Once again, the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School published an interesting article. This time it is about the “rules” that the New York City Police Hostage Negotiators live by to defuse the very stressful crises with which they deal almost daily. What strikes me about the “rules” is that they are quite simple to the point that anyone can understand and use them. They do not take loads of training to implement; just common sense.

Rule no. 1: “Talk to me”. As you have often seen when there is a hostage situation on T.V. or in the movies, the negotiator seeks out communication with the suspect. (Recall the 1998 movie “The Negotiator” in which Kevin Spacey plays the police negotiator and Samuel L. Jackson (also a police negotiator) plays the hostage taker.) Why? It “…signals that you are ready to listen….” (Id.) which is crucial to building rapport and trust. It is all about the “small talk”. It also allows the negotiator to display empathy which is crucial in crises. (Id.)

Rule no. 2: Patience. From my own mediation practice, I know that this is paramount. Not only must I be patient in terms of the time it may take to resolve an issue, but also patient in the sense of not jumping to conclusions, or assuming things. I need to be curious and ask questions to flesh out the “whys” and “wherefores” rather than assume the motivations or reasoning. More times than not, my assumptions will be wrong! I have noticed that the few times I have tried to speed up the “negotiation dance”, it has not come out well. This dance is a process that must be honored and not rushed.

Rule no. 3: Active listening. This is basic to any negotiation. Like Communication above, it is needed to build rapport and trust.

Rule no. 4: Respect. Basic to any interaction among humans is showing respect. While people may not always like the result, if they feel that they have been heard and respected, then they will feel that the “process” has been fair and will be content with the resolution. Fairness and respect are critical for any negotiation to be successful.

Rule no. 5: Calm. While neuroscience has shown that our decision making is emotional, at the same time, if our “fight or flight” response has kicked in due to fear, anxiety, frustration, general upset et cetera, then our Left brain or System 1 has hijacked our thinking and we will be completely unable to make a “reasoned” decision or to analyze any information in any fashion. Our System 2 or Right brain will be totally out of the picture. So, it is critical to stay calm- to breathe deeply from the diaphragm if necessary to slow ourselves down so that we will not make decisions in the heat of anger which we will deeply regret. And if we remain cool and calm, so too will the other party. Recall the advice that is often given that when faced with a very loud and angry person, one should respond in a very low, quiet voice. Why? This will help calm the other person down as well.

Rule no. 6: Self-awareness. Any person involved in a negotiation must be doing two things at the same time; establishing trust and rapport and thus a relationship with the other party, yet at the same time, not lose sight of the overall goal or purpose of the negotiation and always work towards reaching that goal. Thus, the crisis negotiator faced with one attempting suicide, is, at the same time, building a relationship with that person with the strategic goal of preventing the suicide.

Rule no. 7: Adaptability. This, to me, is the most challenging. How to “turn on a dime”. Often in mediation, the situation may change in a nanosecond, and I must “go with the flow’. In one second, I may think that I have settled a matter, and a nanosecond later, it is falling apart- so I must think quickly, change strategies, and try something new to put the deal back together again. Flexibility is the key.

So… the rules are simple; almost too simple. But, if implemented, reaching a resolution will probably happen more often than not. As I said, if these rules work for the NYPD, they should work for us all as well.

… Just something to think about!

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