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Lessons from the Extreme:
What Business Negotiators Can Learn from Hostage Negotiations
Paul J. Taylor & William Donohue
Editors’ Note: The high-stakes world of the hostage negotiator draws instinctive respect from other negotiators. But if you operate in another domain, you could be excused for thinking that hostage negotiation has nothing to do with you. That impression, it turns out, is quite often wrong. Here, two researchers draw parallels to several kinds of business and other disputes in which it often seems that one of the parties acts similarly to a hostage taker. Understanding what hostage negotiators have learned to do in response can be a real asset to a negotiator faced with one of these situations. Read this in conjunction with Tinsley, Cambria and Schneider on Reputations, and Volpe et al. on with Negotiating with the Unknown, and you may find yourself formulating a new idea you can use tomorrow.
In a typical hostage negotiation situation, a hostage taker threatens to harm himself or another person as a means toward an end. The hostage taker may have been caught robbing a convenience store and taken the hostage as leverage to improve his (nearly all hostage takers are male) situation. Or he may have some religious, political, or psychological motivation that he hopes to draw attention to by threatening to commit suicide.1 In hostage scenarios such as these, the police work to end the incident without any loss of life. This is typically achieved by a trained response team that works quickly to contain the scene and create an environment in which the incident commander can employ a number of different strategies. Because of its success as a non-lethal approach, the most common strategy is negotiation.
What makes hostage negotiation unique as a communicative event is the high stakes and heightened ambiguity that underlies the interaction. The hostage taker is negotiating for his life, and the police are negotiating for the lives of the hostages. Such a negotiation is not embedded in the traditional dynamics of normative thinking and good faith, but in the extreme dynamics of emotional arousal and anxiety. The negotiators must listen carefully, resist the temptation to react defensively, and work to build trust and cooperation. The stakes are high, the stress is extreme, and the demands on the negotiators are fierce. [NDR: Volpe et al., The Unknown] When the communication context is stretched in this manner, it opens an important window into the complex dynamics of mixed-motive negotiation.
By the end of this chapter, we hope to give the reader not only an understanding of the dynamics that are important to hostage negotiation, but also some “food for thought” about how best to approach more normative bargaining challenges. While often perceived as unique interactions, hostage negotiations are shaped by a set of dynamics and rules that can inform other negotiation contexts. For example, sales agents are often faced with very hostile buyers who negotiate by giving ultimatums. This form of aggressive, highly distributive bargaining is common in early stages of hostage negotiation, and sales agents can learn many lessons about how to defuse these kinds of aggressive strategies. Indeed, many critical features of negotiated interaction have been easier to identify in the hostage context than in its normative counterparts, due to the saliency of interpersonal actions within a high-pressured, crisis context (Donohue et al. 1991).2
The way police negotiators interact with hostage takers may therefore have important lessons for negotiators outside of the hostage context. In this chapter, we explore six aspects of hostage negotiation that are critical to reaching a successful resolution. As it turns out, these aspects contain lessons that are important for negotiators who want success in a wide range of contexts....
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