In spite of some spectacular successes, these crises do not
all end well. There was a man who exited his house fully armed
toward a waiting helicopter, with his wife held close to him in front
as body shield, and his young child tied to his back. A sniper had
one short moment for a shot and took it, piercing the man’s neck.
The wife and child were saved but one life was lost.
And then there was Waco.
But crisis negotiation, with its unique ability to defuse radical
situations without harm, has grown in influence over the past 40
years. And its success seems to rest on a combination of mystery
and hard training, all leading up to that moment when the subject,
who was ready for death, makes the decision to live. Negotiators
have remarked on this transformation many times.
Negotiations are time-consuming by their very nature, but
there is pressure from all sides to resolve the situation quickly.
In spite of all these pressures, the negotiator must stand absolutely quiet, her sole focus being on the person in distress, being
utterly in tune with them, drawing them out into an easy, relaxed
and trusting conversation, and ultimately bringing them out safe
and unharmed. It is this quality of absolute listening, of being completely present regardless of the chaos around her, that makes
this transformation possible. No matter if the amygdalas are going
crazy, if competing outside pressures are many and intense; the
negotiator is fully present to the subject.
Although Douglas Steere, the great Quaker writer, never wrote
about crisis negotiation, his emphasis on focused listening as
the touchstone of transformation between people applies to this
work. In his essay, “On Listening to Another,” Steere wrote:
Have you ever sat with a friend when in the course of
an easy and pleasant conversation the talk took a new
turn and you both listened avidly to the other and to
something that was emerging in your visit? You found
yourselves saying things that astonished you and finally
you stopped talking and there was an immense natural-
ness about the long silent pause that followed. In the
silent interval you were possessed by what you had dis-
covered together. If that has happened to you, you know
that when you come up out of such an experience, there
is a memory of rapture and a feeling in the heart of having
touched holy ground.
Steere also writes about an Inward Listener, an inner part of
every speaker that is fully attuned to the listener. If the listener
has not given himself over completely to the speaker, if his attention drifts, if he becomes mechanical, thinking about what he will
say next that will “work,” the speaker knows it instantly and will
draw back from the interchange. But if the listener is fully present,
fully teachable by the speaker, fully willing to hear without judgment, the transformation almost inevitably takes place.
Many negotiators have described this transformation as seeming to produce a sort of high. Steere refers to it as the sense of
“being on holy ground.” This is the end point of all the training,
the deep ground that underlies the hard work and intense training that allows the negotiation to go forward. It is for this that the
negotiator was made.
From all the successes and bad endings, from all the tedious,
repetitive trainings, have come the skills and strategies that
the negotiators employ at the airport now. How well the team
members know their roles, how well they coordinate with the
other teams, how deeply they listen may determine the lives
of three people today.
The tactical team waits, the waiting room is cleared and the
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