Tips From a Hostage Negotiator That Anyone Can Use


If you've ever pondered the ins and outs of hostage negotiation, today's your lucky day, punk. Michael E. Witzgall — tactical consultant, author, and teacher at the Charlie Mike Enterprises, a hostage rescue and SWAT school — offers his expert knowledge, divulges a few dos and don'ts of negotiating, and details some of the finer points to remember when somebody's life is on the line. (See also: 5 Phrases to Avoid While Negotiating)

We can all agree that hostage negotiation is a terrible situation for everyone involved, including the actual negotiator. He or she is directly responsible for the survival of those being held hostage. Which is why it's first important to understand why hostage negotiators are so critical in these types of situations. As Witzgall explains it, "If negotiations are allowed to start, 95% of all hostage or barricaded situations are successfully negotiated out." Compare that to chemical (gas) tactics (a 40% failure rate), sniper attack (80% suspect mortality rate), and a team assault (92% probability that an officer, hostage, or suspect will be injured or die), and you can start to understand why negotiations are favored.

But what exactly is the goal of the negotiator? Obviously it's to defuse the situation and get the hostages out alive, but there's more to it.

According to Witzgall, there are five main objectives:

  1. Establish a rapport with the suspect(s), thus gaining their trust.
  2. Help calm the situation by creating an atmosphere of stabilization (bad guys and officers).
  3. Gather intelligence about the suspect(s) and/or hostages.
  4. Gain time.
  5. Keep the suspect from dehumanizing the hostages or committing suicide.

Types of Hostage Negotiations

Just as there are many objectives of a negotiator, there are different types of negotiators for different types of situations, too.

First Responder

As the name indicates, this type of "negotiator" is generally a patrol officer or the point man on a SWAT team. First Responder negotiations, according to Witzgall, are:

  • Usually done talking through a door or from behind a position of cover.
  • Difficult at best.
  • Ad-libbed (often making it up as you go along).
  • Very dangerous (a mistake can cause serious problems).
  • Done to stall for time until the suspect surrenders or a better plan is developed (or a real negotiator arrives).

Standard (Team)

This type of negotiation is based on the team concept. Team members are generally highly trained professionals.

  • Team Leader: Manages the team.
  • Primary Negotiator: Maintains contact with the suspect.
  • Secondary Negotiator: Makes recommendations to the primary negotiator on subjects to speak on.
  • Intelligence Negotiator: Gathers intelligence.
  • Coach (Psychologist): Listens in.

Face-to-Face/Close Contact

Like First Responder negotiations, Face-to-Face/Close Contact negotiations are done in very close proximity to the suspect location. "Remember, this is not TV. We do not go sit down next to the suspect and 'chat'," says Witzgall. "The difference between the two concepts is that Close Contact negotiations are done intentionally — by a member of a negotiations team — rather than by chance."

In hostage negotiations, there are many invariables, which means that anything can go wrong at any time. Keeping that in mind, Witzgall provides a few dos of negotiating that help facilitate a positive outcome followed by a list of don'ts that can cause the situation to go badly wrong.

"Do's" When Negotiating

Not all of these do's will be relevant to the sort of negotiations most of will enter in our daily lives, but several certainly are.

  • Be empathetic, reassuring, and credible.
  • Control your own emotions, stress, and voice.
  • Keep the suspect(s) talking.
  • Keep the suspect(s) in decision-making mode.
  • Encourage a positive outcome.
  • Understand any demands.
  • Talk on the suspect(s) level.
  • Keep any hostages "human."
  • Listen (follow the 90/10 Rule — listen 90% of the time, speak 10%).
  • Gather information.

"Don'ts" When Negotiating

As with the do's, not all of these are applicable in non-hostage contexts, but most are, especially the advice to control our own emotional responses.

  • Talk too much.
  • Ask off-the-wall questions.
  • Be argumentative.
  • Be pushy.
  • Use trigger words.
  • Be defensive.
  • Get angry.
  • Make promises.
  • Get caught in a lie.

Running the Negotiation

Now that we've established do's and don'ts, let's get to the matter at hand — the actual negotiation.

The suspect has taken hostages for a reason… because he or she wants or needs something. The goal of the negotiator is to tow the line of the suspect's demands long enough to save those inside, however that may happen. Some things are negotiable, Witzgall says, while others are completely off the table. What things fall into these two categories?

What Can Be Offered

  • Food and water. Never more than requested.
  • Money. This is a good delaying tool.
  • Cigarettes or other minor comfort Items.
  • Room or building climate control.
  • Alcoholic beverage (ONLY after serious consideration).
  • Clothing.
  • Religious material (ONLY after serious consideration).
  • Bullet resistant vest/helmet.

What CANNOT Be Offered

  • People.
  • Weapons.
  • Ammunition.
  • Medications / drugs. (Prescription medications may be subject to consideration.)
  • Media attention. (Unless it can use it as a tool.)
  • Vehicles without a kill-wwitch system.

What You Should Do If You're Ever in a Hostage Negotiation

Now that we know the basics of hostage negotiation, let's all keep our fingers crossed that we never have to use these skills. If we do have to pull a real-life Kevin Spacey, however, Witzgall offers a few of the finer points to remember.

  • NEVER trade places with a hostage.
  • Do not allow third party negotiating (wife, clergy, friends).
  • Do not allow it to go mobile.
  • Take your time.
  • Obtain something in exchange for demands.
  • Always work through deadlines.

All in a day's work.

Few of us will ever need this advice in an actual hostage negotiation, but what about when negotiating a big pruchase like a house or a car? Please share your most intense negotiation in comments!

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