A hostage negotiation is often a literal matter of life and death, so the experts trained to handle them really know how to listen. While it’s unlikely you’ll ever need to convince someone to come out with their hands up, there are times when we need to push ourselves to be better listeners, which is a huge part of the hostage negotiator’s job.
Journalist Masada Siegel interviewed Glenn Cohen, who worked as a hostage negotiator for the Israel Defense Forces. As outlined in her story for the Wall Street Journal, there are five steps to hostage negotiation. They are Active Listening, Empathy, Rapport, and Influence, which leads to the big one: Behavioral Change (i.e. a successful surrender). Cohen says the biggest mistake anyone makes is skipping the first four, and trying to make the hostage taker act differently before hearing them out.
“In a volatile situation where someone’s life is on the line, there can be no shortcuts. You must listen, as the hostage taker is all charged up, emotionally and physically.
“He has his goal, so you must hear him out and understand what he wants to accomplish,” Mr. Cohen said. “As a negotiator, you are looking for a win-win situation, and a hostage taker needs an opportunity to vent and let off steam, as their adrenaline is pumping and as they are in the moment. Unless they unload their demands, they don’t have the capacity to hear and consider behavior change.”
So, what does active listening entail, from a negotiator’s perspective?
If you’re thinking about someone you argue with regularly and laughing about the idea that they’re always illogical, stop; you’re illogical, too. Most of us are when we’re upset. Someone taking people hostage may actually be a rational, if extreme, human being. They might not. But their cognitive ability is definitely impaired by the situation, and the same thing happens to everybody in an argument.
In an interview, former FBI international hostage negotiator Chris Voss told Eric Barker that trying to demand someone be logical when they’re upset is a huge mistake:
That’s to try to be completely unemotional and rational, which is a fiction about negotiation. Human beings are incapable of being rational, regardless… So instead of pretending emotions don’t exist in negotiations, hostage negotiators have actually designed an approach that takes emotions fully into account and uses them to influence situations, which is the reality of the way all negotiations go
Explaining to someone why they’re wrong and your point of view is correct based on logic is not listening and it’s almost never useful.
People get more upset when they feel unheard or misunderstood. It helps to acknowledge someone’s feelings, whether or not you think they’re justified, according to Jeff Thompson, who researches crisis negotiation at Columbia University Law School:
It is important for the emotions of the person speaking to be acknowledged. Identifying the person’s emotions validates what they are feeling instead of minimizing it. During a negotiation, people can act with their emotions and not from a more cognitive perspective. By labeling and acknowledging their emotions, it helps restore the balance.
It’s important to label without judgment. Barker gives a good example in an article for The Ladders taken from the text Crisis Negotiations, Fourth Edition: Managing Critical Incidents and Hostage Situations in Law Enforcement and Corrections:
A good use of emotional labeling would be “You sound pretty hurt about being left. It doesn’t seem fair.” because it recognizes the feelings without judging them.
A bad way to label emotions would be to recognize what someone feels, then say why they shouldn’t feel that way or tell them how to avoid those feelings. You’re not necessarily agreeing with someone; you’re just trying to understand their perspective.
As someone is talking, they want to see that you’re listening. Even nodding or saying simple phrases like “yes” and “okay” will help to indicate you’re following along. It also encourages them to keep talking, which gives you a better understanding of the situation. Asking open-ended questions will encourage them even more, diffusing tension.
You can also clarify and streamline their position by repeating it back to them. Thompson says this is called “reflecting” or “mirroring,” and it can even be just a few words at the end of their sentence:
When the person is finished speaking, reflecting and mirroring is a much shorter option compared to paraphrasing as it includes repeating the last words the person said. If the person concluded by saying, “…and this really made me angry,” you would say, “It really made you angry.”
Another technique is to paraphrase what you thought the other person said in your own words—again, without judgment! A listener’s job is just to understand where someone else is coming from. What you choose to do with that information is an entirely different step in the conversation.