Negotiating in a crisis


In The Missing Hours, Selena Cole specialises in negotiating with hostage takers, and the techniques that make an effective negotiation can be applied to any crisis situation. When we are dealing with someone who is angry or unreasonable, the best way of defusing their rage can be by applying the strategies listed below:-

  • Cooling it down – in a highly stressful situation, emotion reigns. One of the aims of the negotiator is to allow the hostage taker to calm down, to allow rational thought to trickle back in.
  • Keep calm – you do not want to add any more emotion to the situation than is already there, so moderate your tone, keeping it calm but firm. Remember that you are the mature one in this scenario and you need to model that for the person in crisis. That means no swearing and minimise any background distractions.
  • Time is your friend – time allows you to build rapport, to give the person in crisis an opportunity to vent and, importantly, to begin thinking rationally again.
  • Focus on the hostage taker – if the anger of the person in crisis is posing a threat to others, it’s important to keep your focus on the person in crisis themselves. You don’t want to remind them that they have the power to harm innocents. The basic message should be that, no matter how badly the person has behaved so far, that the situation is still salvageable and that they can still get credit for doing the right thing going forward.
  • Employ use of active listening – active listening involves not only giving your full attention to the speaker, but also being ‘seen’ to be listening. The listener will visually agree (e.g., small smile, nods, etc), maintain eye contact as appropriate to the speaker, maintain a listening posture (leaning in, etc.), automatically mirror the facial expressions of the speaker, and avoiding signs that you are distracted.
  • Employ empathy – it can be tough to be empathic when what someone is saying to us seems so unreasonable. However, in crisis situations, empathy is the key to defusing the anger. Consider how the person in crisis might have reached the conclusions they have. How you yourself might end up feeling the same way.
  • How to influence – research shows that those who are deemed to be good at influencing the opinions of others are reliable, they keep their promises, they take responsibility, build rapport and are entertaining. Essentially, they have the ability to become everyone’s friend. They plan their approach beforehand and have good communication skills.
  • The gift of control – people in a crisis generally feel out of control. Allowing them to take responsibility for small decisions throughout the incident can allow them to regain this, thereby calming their emotionality.

Dealing with someone who has become irrational, who is in the grip of a powerful emotional reaction can be frightening and stressful. However, by remaining calm yourself and refusing to allow their behaviour to trigger an emotional response from you, you can navigate the situation. Employing some of the techniques used by hostage negotiators can help you guide them back to rationality.