Democrats do not acceed to their demands.
Here are some of Miller’s recommendations:
Even with foul-mouthed HTs (i.e. hostage-takers), avoid using unnecessary profanity yourself. Remember that people who are stressed or angry are more likely to use profanity. You are trying to model mature, adult speech and behavior in order to calm the situation.
For emotional HTs, allow productive venting, but deflect dangerous escalation of speech tone and content. In many instances, the whole rationale for the hostage situation is so the HT can “make a point” or “tell my story.”
Focus your conversation on the HT, not the hostages. …Remember that hostages represent power and control to the hostage taker, so try not to do anything that will remind him of this fact…
If there is a chance of saving lives, then interpret the situation any positive way you can. [For example:]
“William, I want you to know that, even though the guy got shot [passive tense: it wasn’t completely your fault] in the foot [not a critical wound] at the beginning of this thing all kinds of unexpected things can happen in a panic situation. But you’ve done a good job of keeping things cool from that point on [you’re still in control, but in a positive way], and no one else has been hurt [you’re now part of the solution, not the problem]. That counts for a lot, and everybody here knows it [there’s still hope of avoiding dire consequences]. Let’s see if we can keep things peaceful for now so we can all come out of this safely, okay?]”
Along with the above, compliment the HT for any positive actions he’s taken so far. If the HT does something constructive, reinforce it. This applies whether the action is a major thing, like release of one or more hostages, or a seemingly minor thing like allowing the hostages to eat or go to the bathroom, or keeping the phone line open. The aim here is to establish a pattern of constructive actions that allow the HT to reap repeated positive reinforcement, leading ultimately to his surrender with no further injuries to anyone.
Demands and Deadlines
The standard operating procedure in hostage negotiations is to make the HT work for everything he gets by extracting a concession in return. The goal is to maintain your bargaining position without unduly agitating the HT and triggering a violent confrontation. Within these parameters, don’t give anything without getting something in return.
Other guidelines include: don’t solicit demands; don’t give anything not explicitly asked for; and don’t deliver more than absolutely necessary to fulfill the request. The conventional wisdom is to never say “no” to a demand, but that’s not the same as saying yes. The negotiators job is to deflect, postpone, and modify: “Okay, you want a helicopter out of here, right? I’ll see what I can do. Meanwhile, tell me…”
When negotiating for release of multiple hostages, start with the most vulnerable or least desirable, from the HT’s standpoint… As in any bargaining maneuver, let the HT make the first offer, that is, how many hostages he’s willing to release. Where there is only a single hostage or very few hostages, and where the hostages are known to the HT, as in a family argument or workplace beef, the situation is more dangerous because the hostages have a particular personal or symbolic value to the HT. Additionally, there is a greater chance that the HT may be exhausted, agitated, intoxicated, delusional, suicidal, homicidal, or any combination of the above.
A common feature of HT demands is that they often come with a deadline: “I want that car here by 12 noon, or someone’s going to die.” To begin with, although deadline demands are relatively common, very few deaths have actually occurred as the direct result of a deadline not being met, especially in more common robbery or family dispute hostage crises.
Although this may seem obvious, don’t set deadlines yourself. If the HT sets a deadline, record it but don’t mention it again if he doesn’t bring it up. The goal is to ignore the deadline and let it pass by keeping the HT engaged in conversation about something else.
Use the passage of time to expend adrenalin and let fatigue set it, but beware of total exhaustion which may lead to heightened irritability and impulsive action. As a general rule, however, the more time that has passed without injury, the more likely is a nonlethal outcome to the crisis.
The Surrender Ritual
On the strength of practical experience, a basic protocol, or surrender ritual, has evolved to guide negotiators in their efforts to safely resolve a crisis.
When dealing with the HT, avoid the use of words like “surrender,” “give up,” or other terms that connote weakness and loss of face. Use whatever euphemisms seem appropriate: “coming out” is a preferred term because it implies a proactive decision by the subject himself to resolve the crisis. To begin the discussion of coming out, emphasize to the HT what he has to gain by this action at the present time. Be realistic but optimistic. Minimize any damage done so far. Emphasize what bad things have not happened and the subject’s role in preventing further harm:
“William, we understand you felt you had no choice but to shoot that guard when he went for his gun – it was a split-second decision, right? But I want to thank you for keeping rest of those people in the bank safe while we talked this out. That’s going to count for a lot if we can end this now without anyone else getting hurt.”
As in any kind of negotiation, the more input the subject has, the more he feels that the plan is his own as well as yours, the more likely he is to comply – what business negotiators call buy-in. In planning for a successful resolution, let the subject set the pace; if he is agreeing to come out at all, this is not the time to rush things.
While following standard procedures for control and restraint, the tactical team should avoid any unnecessary verbal or physical roughness during the arrest…Why? Remember the point about “repeat customers” in the criminal justice system. You don’t want the subject to think the whole negotiation was just some kind of trick to get him to give up, because this may have repercussions for future communications and interactions with the same or different subjects, whether they involve hostage-taking or other incidents…Always be looking ahead to the next incident.