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The West-End Siege - Can We Learn to Bargain Better if We Use Hostage Negotiation Techniques?

Posted: 30/04/2012 08:22

On Friday swathes of the West-End of London were closed off, causing traffic chaos throughout the city, in a highly unusual incident for the UK. The authorities were dealing with a man who appeared to have taken an office hostage, and seemed to be threatening to blow up the building.

The Metropolitan Police have now declared that Michael Green, 48, of Stevenage, Hertfordshire, was charged with several offences: possession of a weapon for the discharge of a noxious liquid/gas or electrical incapacitating device; false imprisonment; making a bomb hoax; causing criminal damage and recklessly endangering life.

The siege lasted three hours and specialist police negotiators were called in, and it may have been their intervention which contributed to the peaceable resolution of what appeared a potentially extremely dangerous situation.

Abby Baafi, 27, the head of training and operations at Advantage, a company which offers HGV courses, was reported as saying afterwards that the man had targeted her offices and had held four men hostage. She told The Huffington Post UK: "He just turned up, strapped up in gasoline cylinders. Basically he threatened to blow up the offices. Says he doesn't care about his life, doesn't care about anything."

How would a negotiator deal with this seemingly impossible situation? What psychological approaches would be employed?

If, as has been shown time and time again, these techniques are powerful and successful, is it possible you could deploy the same strategies during your own negotiations? After all, increasingly, bargaining at work seems to feel like you're up against colleagues or management who always seem to have the upper hand.

Can you use the psychology deployed in hostage negotiation, to help redress what feels like an imbalance of power between your adversaries and yourself?

Many of the newspapers printed dramatic pictures of CO19 officers laden with various weapons in the area, yet the editors may not have appreciated that this display could in fact have been a subtle part of the psychology of the negotiation process, rather than just a simple show of strength.

Harvey Schlossberg, a police psychologist established the first hostage recovery program in New York City (where taking hostages is much more common place than London) in 1973. Since then, the dramatic triumph of psychological techniques has meant that, resources permitting, specialist negotiators are now the preferred option in dealing with these crises for most police forces around the world.

Prior to the 1970s, the use of threat and force, not psychology, were what was mobilised to resolve hostage predicaments. This approach, is labelled by psychologists, the 'Contending Model'.

Justin Borowsky, Assistant Professor of Speech Communication at Central Oregon Community College in the USA, in the 'Journal of Police Crisis Negotiations', published a paper in 2011 entitled 'Responding to Threats: A Case Study of Power and Influence in a Hostage Negotiation Event', explaining why the Contending Model fell so dramatically out of fashion.

It's characterised by a pincer movement - demonstrating superior firepower combined with manipulating the physical environment, such as cutting the power supply to the building where the hostage taker is barricaded, while assembling a heavily armed SWAT Team, clearly visible to the hostage taker.

The idea was to get the message home; the situation was hopeless for the hostage taker. Demonstration of overwhelming firepower convinces that giving oneself up is the only option. It seems to make logical sense.

If this had worked without substantial loss of life, then we might still be using it today. The Contending Model, because it was so lethal, went out of fashion in the early 1970s, along with wide lapels and flares.

But it's notable that such displays of power appear to have clung on in more everyday management ever since.

One of the reasons for dispensing with the 'Contending Model' is that a deeper understanding has developed that each siege could be quite different psychologically. This is an insight that is very powerful when you enter more everyday negotiations. In particular, you should spend more time than most people do, working out what is the precise goal of your adversary. Often, it's not what you might assume it is from first appearances. Hostage negotiators gather as much information as they can about who they are dealing with and try to make no over-hasty assumptions about motive.

Classically, negotiators are faced with two types of events, barricade situations and hostage takeovers. When someone takes themselves hostage within a building threatening suicide - this is a barricade. A hostage takeover occurs when innocents are taken as tools for bargaining.

They may both seem very similar from the cordoned off streets outside, but they are a world apart psychologically. So negotiators immediately start appraising the crisis from the standpoint of what is the goal of the hostage taker.

Borowsky explains there are two main types of motives. Instrumental goals are material objectives such as obtaining money, vehicles, or orchestrating an escape. Alternatively, expressive goals are more about communicating emotional significance. Expressive hostage takers take hostages for personal reasons, rather than as chips to be used in a bargaining game. This personal/emotional factor is very rarely not a factor in most negotiations.

The Contending Model frequently ended in disaster when used with hostage takers harbouring expressive goals. If the expressive hostage ends up feeling overwhelmed and hopeless as is the precise goal of the Contending Model, irrational or unpredictable actions were the inevitable consequence, generating heightened danger for the hostage.

Threats of force, even against less 'emotional' protagonists, naturally evoke counter -threats
or violence in an attempt to win the standoff. If the negotiation becomes about establishing too quickly who has the most power, it will more likely end in disaster. This is a characteristic of unsuccessful negotiations in the workplace or at home as well.

Justin Borowsky explains in his paper that the negotiator today doesn't try to dominate the negotiation but instead develops a "we-are-in-this-together" context. This emphasises collaboration between the parties. By developing a "we-are-in-this-together" perspective the negotiator forms a relationship with the hostage taker so they end up working in concert against "them" (the negotiating police officer's superiors).

The negotiator will on purpose use words like 'them' when referring to the police outside and 'us' when describing the hostage taker and the negotiator. This very careful use of language binds the negotiator and the hostage taker as two people attempting to work jointly against another party or 'enemy'. By creating this alignment the negotiator is in a much better position to later convince the hostage taker to surrender.

Borowsky contends the negotiators' real power lies in their ability to get close to, or establish a relationship with the hostage taker, which is necessary to facilitate a peaceful resolution.

This is crucial for more everyday negotiations. Parleys can be seen from sieges as usefully having several distinct phases. Establishing a particular kind of relationship is crucial before getting into the nuts and bolts of who wants what. In everyday life we often try to negotiate without relationship-building first.

Psychologists now divide crisis negotiations into distinct stages, with rapport building being an early phase, while 'influencing' comes later. Moving through these phases too quickly, might be a characteristic of sieges which end badly. This is one of the contentions of a research team lead by Demetrius Madrigal from ActiveComm Labs in San Jose, California, who have published a paper entitled 'Introducing the Four-Phase Model of Hostage Negotiation' in the Journal of Police Crisis Negotiations.

This principle probably also applies when you are bargaining.

Another vital point Borowsky emphasises is that the negotiator uses the fact he has to go and himself 'negotiate' with a superior officer or boss on behalf of the hostage taker. Borowsky deploys the actual conversations recorded in real negotiations between police and hostage takers in the USA to illustrate this point in his paper:

Hostage Taker: "you gotta give me the car"

Negotiator: "well you've got me between a rock and a hard spot because I told you I don't make those things decisions, I've got a boss that I've got to account to"

Borowsky argues by invoking language such as "boss" and the "rock and a hard spot", the negotiator creates the perception that he himself is in a difficult predicament, not dissimilar to the one faced by the hostage taker. By aligning himself with the hostage taker and by claiming that he is working for him, and that he is not the one denying any request, the negotiator is able to become more of a liaison between the hostage taker and the armed police outside. Indeed the officer is even now seen as working with the hostage taker and not on behalf of the police. This strengthens the relationship, generating a greater opportunity to connect with and subsequently influence.

It is also notable that in direct contradiction to the traditional Contending Model, Borowsky points out, the negotiator in presenting himself as essentially powerless during certain parts of the negotiation (he always has to go back and check with a superior officer), the officer maintains a sense of 'balanced power' between himself and the hostage taker. Carefully balancing power, rather than showing muscle, prevents the hostage taker from feeling overwhelmed and avoids a cyclical escalation of threats and violence. Oddly enough, appearing less powerful than you really are, at crucial moments, seems to have negotiation benefits, as it doesn't invoke a need to show strength from the other side.

So it would be useful in your negotiations to invoke a third party with whom you have to constantly refer back to, and which you can use to assist you get what you want. It could be for example, that you appeal to the notion that it's your spouse who's furious with the paltry pay rise your boss has offered you. Because it's not enough, or insulting, they are pressurising you to move town for better prospects. None of this creating a fuss about the money is your idea, you understand.

Sometimes a negotiator will respond to a request from a hostage taker to, for example, move the SWAT team out of sight, as they appeared to be intimidating the perpetrator. This looks like the negotiator has 'given' something to the hostage taker. This compliance creates a situation where reciprocation is a natural and powerful human response. The hostage taker will now feel obliged to reciprocate, with giving something in return. So have things to concede in a negotiation, before you ask for what you want.

There are many other psychological techniques that negotiators deploy and such a brief over-view is unlikely to capture their sophistication or their range, but they are a good example of an area where the very highest of stakes are gambled on, and yet no one any more argues psychology or psychiatry aren't an important aspect of the key to success.

These are extreme situations and the psychological techniques when deployed with confidence in fact sometimes render these crisis negotiations often more intense, on purpose. Laurie Charles, an academic at University of Massachusetts, Boston, in a 2007 paper entitled 'Disarming people with words: Strategies of interactional communication that crisis (hostage) negotiators share with systemic clinicians', published in the 'Journal of Marital and Family Therapy', points out that there might even be an emotional impact on negotiators which could continue long after the siege is over.

It almost seems there could even be a form of the famous Stockholm Syndrome (where hostages develop strong feelings of liking and connection with their hostage taker) that might occur in some trained negotiators.

In the aftermath of one armed school siege in the USA, Laurie Charles reports one negotiator was profoundly affected by his interaction with the hostage taker. The negotiator even changed careers, trying to become teacher. This particular siege started after the hostage taker, a student, felt he had been treated badly by his tutor. The negotiator tried to contact hostage taker in prison, and was planning to write a book for schools about his experience.

Laurie Charles argues this negotiator's experience reveals a possible hidden dimension to sieges. If negotiators are successful, it's likely to have profound effects on both sides. Perhaps sometimes leading to future behaviour unsanctioned by the authorities, like later attempts to make contact with the hostage-taker by the negotiator. This is another testament to the power of the psychological forces in play.

What the psychology of sieges show is it's better if we go into negotiations with the mindset that we need to work with the other person, rather than against them. We should be aiming to maintain and even improve our relationships during negotiations. To achieve this we need to think of the other person as a partner with whom we are solving a problem, rather than an adversary we need to beat. This allows us to create scenarios where we get what we are after and preserve the relationship.

Dr Raj Persaud is a Consultant Psychiatrist based in London and has broadcast a series on BBC Radio 4 on the Psychology of Hostage Negotiation. Justin Borowsky, is an Assistant Professor of Speech Communication at the Central Oregon Community College and researches the language of conflict.

 
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