I immediately began to explain the facts of the case to include
their dangerous history and the contraband that I expected to be
found in the house. The man stopped me abruptly and said he
wasn’t interested in that information. He wanted to know about
the targets’ relationships, family issues, culture, values, hot buttons, and other things not at all related to the facts of the case. I
reluctantly gave him the requested information and I remember
wondering what was wrong with this “old man.” The last thing
he asked me for were all the phone numbers I had for the offenders. Then he disappeared into the darkness.
Shortly before 6:00 a.m., I noticed the SWAT team begin to
“stack up” and prepare to break down the front door. I expected
them to yell “FBI arrest warrant!” and then sweep the inside of
the house for people and contraband. It had all the potential to be
ugly. By 6:05 a.m. nothing had happened. By 6: 10 a.m. I thought
that my short FBI career was over. Then, out of nowhere, the
front door opened and the main offender, a cold-blooded KGB-trained killer, walked out unarmed with his hands up. The SWAT
officers immediately arrested him with no difficulty, cleared the
house, and left the scene with me.
As it turned out, that unimpressive “old man” was a crisis
negotiator, who simply called the offender and used his skills to
influence him to give up and walk out. This, to me, was absolutely
magic and that’s when I decided I wanted to learn these skills.
In short order I applied and was accepted for crisis negotiation training. The training included very little theory with a lot of
practice role-playing and watching senior negotiators in action.
I became good at it, but I was unsure why or how it worked. The
only answer I got from my trainers was to just keep practicing,
training, and gaining experience.
I felt strongly that if I were to truly understand how it worked
I needed to understand why it worked. At that time, I had just
finished my master’s degree in criminal justice and I was looking
for a doctoral degree program. I stopped by an open house at
Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where
I found a doctoral program in conflict analysis and resolution. I
immediately jumped into the program and it was there where I
found my answers to how crisis negotiation really works.
Over the next 10 years, I finished my Ph.D., participated in
many crisis negotiation incidents, and worked as a full-time
negotiator with the Crisis Negotiation Unit where I worked on
My last assignments were as a Supervisory Special Agent
and, later, Unit Chief of the FBI’s legendary Behavioral Science
Unit (BSU), where I did research and taught new agents and
police officers crisis negotiation techniques that I had honed
over the years. I have since taught many non-law enforcement
officers the same techniques.
Crisis negotiation, regardless of its context (law enforcement,
business, counseling, etc.), consists of dealing with people in
highly emotional situations and using empathy and active lis-
tening to reduce emotions and build rapport. Once this occurs,
the negotiator must then bargain with the person in crisis to end
the situation. The process starts with getting the person to vent
their issues so a needs assessment can be made to determine
the best areas to focus upon (e.g., respect, identity, content).
Then through a process using active listening, empathy, and
trust, the negotiator diffuses the emotions and builds rapport,
moving the person from an irrational or emotional mindset to a
rational or instrumental mindset. Then it is a matter of influenc-
ing collaborative or accommodating behavior on the part of the
person in crisis in order to move the negotiation to the desired
Here’s the key to why it works: when someone is in crisis,
they believe that they can’t cope with the situation themselves
and that no one is available to help to provide social support.
This can result in destructive behavior. In these situations, the
negotiator becomes the social support for the person in crisis;
that is why there is such a high success rate with crisis negotiation even in very dangerous situations. At the moment, the
negotiator is the only one who seems to care.
Up until 2011, I was convinced that anyone could use these
techniques effectively if they were trained properly. It was my
impression that the techniques by themselves would carry
the day. That is until I met Gilbert Wong the Commander of the
Hong Kong Police Negotiation Cadre (PNC). Gilbert had attended
some BSU training when he attended the FBI National Academy
and we became fast friends.
In 2013 and 2014, I traveled to Hong Kong to train their negotiation team. On both occasions, I deployed with the PNC and
observed them in action dealing with suicidal people who
threatened to jump off high-rise buildings (their most common
problem). What I saw was not the techniques, but the simple
caring for another human being and the commitment to never
give up that won every time. For example, after the jumper was
talked down, the negotiator would sit with that person and continue to talk with them about their problems, coping, and what
to expect in terms of the police and social support services. This
rarely happens in the U.S. The PNC’s motto is “Who Cares Wins”
and it was this experience that made me rethink some of my
earlier beliefs, which was that all you need is to be good at the
Being good at the technical aspects is important, but truly
caring about the other person you are trying to help in that
moment is even more important. It is my belief that this is why
the PNC has some of the highest success rates of any crisis
negotiation team in the world.
Being good at the technical aspects of crisis
negotiation is important, but truly caring about
the other person you are trying to help in that
moment is even more important.