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Crisis Negotiator Skills: The Experts Weigh In

New research reveals what makes law enforcement hostage negotiators effective.

Recent research conducted on the skills law enforcement crisis and hostage negotiators believe that makes them effective has helped bridge the gap between the “science” and the actual “practice” of crisis negotiation. The findings of the study, published in Police Practice and Research (Johnson, Thompson, Hall, & Meyer, 2017), identifies the skills that not only work during these tense, (potentially) volatile, and emotionally driven situations but also what these crisis negotiation experts also find to be ineffective.

Considering many people will never find themselves negotiating during these types of incidents (fortunately), the takeaway for you can be reflecting on if these skills work in those seemingly intractable situations, how can you apply them to your life and daily negotiation and crisis-like situations?

After all, although though police crisis incidents are unique, there are unifying factors that are present in all crisis incidents- negative emotions dictating people’s actions, people failing to listen, tension increasing, refusing to understand the other person’s point of view, and failing to see alternative options.

The study provides the insight from nearly 200 law enforcement negotiators and below are some of the key findings. Prior to sharing the findings, it is important to first understand the basic premise of law enforcement crisis negotiation. The goal is influence a behavioral change in the person to gain their voluntary compliance. Although this statement might sound unfamiliar to you, that is the same goal in every negotiation- you want the person to stop doing what they are doing (or wanting to do) and you, by using a set of skills, try to get them to do what you want.

This does not mean using the skills in a manner that is manipulative either. Instead, using them genuinely and allowing the person to be part of the process (this critically leads to saving face and self-determination) further contributes to your success. Think of the cliché “win-win.” As a great NYPD hostage negotiator has said frequently in trainings, “You don’t have to win by them losing.”

So if that is the goal (voluntary compliance), you need a plan and strategy to achieve the goal. The research study explains the different models that are taught in crisis negotiation. This includes the FBI’s Behavioral Change Stairway Model (created by retired chief negotiator, Gary Noesner) and the Law Enforcement Negotiation Stairway Model (which was based on the former). Key to the stairway models is slowing the situation down, de-escalating tense and negative emotions, using active listening skills to demonstrate empathy, and building rapport in order to influence a behavioral change in the person.

From that perspective, here are some of the findings:


90% either always or usually debrief after an incident. This highlights the importance of reflecting afterwards on what worked and did not work in order to improve effectiveness for the next incident. Experts in crisis incidents do not “wing it.” Rather, they know what works, how it works, and analyze incidents afterwards in order to continue doing what is effective and know what is not effective so they can try to avoid it next time.

“A good negotiator is…”

When asked via an open-ended question to finish that sentence, the top responses were:

  1. An effective listener,
  2. Patient, calm, and stable,
  3. Flexible, adaptable, and a quick thinker,
  4. Determined and focused, and
  5. Emotionally stable.

These top five responses demonstrate the importance of knowing the skills (such as active listening), knowing the process, controlling one’s emotions, while also realizing the necessity to be able to adapt (quickly) when required.

Behaviors to Engage In

The following are the write-in responses when asked to list (up to five) specific behaviors an effective negotiator should engage in:

  1. Active listening (I am sure you are now realizing how important this is),
  2. Appear calm, remain emotionally stable, be relaxed but firm, and control vocal tone and body language,
  3. Express empathy, show sincere concern for their well-being,
  4. De-escalate, improve communication, and treat subject with respect,
  5. Recognize the subject’s motives,
  6. Be non-judgmental and honest without making assumptions, and
  7. Use names.

This list shows that not only must an expert negotiator know the necessary skills, he or she must be able to use them, and also do it effectively in a manner that is genuine. Take a moment to reflect on each of these responses and consider how important each are in your context. For example, being non-judgmental can help you listen to what they are saying more closely.

Behaviors to Avoid

The following are the write-in responses when asked to list (again, up to five) specific behaviors an effective negotiator should avoid engaging in:

  1. Being confrontational, arguing, yelling, and or interrupting,
  2. Using certain words, generally, including police jargon and religion,
  3. Lying or making promises,
  4. Saying “I understand” or “calm down” or “no”,
  5. Blaming judging, or accusing,
  6. Expressing disinterest or rushing the process,
  7. Being demanding or minimizing other’s concerns.

It is important to know what expert negotiators believe to be effective skills yet it is also important to know the techniques they suggest that should be avoided too. This list complements the previous one in that it displays what separates elite negotiators from amateurs and those despite not being trained, thinking they know what is best to do. Often what do ineffective negotiators do? They rush the process to try and get a quick resolution, minimize the feelings and emotions of the person, and say things that will only further distance themselves from the other person and a peaceful resolution.

First Impressions

There is a substantial amount of research in psychology connecting first impressions with building rapport and demonstrating empathy. Rapport and empathy are also both important to getting what you want.

First impressions are not just for blind dates either. In crisis situations the implications are much more serious and have a legitimate impact on the rest of the interaction. The research on this is referred to thin slice methodology and I recommend you read more it (here for example). Remember, as you will see from the results first impressions involve verbal and nonverbal communication.

Law enforcement hostage negotiators place a significant amount of importance on how they look and how they begin their interaction with the subject (the person they are negotiating with).

  • Rarely do they say their rank (93% do not)
  • The majority do not say they are a negotiator (only 27% do)
  • The majority either “always” or “usually” (combined 64%) wear something that identifies themselves as negotiators

So what does this mean? If the negotiator is seeking to de-escalate the situation, how he or she begins the interaction is critical to setting that tone right away. Consider the difference between the following:

  1. Good afternoon, my name is Detective Mary Smith. I am a hostage negotiator with the City Police Department. I am here to assist you. I am asking you to please voluntarily comply by opening the door.
  2. Hello, my name is Mary. I’m with the police. I’m here to help you. What’s happening today?

The second option clearly is a much more informal tone that uses only a first name, is shorter (expert negotiators speak much less compared to listening), and ends with an open-ended question. Not only is Mary’s approach much different from the first option, odds are most likely her style of speaking will be different compared to other people that were speaking prior to her (and most likely did not have the same training). So, not only would her approach be different, based on the feedback in the research her appearance will be different too.

If research shows that the majority of these crisis incidents are not conducted face-to-face, why bother with paying attention to your clothing? In these cases it could be about comfort and themselves. Along the lines of positive self-talk to build your confidence, this could also be the case with their choice of clothing.

Additionally, even though the subject cannot see the negotiator, plenty of other law enforcement personnel on the scene will be there and they do not want to be mistaken for other officers that have other tasks. For example, having to repeatedly identify yourself as a negotiator to try and get closer to the scene to officers securing the perimeter can lead to the negotiator becoming aggravated and reducing their calmness and preparedness for the task at hand.


This is just a brief review of the recent study that provides a scientific insight into the world of elite law enforcement crisis hostage negotiators. The key here is the scientific analysis that was conducted to gain the information. It was not done through anecdotal stories and hearsay but rather in a manner that compiles the data in a way that makes the results meaningful.

Ultimately, the data is useless, especially in this case in dealing with people in crisis, unless it can help improve negotiations. That is why the study was conducted in order to help shape current entry-level law enforcement crisis hostage negotiation (and related areas such as Crisis Intervention Team) training.

As the study has shown, four key takeaways are:

  1. You must know the requisite skills,
  2. You must be able to use the skills appropriately and genuinely,
  3. It is important to always maintain emotional control, and
  4. You have to be able to adapt when necessary.

There is no need though for the impact of the study’s findings to stop with guiding law enforcement training. These findings can be applied to your life, your daily crisis-like and conflict interactions, negotiations, and other interactions you have.

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