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The Effective Crisis Communicator: Prepare Like a Navy SEAL

by Jeff Thompson
June 2017 Jeff Thompson

Crisis and hostage negotiators, as well as other law enforcement personnel, continually find themselves involved in crisis situations where the pressure is placed on him or her to peacefully resolve an incident. These situations are known to be stressful and this pressure has only increased with recent terrorist-related incidents involving hostages being taken and the attacks being prolonged when the suspect becomes barricaded which requires the use of negotiators. In order to be successful in these stressful environments, it is important for negotiators to continually train and practice in order to handle the stress and be properly able to use the requisite skills effectively.

Although the work of other conflict resolution professionals, such as mediators and arbitrators, is distinctly different types of conflict and dispute situations, they too work in stressful, emotionally driven environments that seemingly are intractable.

Looking beyond the realm of crisis negotiation, hostage negotiators, as well as mediators, arbitrators, ombuds, and conflict coaches, can learn from the skills practiced in other areas of crisis and adapt it to their trade in order to remain ready for the next job involving getting involved in a crisis, dispute, or conflict.

United States Navy SEALs are elite soldiers and among the most highly trained military personnel in the world. Although their work in crisis is much different from those mentioned above, there is still much that conflict resolution professionals can learn by examining what makes them effective.

The strategies discussed in this article have helped Navy SEALs prepare for their grueling training exercises including having their breathing apparatus removed while underwater as well as during real crisis incidents. Four strategies Navy SEALs use are 1) goal setting, 2) mental rehearsal, 3) self-talk motivation, and 4) emotional control. Each are further explained below and are adapted for crisis negotiators. The last step discusses breathing exercises. Some readers might easily be dismissive of the thought of practicing breathing exercises. Remember, the soldiers flying in Blackhawks going on dangerous missions across the globe use these strategies including breath-control exercises so if it works for them, it might help conflict professionals as well.

  • Read more on how this is specifically applied during Navy SEAL training from com.

The four strategies are explained below primarily through the lens of how it is applicable to crisis negotiators yet other conflict resolution professionals can easily adapt to it to their specific work in conflict.

  1. Set a Goal

Crisis negotiators are taught to 1) have a goal and 2) have a plan to achieve it. In crisis negotiation, the plan is to influence a behavioral change in the subject (the person negotiators are negotiating with) to gain voluntary compliance. Voluntary compliance is the goal and it is crucial during an incident that a negotiator continually checks in with themselves to see if their actions are helping or hindering in achieving that goal.

The Law Enforcement Stairway Model (LENS Model) is taught to crisis negotiators and other law enforcement personnel to remind them that taking one step at a time slows the situation down and increases their chances of success- a peaceful resolution by gaining voluntary compliance. According to the Harvard Business Review, success is connected to being specific- be specific with what the goal is and know the specific actions that need to be used. 

Mediators have a different goal, and based on the mediator’s style, the goal could be striving to get an agreement or getting the parties to feel better off compared to when they first arrived. Similarly, ombuds and conflict coaches seek to help people develop their own plan and method to move forward and address their issue. Regardless of the role, having a specific goal and then a plan to implement it is vital.

  1. Mental Rehearsal or Visualization

An effective crisis negotiator reviews the skills he or she has been taught and perfected through many hours of training. Rehearsing the important active listening micro skills as well as reflecting on common demands and statements made by subjects in similar situations allows a negotiator to remain calm and develop strategies based on the provided information.

  • More on the specific active listening skills used by crisis/hostage negotiators here.

Also, reviewing “cheat sheets” helps a negotiator easily be reminded of other crisis strategies that can contribute to a peaceful resolution. By mentally rehearsing, a negotiator can plan how to adapt their strategy because rarely, if ever, things go exactly according to plan.

Just like in sports, although crisis negotiation is much more serious, hostage negotiators “play the way they practice.” Judah Pollack and Olivia Fox Cabane discuss more on this and the importance of not robotically rehearsing or practicing but doing it with purpose. From a neuroscience perspective, you need to engage in some synaptic pruning – through practice, stop doing actions that are ineffective and continually do those that are effective. Crisis negotiators do not have the liberty to “wing it” – it is much too serious to not be prepared.

Again, other conflict professionals might have been trained active listening differently compared to hostage negotiators yet the importance of utilizing these skills transcends any particular conflict role. Knowing them is not enough, practice (mental rehearsal) is something that must always been done in order to remain effective.

  1. Self-Talk

Considering we talk to ourselves between 300 and 1,000 words a minute according to this documentary, make sure what you are saying to yourself is both positive and building your confidence (although not smug and arrogant). According to a Wall Street Journal article, there are certain ways to talk positively to yourself based on research studies. For example, say to yourself “you can do this” compared to “I can do this.”

Practicing steps one and two will assist you with this step to help keep you focused for the crisis you are preparing for. Also keep in mind, this helps diminish the expected anxiety that will be trying to creep in.

It is easy for a hostage negotiator, mediator and other conflict resolution professionals to get caught up in all of the negative emotions that are being expressed (that is emotional contagion and discussed further below). Trusting yourself and ability to help make a positive impact is also contagious. In order to help change the perspective of others, a conflict professional must have faith in their abilities.

  1. Emotional Control

It is vital to control one’s emotions when going into a crisis situation. If the crisis incident is already tense, unpredictable, potentially volatile, stressful, anxiety-filled, and the subject’s actions are driven by a cluster of negative emotions, a crisis negotiator must control their emotions and not get caught up in the chaos. Emotional contagion reminds the negotiator that a person’s emotions can be “caught” by those around them. Through his or her actions, the negotiator can influence the subject by displaying a sense of calm amidst the chaos through his or her verbal and nonverbal communication. It is particularly important for the negotiator to be aware of his or her voice tone as it can help or hinder the negotiator in trying to de-escalate the situation.  

Aside of the specific communication and influencing techniques conflict professionals use, simple breathing exercises used by Navy SEALs can help ensure the negotiator, mediator, ombuds, and others is remaining calm and level headed. The breathing exercises are not intended for use only when you feel overwhelmed and stressed- their value is realized when used preparing for the incident. A simple breathing exercise is 4x4: Breathe in for four seconds through your nostrils (filling and expanding your stomach), out for four seconds (either through your nostrils or mouth), and do it for a minute.

Conclusion

If Navy SEALs use these skills to practice and prepare for the dangerous situations that they continually face and it helps contribute to their success time and again, crisis negotiators and other conflict resolution professionals can adapt these strategies to our profession to assist us in being prepared for the next crisis incident. Although no two situations are identical and permit a cookie-cut designed response, our preparation for crisis incidents, which includes these four steps, can help us respond in a calm and professional manner. This approach will allow us to adopt or strategies when necessary and work towards a successful resolution.

Author’s note: This article is adapted from “The Effective Crisis Negotiator: Prepare Like a Navy SEAL.”

 

 

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.)



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