7 Crucial Negotiation Skills from Police Hostage Negotiators

When it comes to negotiating, few people are as effective as crisis negotiators.

Kevin Buddaeus
Nov 10, 2020 · 6 min read
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Photo credit: Joshua Ness

any people claim to be experts in negotiation. Some entrepreneurs are notorious for always getting the best deal. But the stakes couldn’t be higher than when you have to negotiate with an emotionally unstable terrorist or criminal over the life of an innocent victim.

When lives are at stake, expertly trained hostage negotiators get called to the scene. Their mission: De-escalating the situation, establishing a reliable relationship with the suspect, and countering negative emotions with calm and systematic communication.

Luckily, you won’t find yourself in a real hostage situation every day.

But these crisis-proven skills can still come in handy when you have to de-escalate a conflict or need to hold your ground in a tough negotiation. They can also prove useful if someone is trying to hold you emotionally hostage.

Here are seven crucial skills that crisis and hostage negotiators use in their line of duty.

1. Active listening

Active listening is the most important skill for all negotiators. In a study with 188 negotiators, active listening was unanimously listed as the top priority.

It’s an ability which is used for effect, while at the same time gaining affection from the suspect. Negotiators listen to what the suspect says, how they say it, and analyze their emotional state in any given situation.

Through this, they build up a relationship of trust and understanding with the suspect, while gaining crucial information from them. They don’t act but react.

The point of active listening is to stay engaged with the suspect and filtering the conversation for valuable information to use in the decision-making further down the line. How many hostages? Is he armed? Is he willing to die?

The negotiator does not judge or otherwise emotionally attack the suspect. He uses questions to prevent the conversation from stalling and reassures and validates the suspect. This way the negotiator can prevent the suspect from reacting upon emotional impulses.

Active listening is a crucial element in active communication with a suspect. It’s the most important source of information. I have written a more in-depth article about active listening in the past.

2. Emotional Stability

One of the most important skills is the ability to remain calm even in dangerous situations. A negotiator has to remain firm and resolute, their voice calm and assertive.

In direct confrontations, they need to have clear body language and under no circumstances can emit fear or anxiety.

Just like every other human, they know what’s at stake and fear the worst. Would they not feel fear, they would not be able to make life-preserving decisions in volatile situations.

But they lock their fear up inside and keep their composure in the face of danger. Their mood and behavior will sooner or later reflect on the suspect. If the officer appears nervous and indecisive, so is the suspect.

Emotional stability is a key skill to face the high pressure that comes with high-risk negotiations. Here you can learn more about how to improve your emotional stability.

3. Patience

Though you might think that their goal is to solve a volatile situation as quickly as possible, it is actually the contrary. To prevent the situation from getting too tense or emotional, negotiators need to have very high patience.

If they try and force a resolution fast, things can suddenly escalate, the suspect can feel pressured into making a rash decision and thus endanger the life of the hostage, bystanders, or even the officers at the scene.

To give their team more time to assess the situation, and eventually bring a sniper team in position, hostage negotiators will even try to stall time and keep the suspect from taking any action.

Lastly, they need to thoroughly assess the situation. They can’t afford to make any rash conclusions and misjudge the suspect’s motives and reasoning.

Patience is a necessary rule to make the right decisions and understand the situation as a whole.

4. Self-Awareness

Negotiators need to establish a relationship with a suspect they don’t know. They want to form a bond of trust to gain control over the situation and manipulate the suspect into giving in. For that, they need to be aware of their own behavior.

They have to stay professional and prevent emotional involvement at all times. The way they speak, act and react determines how successful the negotiation will be.

If they fail to keep their emotions or behavior in check, they might risk an escalation of the situation or losing control over the negotiation to the suspect.

There might be situations in which they can actually relate to a suspect. For example, someone who took the rapist of his daughter hostage and intends to kill him. Even in these situations, the negotiator has to stay professional, emotionally detached, and calm.

Self-awareness is the realization of one's own purpose and goals in tense situations and the ability to control one’s own behavior systematically at all times.

5. Flexibility & adaptability

Negotiators need to be quick thinkers. Situations can change suddenly and drastically. When circumstances change, they risk losing the relationship of trust and respect they have built to that point.

A hostage may try to flee on their own, starting a quarrel with the suspect. Sudden noise may startle the suspect, who may start thinking the negotiator betrayed him and prepared an ambush.

There are many scenarios in which the situation can take an unforeseen turn, and the negotiator needs to adapt quickly to stay in control.

Because they can’t plan ahead for each possible scenario, they often have to rely on thinking on their feet. They need to stay calm and understand a sudden change before the suspect does.

Flexibility and adaptability are pivotal in order to make split-second decisions and stay on top of the situation whatever may happen. You can find 5 ways to boost your adaptability here.

6. Empathy & respect

In order for negotiators to establish a reliable relationship with the suspect, they need to approach with respect and understanding for their situation.

Though it might be hard for most people to empathize with anyone who is threatening another human’s life, it is crucial to approach with a level of understanding and sensitivity towards the suspect.

The negotiator never judges or condemns the past and present deeds of the suspect. Instead, they assure that they understand their reasoning. They call the suspect by name and focus on having the suspect relate to them as a human. This gives the suspect a feeling of familiarity and trust.

Empathy and respect are powerful tools to counter negative emotions and impulses. By feeling understood, the suspect will less likely see the negotiator as a threat.

This is an important step so that the suspect lowers his guard and becomes open to demands.

7. Honesty

Hollywood often depicts negotiations as a battle of wits. The negotiator seemingly gives in to ridiculous demands, makes false promises, and tells lies.

None of these will happen in a real negotiation until there’s no other way. A core skill of good negotiators is to keep the conversation controlled without telling lies or promising anything in advance.

Not all hostage-takers are stupid and unprepared. A highly intelligent suspect may be able to identify lies and thus abort further negotiations.

To stay trustworthy and strengthen the relationship, negotiators rely on honesty and common ground.

Honesty can be one of the best approaches to show a suspect that they can trust you. And if they trust you, they will listen to you.

Final thoughts

egotiators use verbal and non-verbal communication skills to protect lives and de-escalate situations that otherwise could end in a tragedy.

They rely on proven and refined tactics when negotiating with emotional and unpredictable people. To achieve this, they have to perfect the way of negotiation.

To stay in control of tense situations, they make use of active listening, a respectful and calm manner, and a high level of self-awareness.

The intense nature of their work leaves no room for errors or emotional reactions. They have to be on top of their game and use communication both as a tool and as a weapon.

Getting what you want is the only option when you want to save a life.


Crisis (hostage) negotiators weigh in: the skills, behaviors, and qualities that characterize an expert crisis negotiator by Kirsten E. Johnson, Jeff Thompson, Judith A. Hall & Cord Meyer — 2018, Police Practice and Research, issue 5

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Kevin Buddaeus

Written by

Follow me on this long journey to grow and learn together. We can make the world a better place. Connect with me via Twitter: @KBuddaeus

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

Kevin Buddaeus

Written by

Follow me on this long journey to grow and learn together. We can make the world a better place. Connect with me via Twitter: @KBuddaeus

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

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