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Negotiating with the Unknown
Maria Volpe, Jack J. Cambria,
Hugh McGowan & Chris Honeyman
Editors’ Note: What happens when all of the classic negotiation advice about preparation goes out the window? Negotiations “on the street” teach us how extensive preparation for the process itself—for teamwork, roles, communication patterns, and trust—is crucial for success when everything you might ordinarily want to know to prepare for a specific case is impossible to find out in time.
In order to understand the ordinary or near-ordinary, sometimes it pays to study the extreme. This chapter will use the extremely high-tension experiences of hostage negotiators to discuss a few facets of negotiation that are rarely taught to others, but that increasingly seem relevant far beyond their original setting.1 [For more on teaching this see NDR: Kirschner & Cambria, Captive Audience]
Imagine having to negotiate with an unknown entity where, more often than not, the parties have no way of anticipating who they will interact with, or what questions or issues to expect. The parties meet for the first time at a tense scene, with each side typically separated from the other by a closed door. Interested parties tend to be numerous and insistent. Some of these interested parties may be closely associated with the hostages or the hostage taker, such as family, friends, colleagues, neighbors. Some are closely associated with the hostage negotiators, including supervisors and other law enforcement experts. Many others may be strangers to both parties, such as observers, media representatives and politicians. This potentially vast gathering of “significant others” creates what a former commander of the New York Police Department’s hostage negotiation team refers to as “negotiations within the negotiation.” And, to add to the tension, it is not unusual for weapons to be omnipresent on both sides.
Variations on these circumstances describe the “normal” context of the work of police hostage negotiators. They conduct their negotiations wherever and whenever there are highly stressful situations involving individuals being held against their will (or barricading themselves in) and where the ongoing communications with the hostage takers are high-stakes, involving potential loss of life. In these encounters, hostage negotiators have one distinct advantage over hostage takers: experience in dealing with such individuals in different situations. Hostage takers have typically never taken hostages before. Hostage negotiators, however, have collectively acquired a wide range of coping skills. These skills, we now believe, are needed in many other settings—settings that do not provide comparable training opportunities. In this chapter, we will discuss several of the most salient.
The reality of police hostage negotiations clashes with conventional wisdom about good negotiation strategy, which emphasizes the need to be prepared. Such preparation normally includes learning as much as one can, not only about one’s own position, interests and needs, but as much as one can about the other side, before any meeting takes place. But when a call comes in that triggers a hostage negotiation, this kind of preparation is impossible. On the surface, this inability to prepare for a specific negotiation is unique to hostage situations. But closer examination calls this into question. [NDR: Taylor & Donohue, Business and Hostages] In many ways, hostage negotiation work mirrors the work of a variety of other professions which experience “dealing with the unknown” during the course of their workday. Obvious examples include emergency room doctors [See NDR: O’Shea, Compassion], train conductors, and television reporters (each role, of course, has existing training in dealing with forms of “the unknown” other than the ones discussed here), but many others find themselves in situations where at least some....
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Cambria, J., R. J. DeFilippo, R. J. Louden and H. McGowan. 2002. Negotiation Under Extreme Pressure: The “Mouth Marines” and the Hostage Takers. Negotiation Journal 18(4): 331-343.
Crampton, A. and M. Tsur. 2013. Negotiation Stands Alone. In Educating Negotiators for a Connected World, edited by C. Honeyman, J. Coben and A. W-M. Lee. St. Paul: DRI Press.
Machiavelli, N. 1532. The Prince.
Parish, R. and J. J. Cambria. 2018 (in press). The Other Side of the Door: Arts in the Future of Policing. St Paul: DRI Press.