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“Talk To Me”: What It Takes To Be An NYPD Hostage Negotiator

by Jeff Thompson, Hugh M. McGowan, Ph.D.
August 2014

“Talk To Me”: What It Takes To Be An NYPD Hostage Negotiator
This article is based on open-source material previously published (see below) and presented in public presentations.

Learn about the criteria and diverse skills needed to be part of the original law enforcement hostage negotiation team

Crisis and hostage incidents are known for being stressful, unpredictable, tense, anxiety-filled, and emotionally driven.  Add to this volatile concoction is that these incidents often can involve violence that has been threatened or having already occurred.  Amidst these chaotic incidents New York City Police Department hostage negotiators emerge to provide the antidote to the ensuing turbulence. 

NYPD hostage and crisis negotiators apply a specific set of skills in a strategic manner that is based on the current context.  These actions are grounded in empathy and respect that allows them work with the person in crisis towards a peaceful resolution that previously seemed impossible. 
Hostage

How often are the NYPD’s hostage negotiators skills tested?

The NYPD Hostage Negotiation Team (HNT) responds to more incidents in a month than most other departments throughout the country respond to in a year. In 2012 they responded to more than 400 incidents.  The HNT was involved in an incident lasting more that 50 hours and included 17 different negotiators.

The skills these negotiators use transcend these unique incidents and are applicable to a variety of other situations. This article explains what it takes to be on the HNT team and details the requisite skills of negotiators while realizing that most readers will never be a member of the NYPD HNT or any law enforcement HNT for that matter. 

From that mindset while reading these skills reflect on if they work in these dire situations you too can apply them to your crisis situations, conflicts, and disputes regardless if they are work related, occur in social settings, or involve family matters. Remember, a crisis is individually based meaning one situation can trigger a crisis for one person while for others that is not the case.

History of the NYPD Hostage Negotiation Team
The NYPD HNT was the first law enforcement hostage negotiation unit in the world.  The team celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2013 and was created after a series of incidents, in New York City and beyond, which involved hostages and barricaded incidents that had culminated in violence.  Many of these situations ended with people being wounded and killed including police personnel.

The NYPD realized that having officers trained to negotiate in these type of situations could increase the chances of a peaceful resolution.  Detective Harvey Schlossberg developed the guidelines for the new unit and Lieutenant Frank Bolz became its first commanding officer.    

What It Takes To Be On The HNT
Before learning about the skills used by NYPD hostage negotiators, first the requirements of what it takes to join the team will be shared along with what the components are of the HNT’s rigorous initial training.

The first requirement to joining the NYPD’s HNT is that you must be a law enforcement officer of the NYPD with the rank of Detective.  Further, the Detective must have at least 12 years of experience working in the NYPD.  This degree of experience nearly ensures the officer will already have valuable experience in using relevant communication skills in tense situations, has interacted with diverse cultures and people of various religious faiths, and possesses a detailed knowledge of police regulations and procedures.

By the time the officer makes it to the interview to “try out” for the HNT, he or she already is a proven communications expert.  Much like how a professional athlete does not just decide one day to play for the Yankees or Manchester United (yes, the two best sports teams thank you), becoming a member of the HNT does not happen overnight but rather it is the result of years of properly applying on a consistent basis skills that will be transferable and adaptable to crisis and hostage situations. 

The training itself is much more rigorous than most basic law enforcement crisis and hostage negotiation training.  Instead of the typical 5-day training, the NYPD’s HNT training is 11 days long. The training includes negotiation theory and practice, response protocol, role-playing based on real situations, cultural understanding and awareness, case study assessment, learning to use the equipment, and managing situations involving mentally ill or emotionally disturbed persons.  This last topic consists of over 40 hours for a reason- by far the majority of incidents the HNT responds to involve these types of situations.  The last day of training includes an interactive test that each officer must pass in order to become a member of the HNT.

Skills of HNT Negotiators
Now that you know what it takes to get onto the NYPD HNT, what are the skills that these expert crisis and hostage negotiators use on a frequent basis to successfully and peacefully resolve an incident?

In order to be successful the goal must be firmly established.  HNT members engage people in a crisis situation using specific communications tools. First, this is done by showing empathy; second by building rapport; and third, by developing trust over time with the subject (person experiencing the crisis). This is crucial as it then allows the negotiator to begin influencing the subject to re-evaluate their situation and allow the negotiator to work collaboratively with him or her.  Maintaining the subject’s self-determination is important, as it is he or she that needs to come to that conclusion and make the decision to choose a peaceful end.  The negotiator, needing to be charismatic, in essence is a guide providing assistance during the journey. 

The following are important skills NYPD hostage negotiators use time and again that contribute to successful negotiations (but by no means intended to be an exclusive list). Note, although you might not be a law enforcement crisis or hostage negotiator, these skills can be applied to a variety of other negotiation, business, professional, and social settings as well:

“Talk To Me” (Listen More, Talk Less)
“Talk To Me” is the motto of the HNT for a reason.  Expert NYPD negotiators listen much more than they talk.  It is not merely a motto but more accurately it is a foundation of which all the skills are based on. Inviting the subject to talk makes the first impression that the negotiator is there to listen.  This can come across as a surprise and therefore start the process of building rapport.

Think about it when you were last upset- would you rather talk or have someone else do the talking?  HNT negotiators realize before any type of substantive negotiating can begin the subject needs to tell their story. The “Talk To Me” approach builds trust and rapport, as well as displays empathy.

Patience.
Expert HNT negotiators realize that slowing the process down and being patient is one of the most effective ways to reduce the subject from acting out based on overwhelming emotions at the detriment of a rational thought process.  A negotiator’s patience also helps him or her avoid jumping to conclusions and rushing quickly towards a resolution.   

HNT negotiators are engaging a stranger experiencing a crisis, so if the negotiator skipped the steps of allowing the subject to speak and also skipping building rapport, the chances of the negotiator being able to influence the person to re-evaluate their situation and surrender greatly diminishes.  

Active Listening.
Active listening is a cluster of “affective” and “effective” skills.  The “affect” part builds rapport and trust while the “effect” gathers vital information.  The PRIME SOS acronym can help you remember these vital skills as they are described as the most important in the negotiator’s toolbox of skills to help a person in crisis: paraphrase, reflect/mirror, “I” messages, minimal encouragers, emotional label, summarize, open-ended questions, and silence. Importantly, NYPD negotiators use active listening strategically and genuinely to display the next skill- respect.

Respect. 
Yes, NYPD HNT negotiators show respect and therefore are non-judging in their tone and words.  Rather, the negotiator’s words dually display friendliness and assertiveness.  This allows the negotiator to show respect while also importantly still guiding the situation. Critical to showing respect is the negotiator being genuine. Being genuine is not manipulation, great acting, or being condescending but rather demonstrating care for the person to end the situation peacefully. 

Calm.
Remember, hostage situations are tense, stressful, and anxiety-filled.  The negotiator’s actions are contagious and as a guide using a calm, understanding, and respectful tone is what helps the subject realize there is an alternative way out of what was seemingly destined for a violent and potentially deadly conclusion. Starting with the initial greeting the negotiator is presenting a real alternative to the present chaos.  The negotiator’s tone, willingness to listen, and empathy emits a confidence that shows the subject (and other police) that communication can work.

Self-Awareness.
NYPD HNT negotiator’s operate “in the moment” where their detailed and continuous training let’s them quickly know how to properly identify what is going on with the subject and then respond accordingly.  The negotiator realizes they must establish a relationship with a complete stranger.  This means the negotiator also realizes that they are spending most of their time listening and not talking so when they do talk, it must be purposely timed taking into account both their verbal and nonverbal elements.

Adaptability.
Along with a detailed level of self-awareness comes knowing when to change and adapt one’s strategy.  Engaging in crisis and hostage negotiation is not a “cookie-cut” design where the same approach and actions are used each time in an identical way.  Rather, skills like active listening are applied based on the context.

Often a subject will move from instrumental needs (I want a car, I want you to leave, I want my job back, etc.) to expressive needs (I am frustrated, I am devastated, this is hopeless, etc.). An expert negotiator sees this happening and changes their responses to, for example, one that includes emotional labeling in order to acknowledge their emotions.    

 

Conclusion

The NYPD HNT uses the above skills on a daily basis displaying that the most valuable tool law enforcement officers can have is often not something on their belt or that they can carry.  Rather, their ability to communicate carries a much greater weight and influence that when used effectively, demonstrates respect, emits calm, builds rapport and trust, displays empathy, and can develop a bond with a total stranger that moments ago was consumed by a crisis with no way out. 

If NYPD hostage negotiators are able to use these skills to show that even these incidents are not intractable, they are worth trying in other disputes and conflicts.  Starting with a “talk to me” mindset can be your first step.

 

References:

Cambria, J.J., DeFilippo, R.J., Louden, R.J., & McGowan, H. (2002). Negotiation under extreme pressure: The “mouth marines” and the hostage takers. Negotiation Journal, (18)4, 331-343.

Volpe, M.R., Cambria, J.J., McGowan, H., & Honeyman, C. (2006). Negotiating with the unknown. In A. Schneider & C. Honeyman (Eds.), The negotiator’s fieldbook (pp. 657-665). Washnington, D.C.: American Bar Association.

Volpe, M.R., & Cambria, J.J. (2009). Negotiation nimbleness when cultural differences are unidentified. In C. Honeyman, J. Coben, & G. De Palo (Eds.), Rethinking negotiation teaching: Innovations for context and culture. St. Paul, MN: DRI Press.


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Biography



Jeff Thompson, Ph.D., is a professor at Lipscomb University, researcher, mediator, and trainer. He is also involved in crisis and hostage negotiation as well as a law enforcement detective. His research includes law enforcement crisis and hostage negotiation in terrorist incidents. He received his doctorate from Griffith University Law School having researched the impact nonverbal communication has in conflict situations with respect to developing rapport, building trust, and displaying professionalism.

Dr. Thompson has presented and trained on the topic of conflict, mediation, (crisis and hostage) negotiation, communication and nonverbal communication internationally for a variety of audiences including police personnel, government officials, judges, attorneys, physicians, sales people, business professionals, and both graduate and undergraduate students. He has also been published in numerous professional and academic publications.

He is the co-chair of ACR's national Crisis Negotiation Section, and he is an ad-hoc reviewer for multiple academic journals. He received his MS in Negotiation and Dispute Resolution from the Werner Institute, Creighton University School of Law.

(All posts by Jeff Thompson represent his personal reflections and opinions and not that of any organization.)

Hugh M. McGowan, Ph.D.

Doctor Hugh McGowan retired from the NYPD after 35 years of service. In his last 13 years with the department he was the Commanding Officer and Chief Negotiator of the Hostage Negotiation Team. During his tenure he personally responded to and coordinated negotiations at over 1,500 hostage, barricaded subject and suicide incidents.

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