Peace Talks Radio
This is Peace Talks Radio, the radio series and podcast on peacemaking and nonviolent conflict resolution. I’m series producer Paul Ingles today with correspondent Danielle Preiss.
From criminal kidnappings to political brinkmanship, hostage taking is a tragic business that captivates news readers and fills the plots of thrillers. As has been seen in recent years, it can be a core element of high stakes wars.
Far from the dramatic scenes played out in movies and TV series, what actually happens during these negotiations? How do hostage negotiators build rapport and trust and come to agreements with kidnappers? How are these same tactics used in lower stakes negotiations that we have all the time in our regular lives?
Common sense tells us that some people are better negotiators than others. Research now supports this idea as well. In part two of this program, we’ll hear about this research and how we can use it to improve how we perform in and feel about negotiating.
First, we’ll be hearing about how a hostage negotiator and former hostage used these tactics in real life. In these two parts of this Peace Talks Radio episode, correspondent Danielle Preiss will talk with three guests who know the world of hostage taking and negotiations intimately from different perspectives.
In our first part, we’ll hear from Sue Williams, a British hostage negotiator who has worked on some of the highest profile and most dangerous hostage situations across the world. While working as detective with Scotland Yard, Sue was the most senior ranking officer in charge of the kidnap and hostage negotiation units. Sue now works mainly with humanitarian organizations as a negotiator and crisis response advisor supporting situations when local staff have been kidnapped within their homes and countries.
But first we’re going to hear from Thomas Olson from Northern Sweden. Thomas is a former humanitarian worker who now supports safety and security for humanitarians operating in high-risk contexts in part by sharing his story during training.
In early December 2013, while doing humanitarian work in Syria, Thomas was kidnapped by Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate active in that country. Thomas and a Swedish friend he was with were stopped at a checkpoint. They figured they would be held for a few days but expected to be home by Christmas. It would ultimately take a year and a half before their release was negotiated. During that time, the two men were mostly in the dark about what was going on to secure their release.
Here's Danielle Preiss speaking with Thomas Olson about his experience.
Danielle Preiss: When did you realize that you were in a kidnapping situation?
Thomas Olson: We were captured in the beginning of December 2013, but it took up to one week before we really recognized that we had been kidnapped.
Danielle Preiss: Did you have any sense at that time of how long it might go on?
Thomas Olson: No, I thought there would be a quick solution of the problem. I thought it would be before our departure back to Sweden, a few days.
Danielle Preiss: What did you do to calm your thoughts and get through the experience emotionally?
Thomas Olson: I spent a lot of time meditating. I would say that I am a Christian. I knew positive Bible verses. I used my positive imagination about the future, about family. I used a lot of time meditating on positive things, specifically when there was a lot of stress and things going on around me.
Danielle Preiss: Were there things that you felt like helped you deal with the people who were holding you in terms of how you communicated with them or trying to use different techniques in that communication?
Thomas Olson: One thing was to care, to try to feel some kind of empathy with their cause, not just their cause, but also individuals. Many of them were hurt. They had lost family members. It helped a lot to try to feel empathy with them even though of course I did not agree with what they were doing. Sharing things, sharing belongings, sharing food helped. Trying to care about them even though it was hard of course.
Danielle Preiss: Were you able to get to a point where you did feel genuine empathy?
Thomas Olson: Yes, of course. We could hear the bombs going off all around us, coming down on the surrounding villages. We saw quite a few people injured. It was not hard at all to feel some kind of empathy with them, not at all.
Danielle Preiss: Was there anything else that you felt like you did in terms of the way that you communicated with them, not just thoughts and feelings, but also about how you would speak. Did you employ any strategies in your communication style?
Thomas Olson: Yes, I think so. Of course, it was hard to communicate with everyone. You need to choose and determine over time who was credible to share things with and ask for things. You had to build some kind of relationship with them. Some were bad, but some were also good. When you felt there was a hook, you could try to communicate and build relationships with them. By the way, all of them did not want to be in that situation. Some were forced, but they had of course made the decision to stay.
Danielle Preiss: Were people sharing their stories? Did they tell you about how they had been forced into the situation?
Thomas Olson: Yes, it could be family relationships. It could be someone who ended up on the wrong side of the checkpoint because they wanted to leave the area, but it was controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra in this case.
Danielle Preiss: Did you have any contact with your family over this time?
Thomas Olson: Yes, in the sense that we had letters written to each other every second or third of the month, we had communication. They called it proof of life. They wrote a message to me and then I replied, but it was just basic things like “I love you. I wish all the best for you.”
Danielle Preiss: Were you able to be honest in those letters or did you have to communicate in a calculated way?
Thomas Olson: I was honest in the sense that I wanted them to feel support and be comfortable and not risk their lives. Of course, I told white lies, but I was honest to a degree.
Danielle Preiss: Joining us today on Peace Talks Radio is Thomas Olson.
Thomas Olson, I want to ask you some questions about hostage situations in general based on your work and your experience. I know every situation is different and there is probably no right way to respond, but what does tend to help people in these situations? Are there negotiation techniques or skills that tend to help people get by and improve their situation?
Thomas Olson: I think there are a few things, what I call survival strategies. Meditating and having positive thoughts is important. Recognize the needs of your body. Exercise. Have some kind of imagination in your head to see the future with a good solution. Have hope, take something small and make it positive. It’s a skill to build relationships.
Danielle Preiss: Do you think that innate ability to build relationships is something that helped you in your hostage situation?
Thomas Olson: Yes, of course, negotiating for so many things like an extra toilet visit, an extra piece of vegetable, going outside. It helped a lot.
Danielle Preiss: In terms of communicating with kidnappers or people who were holding you, in a general sense, do you think that honesty works best or is there some level of calculated misdirection that can be useful?
Thomas Olson: I don’t know, but I do know that I never lied. I did not always tell the whole truth all the time. I know that they respected me because I was honest. I stood up for my faith for example. I did not want to convert. I was honest about my family, how I felt. For me, honesty was important as well as standing up for what I believed in to keep my integrity. It was not just a behavior to get advantages, but also being able to live with my decisions and the things that I said and did.
Danielle Preiss: Thomas Olson, are there any skills that you gained from your experience that you use in your regular life now?
Thomas Olson: I now understand how important communication and negotiation skills are. Meditation helped me keep a good view of the future. Visualization, being hopeful, being positive about the future, taking small things in life and making them important. I stopped doing things that I didn’t want to do and started doing things that I really love, that inspire me and give me purpose.
Danielle Preiss: You situation is obviously extremely unique. Most people listening to this will never experience anything close to what you went through. Are there skills or techniques that people can apply in day-to-day situations in regular life in terms of stress management or negotiating skills? Are there things that people can incorporate to improve everyday situations?
Thomas Olson: Yes, to be happy with small things, small victories, small celebrations, that it’s sunny, that it’s raining for the farmers, having good relationships, a good social network, knowing that people are on your side, and you are on their side. Exercise, breathing and all the things that I already mentioned, but I would also recommend having regular service. As we send our cars for regular service, we should have someone to talk with on a regular basis for our well-being.
Danielle Preiss: Thomas, when the general public learns about detention or hostage situations, we tend to know very little about what’s going on behind the scenes. There is often a sense that the government isn’t doing anything, or the organization is not doing anything. Why is it that the general public hears so little about what’s actually happening?
Thomas Olson: From a hostage perspective, we don’t want to share our stories. We don’t want to expose family members. As a hostage, we don’t know what’s going on. We don’t know what has happened, we just know that now we are free.
Danielle Preiss: Thomas, after you release, what have you done that has helped you to, not move on, but to make peace with what had happened?
Thomas Olson: I think many of the things that I did in captivity helped me when I came back out to freedom. One thing is to forgive to a degree the people that hurt you. That caused me not to be bitter.
Another positive thing was to see that my family got the support that they really needed. It gave me hope at some points as well.
Writing was another thing that helped me quite much regarding nightmares. If the nightmare was bad, I wrote what I remembered and then I changed it to something positive.
Maybe the last thing I will say is that I had a very good social network, and I received help from a psychologist for about one and a half years after the incident.
Paul Ingles: That was Thomas Olson speaking about his experience as a hostage of Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Find more information about him and all of our guests at www.peacetalksradio.com. You can hear Danielle Preiss’ entire interview with Thomas there as well.
As we said earlier, next it’s Sue Williams, a British hostage negotiator with Scotland Yard. She was the most senior ranking officer in charge of the kidnap and hostage negotiation units. Sue now works mainly with humanitarian organizations as a negotiator and crisis response advisor supporting situations when local staff had been kidnapped within their home countries.
Sue Williams: I think sometimes in the movies, you get this husky, disc jockey voice saying, “Talk to me.” That’s the beginning of it, but if only it were that easy. It doesn’t work like that. There’s lots of preparation. In some of the movies that I’ve seen, the negotiator tends to get involved in a lot of the decision making and a lot of other aspects whereas in real life, if you’re in the negotiator role, you just stick to that role.
You don’t have much involvement in other aspects of the response because your job is to build rapport and to get on with the hostage taker or whoever it is that is in crisis. That’s one difference, the lack of preparation. That’s not really entertainment, is it, watching someone prepare or watching someone do a risk assessment. It’s not really riveting entertainment, so I can understand why that’s left out.
Danielle Preiss: How did you end up getting into this work in the first place?
Sue Williams: I was a police officer. I knew that I wanted to become a detective. I did become a detective and then I thought that I wanted to investigate murders because I thought that would be the pinnacle of anyone’s detective career. But along the way, one of my senior officers suggested that I might be quite good at negotiation. The funny thing is the reason that he gave was that I talked a lot. Anybody who knows anything about negotiation knows that it’s not about talking, it’s about listening. He was right though; it did work for me. I felt like a round peg in a round hole once I discovered it really.
Danielle Preiss: Your main job is to build rapport you said. How do you do that?
Sue Williams: It’s not easy. That’s the first answer. Sometimes you’re working through an interpreter, sometimes you’re not. You just really have to begin by listening. You have to listen without judgment. You have to ask questions that will hopefully harvest information. The main thing that you have to do, Danielle, is you have to try to understand your counterpart. It doesn’t matter if you don’t agree with them, you just have to understand them without judgement. I think some people can’t understand that they have to do that and why they have to do that.
How could I be arrogant enough to get them to do what I say if I haven’t taken the time and the trouble to understand their life and to see the world through their eyes. Really the beginning is relationship building. It’s building up rapport, it’s communication, hopefully good communication and then that flips over into negotiation. In my mind, I’m always conscious when I’ve moved from communication into negotiation.
Danielle Preiss: When you are in the negotiation phase, does honesty work best or is there some level of game play that is employed or is some level of misdirection needed?
Sue Williams: No, you have to use honesty and the reason that you have to do that, Danielle is because negotiation is based on a lot of trust, even trusting bad people. You have to do that sometimes. If you get caught in a lie, you’re never going to get that trust back are you. It’s a bit like a broken glass, you can put it back together again, but it’s never going to quite look the same.
Danielle Preiss: Do you have to empathize with the other person?
Sue Williams: One hundred percent yes. Sometimes you can create tactical empathy and also get them to empathize with you as well. Yes, empathy is a huge tool in the box, not sympathy, but empathy definitely.
Danielle Preiss: How do you do that? What is tactical empathy? How do get someone who has a pretty strong motivation to do something to empathize with you?
Sue Williams: You just have to listen and come up with the right words.
Danielle Preiss: Are there specific terms or phrases or ways to word things that you find de-escalates situations?
Sue Williams: Yes, the normal de-escalation that you would use with a colleague who is having a big of an angry moment, things like not matching their voice, keeping your voice calm. Never say “I understand,” because you don’t do you. Nobody can really understand how somebody else feels. Also, the right to understand is not given to you is it as such if that makes sense.
Danielle Preiss: How do you mean not having the right to understand?
Sue Williams: Well, if someone says, “I understand how you feel,” they really don’t do they. They don’t know how you feel. That’s why it can sometimes be a provocative thing to say and can actually spark someone in crisis off in the wrong direction.
Danielle Preiss: Today on Peace Talks Radio, we are talking with Sue Williams, a hostage negotiator with international organizations in the humanitarian world.
The former Governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson who died in 2023 was known for his regular work in international hostage negotiation. This show airs in New Mexico, so we are interested in his legacy.
I’m curious in general, how are political figures useful or detrimental in these situations?
Sue Williams: Just before I answer that, I want to pay tribute to Bill. I had a fair bit to do with him and I respected him. He seemed to be one of the rare politicians that rose above politics to help other people. You’re right, he has left a great legacy behind.
I’m going to give you a negotiator’s answer to your question, it depends. It really depends on the motivation of the hostage takers. Sometimes by involving politicians, you can make things worse. You can upgrade from a criminal kidnapping which is a bit more straightforward to deal with than a political kidnapping. You try to keep it criminal without upgrading it to political. You have to be careful what you ask politicians to do. Obviously, there is lots of diplomacy behind the scenes that people don’t know about and usually that’s a bit safer.
Danielle Preiss: Sue Williams, maybe we can talk now more about the families. I understand that you work quite a lot with the families as well. What is that piece of it like? How is it working with families in these situations? I assume is the worst thing they’ve ever experienced.
Sue Williams: The first hurdle is actually getting the family to believe that it has happened. As has been said to me many times, “We’re just ordinary people. Things like this don’t happen to people like us. This only happens in the movies.” Then you have to get their trust and confidence in you because the family can have such a big impact on the outcome of any hostage response particularly or any other crisis response. Earning their trust and confidence at an early stage is very, very important.
Ensuring that they look after themselves, if there are children in the family, ensuring that they protect the children in some ways.
Also, something which I didn’t have to do in the early days of this type of work, for some reason, and I don’t understand why, the families get trolled. Some people seem to get some degree of pleasure out of bringing unhappiness to other people and enjoying the predicament the family finds themselves in.
You have to warn the families that mad and crazy people will say things to them. You have to warn them also that people may contact them saying that they have their loved one, but it is not true. These days there are quite a few fake kidnappers because they can get enough information from the internet to pretend to the family that they have their loved one. Because the family is desperate, they want to believe it. It’s usually a very small random and a very quick turnover, but it’s actually just some bad people making money off of someone else’s misery. You have to warn them about that.
Danielle Preiss: Sue Williams, most people luckily are never going to be in a hostage situation. Are there techniques that people can use from your work in day-to-day life?
Sue Williams: If it’s an important contract in some way, a house, a car, even a mobile phone, take a few minutes out to prepare. Try to second guess what the other side is going to say or what they’re going to do. Think about what your bottom line is. Think about the research that you’ve done and what you know your bottom line is. Really, before you go in, you’re prepared with information.
In negotiations, the questions that we ask are very seldom “yes” or “no” questions. Occasionally we do to get people used to saying “yes,” which is one technique, but in general, mostly when we craft a question in the preparation work, we look at what information can be harvested. Where are our information gaps? What don’t we know? We craft questions around getting the right information that we need. I would suggest as part of preparation before entering a contract that that takes place as well.
Danielle Preiss: It’s one thing to negotiate to buy a car. It may be high stress but low emotion. What about in negotiations with family members or loved ones? I think that this is an area where a lot of people can relate, having tough negotiations with family members. Are there any skills for dealing with these more emotional contexts?
Sue Williams: That’s a really good point actually because I have negotiated on behalf of family members, but that’s a whole different ballgame from actually negotiating with family members, children or adults actually.
The reason for that is emotion because you have an emotional involvement with your counterpart whereas one hundred percent, I never have an emotional commitment to any of the people that I have negotiated with, so it’s a lot harder because when you press that emotional button, and you can’t always stick to what the script would be.
The main point whether you’re negotiating with people you know or people you don’t know, really and truly, the key to any good negotiation is to truly listen to what the individual is saying. Also, let people vent. Venting is very useful because when you have something in your mind, then you say it out loud, it doesn’t sound the same way as it did in your head, does it. When you allow people to vent, it can sometimes dawn on them what they are saying.
Danielle Preiss: I would love to know how you feel about doing this work and why it’s meaningful for you.
Sue Williams: When I was a young detective and looked into the eyes of people who had had one of their family or a loved one murdered, I always felt a bit helpless. What can I do? I can’t promise them justice. I can’t bring them back, that’s for sure. I can’t take away their pain. I can’t make any promises because too much is out of my control. What I can do is I can say that I will do my very best to bring them back and I do feel that sometimes, the majority of times, I can take away their pain.
Paul Ingles: That was Sue Williams, a hostage negotiator and crisis management advisor. You can find out more information about her and all the guests on our program at www.peacetalksradio.com. You can hear Danielle Preiss’ entire interview with Sue at our website as well. Look for Program 11 in Season 21 on hostages.
Coming up in part two of our program, we’ll hear about personality traits that good negotiators have and how to improve your odds right after this short break.
www.peacetalksradio.com is where you can go to hear all the programs in our series dating back to 2002. You can see photos of our guests, share transcripts, sign up for our podcast, and importantly, make a donation to keep this program going into the future. Help support us as we help support a culture of peace at www.peacetalksradio.com. Support comes from listeners like you as well as the Albuquerque Community Foundation Ties Fund. Thanks too for all of the affiliates that carry our program including our very first KUNM at the University of New Mexico. If you have any questions or comments for us, you can write to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is Peace Talks Radio, a radio series and podcast on peacemaking and nonviolent conflict resolution. I’m series producer Paul Ingles today with correspondent Danielle Preiss who is looking at the high stakes world of hostage negotiations. In our first half hour, she talked with a hostage negotiator and someone who had been taken hostage. Hostage negotiators have one of the most high stress jobs in the world. They have to be highly skilled at reading other people’s emotions and keeping their own in check. In part one of our program, Danielle talked with a hostage negotiator and someone who had been taken hostage.
As our next explains in part two, these skills are important for any type of negotiating, whether it be for a new car or a higher salary. Dr. Hillary Anger Elfenbein researches the personality traits that make good negotiators and how anybody can improve their skills. Dr. Elfenbein is a professor at the Olin School of Washington University whose research focuses on emotion and negotiation among other topics. She and her colleagues have conducted research supporting the commonsense hypothesis that some people have personalities that make them better negotiators than others. These skills can be developed and it’s possible for you listeners to improve your chances at negotiating.
Here is our correspondent Danielle Preiss with Dr. Elfenbein.
Danielle Preiss: Tell me about your research on individual differences in negotiation. What have we learned from this work?
Hillary Elfenbein: When I first showed up in this topic area, there was a real dominant perspective from academics that people are the so-called “rational man” and that in a negotiation, differences from one person to the next didn’t matter.
The common wisdom is really quite the opposite. There is a lot of sense from people outside of academic circles that certain personalities are more typical of successful negotiators. The common wisdom is that people who are more assertive, more confident, more extroverted and enjoy interacting with people, more conscientious and are better able to prepare are better negotiators.
There was a clash between what the academics thought and what the common wisdom was, so we had people do experiential exercises and what we found was that a lot of the commonsense notions tended to be correct on average.
Danielle Preiss: The regular person had a better sense of this than the academics, is that right?
Hillary Elfenbein: Yes, and I think it’s because the previous research on this topic was really dominated by economists who have a certain perspective on how people actually behave that doesn’t correspond to the way that psychologist see people actually behaving.
Danielle Preiss: What kinds of exercises were people involved in the research doing?
Hillary Elfenbein: Half the people in the study were given a set of instructions to be buyers and half the people were instructed to be sellers. We put them together to see what they came up with.
Typically, in these studies there are five to eight issues. It’s a fictional role play exercise. The participants put themselves in the role. Decisions have to be made about price, color warranty of a vehicle. There would be five to eight issues where an agreement would have to be reached. Some issues are completely competitive, like price. Obviously, you want to buy low and sell high.
Some of the other issues are less obvious. In one example, they actually want the same delivery date. The car dealer would like to order something rather than use stock. The buyer is about to go on vacation and would rather have delivery afterwards.
There are issues with compatible cooperative preferences and then there are issues that are tradeoffs where maybe two people care about the warranty, but one side cares a lot, but the other side only cares a little bit. You see whether people can make efficient trades. Those are the kinds of exercises we have people do.
Typically, the outcome is two-fold. There is an objective score that is reached. All the issues are scored, and the participants know how many points they’re worth.
Also, a colleague of mine, Jared Curhan from MIT, the two of us created a survey about the feelings people have coming out of their negotiations. I feel like the field has moved to a point where other people are really heavily using the survey as well. We measure coming out of the study how people felt and there were huge personality differences.
More agreeable people tend to feel like they’ve had a better experience working with others. More neurotic people tend to feel like they’ve had a more negative experience working with others. It’s not surprising because neuroticism at its core is about being sensitive to the negative signals of life and negotiations is really negative for a lot of people.
Jared has a study, not one that I was involved with, where he did a survey that asked random people on the street about life activities and how much people enjoy them. They were things like going to the movies, eating at a restaurant, doing chores. Negotiating ranked lower than going to the dentist!
Danielle Preiss: That’s probably true for me.
Hillary Elfenbein: People don’t enjoy this. This is not a fun activity for most people. A very small number of people love it, but for most people, it’s a chore.
Danielle Preiss: Do we know now, is it possible to say what personality traits good negotiators have?
Hillary Elfenbein: The answer is that it depends on the kinds of negotiations. There are so many different features, but I’ll put them into two main buckets which are cooperative and competitive. Also, you might phrase these as long-term versus short-term.
Short-term is in general what people think of when I say “negotiation.” People think of buying a car. Especially when buying a new car, you don’t even need to trust the seller. They can lie all they want, but if I’m buying a Subaru, the company Subaru is going to stand behind it. I might think that I can’t trust the seller at all, but they are not going to be the person that I’m dealing with two years from now. Those are the kinds of negotiations where assertiveness and extroversion are really valuable. That’s the kind of negotiation where the general stereotype really does apply.
Then you have the long-term negotiations where high quality working relationships and implementation really come into play.
I live in St. Louis Missouri right now. I’m from New York City originally, but I now live in St. Louis, which is what I would call an old economy. People in Saint Louis make physical objects. We have Boeing making planes, Anheuser-Busch making beer and Emerson Electronics.
These are the kinds of companies where they will have many years’ long contracts, especially Boeing because they are making specialized parts for planes that you can’t just buy anywhere. No one except Boeing is making those parts. That’s the type of negotiation where if you are a gun-slinging, assertive type of person, that’s a terrible personality fit for that long-term contract negotiation.
You’re trying to create a working relationship that will weather the storms of implementation. If you don’t feel like someone is going to come through for you three years from now, that’s not a good long-term deal. That’s the kind of negotiation where you want someone who is agreeable, someone who is a good listener who can build trust.
Danielle Preiss: Yes, that makes a lot of sense.
What about negotiations that are more coercive or high stress like hostage situations, where would that fall on this continuum?
Hillary Elfenbein: Hostage negotiations in particular are fascinating, the traits that are necessary in these high stress, high stakes moments. The work that I’ve done in this area has really been about the team, not just the individual, but the teams. These are large teams working together with a very distinct set of roles.
People need strong emotional intelligence in these roles. If there was one trait needed to do this job well, it would be emotional skills. It's such a high stress job that the lead negotiator actually has a secondary negotiator who is equally skilled. The primary and the secondary might take turns from one incident to the next. They are equally skilled.
The secondary negotiator’s job is to support the primary negotiator, not just to bounce ideas off, but literally to be there as an emotional support because of the extreme stress. It’s hard to imagine a more stressful job.
Danielle Preiss: Absolutely it is. Could you tell me more about these emotional skills? Are there specific traits that people look for in this job?
Hillary Elfenbein: Looking at hostage negotiations, it’s helpful to distinguish skills. One skill is emotion recognition. Can you recognize the emotional states of others? This tends to be tested by showing people photos of facial expressions or audio recordings of vocal tones. Then you ask people; “What was this person trying to convey?” Some people do better on these tests than others. It’s the first primary skill that you look at. The lead negotiator, really everyone on the team, especially the lead negotiator, has to be alert to emotional transitions.
At some point, the hostage taker starts to be open to a conversation. At some point, they suddenly get angry. When you first start speaking to the hostage takers, what is their state of mind? Are they stable or unstable? Can you have a conversation with them? Do you need to calm them down first? There is a sense in hostage negotiation that you are constantly trying to buy time. You need to delay and get into conversations. Sometimes the goal of the conversation is really just to delay long enough for the SWAT team to get in place.
The other really big one is emotion regulation. Can you stay calm? People vary in how calm they can stay.
Those are the two biggest personality traits.
Another big trait is how good you are at managing the emotions of other people. We can never control other people. We can never control what other people feel. Some people can massage others feelings and soothe them. That’s a skill that the lead negotiator absolutely needs.
Danielle Preiss: I spoke with Thomas Olson who was held for an extend time by the Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria as well as Sue Williams who is a crisis management consultant who used to lead the Hostage Crisis Negotiation Unit with the British Police. Both of them really emphasized the importance of empathy and honesty in negotiating with people who are holding hostages. They both emphasized the importance of trying to understand where the hostage takers are coming from.
Are empathy and honest always the best strategies or are there times when a more strategic or manipulative approach is better?
Hillary Elfenbein: That’s a great question. Empathy has three components. You always need the first one and the second and third you may sometimes want or not want, probably not want in a hostage situation.
The first layer of empathy is perspective-taking. Can I see the world the way the hostage takers see the world? Can I understand through their eyes? That is one hundred percent always helpful, always. I can’t work with someone, buy a car from someone, talk someone down from murdering another person if I don’t understand how they got to that moment. What can I give this person that is of value to them? What resources are not valuable? What does it take to upset them? How can I give them something that they want? That’s the first layer. You absolutely need that every single time.
The second and third layers are sometimes helpful and sometimes not. The second layer after empathy is caring and the third layer is what will I do? I actually think in general; the hostage negotiators really want to block out the second and third layers. If someone has taken 20 people hostages at a bank, I don’t want to sympathize with them. I want to understand them enough to know what it will take to get them to walk out with their hands up, but I don’t want to care how they feel. The job is to get them the heck out of the bank.
Danielle Preiss: That makes sense.
Hillary Elfenbein: When we talk about the importance of emotion skills and emotional intelligence for negotiators in hostage situations, I want to emphasize that not everyone on the team needs every single emotional skill.
I wrote a paper I called “Emotional Division of Labor.” The primary negotiation needs every single emotional skill.
Then there are people on the team who don’t need every emotional skill. The recorder is an example of someone who needs to be very good at reading the room because they’re not just writing down what is being said, they’re writing down the emotional transitions and what they notice, but they don’t need to influence other people’s emotions. They’re just recording.
Then there are people like the tactical team. The commander of the tactical team needs to be very good at recognizing others’ emotions and understanding perspective taking.
The sniper is fascinating. The sniper does not need to be at expressing their emotions or influencing others’ emotions. They’re silent. A good sniper has excellent emotion recognition skills and excellent self-regulation because they are there for hours. They need to be alert and good at recognizing the emotions of the person that they are aiming at because when that person is calm, the sniper has a different job than when that person is highly activated.
The primary negotiator needs every single skill that is out there, but other people on the team like the sniper need to be really really good at two skills and the other skills are irrelevant to them.
What’s neat about this, which is a kind of happy ending, is that emotional intelligence can be developed, but people are born with it to a certain degree and early childhood is formative. As an adult it’s very hard to move the needle entirely and improve emotional skill and intelligence. It would be like trying to move the needle of spatial reasoning. The happy part of this idea of division of labor is that everyone doesn’t have to be good at everything.
Danielle Preiss: Joining us today on Peace Talks Radio is Dr. Hillary Anger Elfenbein, Professor of Organization Behavior at the Olin Business School. Hillary Anger Elfenbein is known for her research on emotion in the workplace and negotiation.
Is it possible to develop these skills or these traits if you don’t naturally have them? How can someone improve their ability to negotiate if they are not naturally agreeable or naturally good at reading emotions?
Hillary Elfenbein: This is a great question. It gets at the definition of personality. Personality is thought of by academics as your preferred way of being. A person’s behavior over time and personality that would be average across times.
What I love about the power of that definition is that it says that personality is not destiny. An extrovert tends to go to parties more than an introvert, but an extrovert doesn’t spend their entire life at parties. They are at parties more often, but they are also making a choice. Every time they go to a party, it’s a choice.
That’s where we can dig in. An introvert can force themselves to go to a networking event. They may not enjoy it, but they can force themselves to go. They may have coping mechanisms like going to the event with another person.
That’s what can be done with personality traits in negotiation. I may be going into a negotiation where I need to be assertive. Maybe I’m not naturally an assertive person, but at that moment, being assertive is a choice. My general tendency, if you took an average over the last two months, may not be very assertive, but that is a distribution that I can draw from and chose to make a different choice about how to behave than my natural tendency would encourage.
You don’t have to change your personality. In fact, we need to embrace our personalities. It’s incredibly hard to change. The genetics research shows that personality is largely 50% genetic. A baby is born introverted or extroverted in a way that corresponds years later to the way that young person behaves. It’s actually hard to change your personality.
I would advocate not to try to change your personality because it’s your authentic self and you should embrace your authentic self, but you don’t need to be that authentic self every single minute of the day. When you go into a car dealership, just choose to behave more assertively.
There are techniques that are done in coursework, things to focus on that help you be more assertive. Just as a spoiler, if you do your research about what the market standards are for whatever you are negotiating, it makes you more assertive because instead of framing it as asking for something, you frame it as “I am making sure that I am treated fairly. I have run numbers and determined the fair market of” whatever it is, a car, a salary. It makes people much more assertive because they’re not thinking that they’re demanding something, they’re thinking that they expect to be treated fairly in life and here is what fairness looks like.
Danielle Preiss: Are there any other techniques that you could mention?
Hillary Elfenbein: With empathy, some people are better able to imagine what other people are going through, but it’s also a choice to sit down and brainstorm it. A lot of times when people are negotiating, they focus on their own perspective; what they need, what their numbers are. What people don’t often think as much about is running the same analyses for the counterparty.
If you’re negotiating for a job offer and you know what the fair market is and you know that if you don’t get offered a fair market you will take a different position, what will the employer do if you don’t take the job? Maybe it’s a job market where there are 100 people applying. Then you realize that you need to approach it differently than if I am the only one who really has this skillset. It’s a choice. Some people are better at figuring that out, but it’s a choice to actually sit down and try.
Danielle Preiss: Is this different in negotiations that are more emotional? Buying a car and negotiating a salary are transactional negotiations. What about negotiations with family members that are highly charged emotional issues, disagreements over family plans or COVID restrictions; are there different techniques and skills that would come into play in that scenario?
Hillary Elfenbein: Absolutely. The first thing is to realize that when a situation is highly emotional, which I would phrase as “highly activated,” situation, we tend to fall back into dominant responses. If I work harder to see the other persons’ perspective, it’s harder to do when the situation is highly activated because I can fall back into not thinking that way. It’s easier to train yourself in a new behavior when the stakes are lower and you’re feeling less intense.
High stakes hostage negotiations are short-term relationships. Family negotiations are high stakes but there are long-term relationships. The long-term nature is where you can really dig in. You can try to have those types of conversations in a calm way in advance, if you can anticipate them in advance. “Who is doing chores?” That can get very aggravating for couples, division of chores. Those situations are upsetting and highly activated at the time, but when life is calm say, “Let’s work this division of chores out now while we’re calm.” The fact that it’s a long-term relationship actually gives you the opportunity to have those negotiations when you are not in a stressful high stakes’ moment.
Danielle Preiss: Is it useful during highly activated situations to say, “Let’s take a pause,” or “Let’s come back to this tomorrow,” or “Let’s take a break until we are calmer”?
Hillary Elfenbein: Absolutely, yes. If you’re upset with someone negotiating over chores, it’s not going to get you anywhere.
Danielle Preiss: Hillary Anger Elfenbein, how important are expectations in negotiations? If I go into a negotiation expecting to lose, am I more likely to have a bad outcome?
Hillary Elfenbein: Absolutely. The very most influential work on individual differences in negotiation actually looks at attitudes, chronic attitudes. Some people feel more empowered, and some people feel less.
A really great area is about your beliefs about negotiation. Is this a skill that can be learned or are some people just better at it than others? If all you do is give people a brief survey about that, you’ll see that the people who think that these techniques are learnable work harder. They do better because they work harder. They take longer to prepare. Beliefs are incredibly important.
Being nervous in a negotiation is never helpful. If someone cares about you and you’re nervous, then through sheer emotional contagion, they are uncomfortable too. If someone doesn’t care about you and they detect that you’re nervous, then it’s like a shark that smells blood.
Danielle Preiss: Would this be a “fake it until you make it” type of situation? Should you pretend that you’re more confident and that you think you will do well so that it will help you?
Hillary Elfenbein: I wouldn’t really say fake it, but do your research, do your homework. Walk into that negotiation knowing what is fair. What is fair would be defined as in general, what the transaction should yield. Fair market for a salary would be what the job tends to pay in that area of the country. When you walk in with that information, that is not faking it because you’re walking in with a mindset of this is what fairness looks like.
The other thing that you can do is practice. Practice makes confidence. In my class I have my students do something called the “negotiation gym.” The idea is that this is a muscle that you can exercise and strengthen. You build confidence not by faking it but through small wins.
I send my students out into the world to negotiate things that they normally would negotiate. For example, contacting a vendor that they have and asking them to cut the price and giving them reasons why. It’s really nerve wracking, but it’s low stakes and it is done politely. You don’t walk into Macy’s and demand a discount. You walk in and ask, “Are there discounts that you can offer?” You may be buying jewelry. You could say, “What kinds of promotions do you have going on?” or “Is this the best price that you can give?” If they say that is the best price that they can give, you’ve learned the answer.
What I tell my students is that they need to get comfortable with hearing “no” if you’re going to get to “yes.” My friends in the restaurant industry tell me that they hate this, which is why it’s a good one to do. Walk into a restaurant and whatever table they show you, say you would like a different table and offer no explanation. Sometimes the response will be, “That table doesn’t have a server” or “That table is taken,” but you’ve had “no” said to you and you realize that the world did not crumple. You didn’t crumple into a heap of sadness when someone said “no.”
Danielle Preiss: So, in that case, it’s not about trying to get to the yes, but learning to accept the “no”?
Hillary Elfenbein: It’s about both.
Paul Ingles: You’ve been listening to research Dr. Hillary Anger Elfenbein. Dr. Elfenbein is the Professor and Chair of Organizational Behavior at the Olin School of Washington University in Saint Louis Missouri.
You can find links to some of her work and more information about her and all of our guests at www.peacetalksradio.com. That’s where you can hear Danielle’s complete interviews with all of our guests. It’s also where you can go to hear all of the programs in our series dating back to 2002. There as well you can see photos of our guests, read and share transcripts, sign up for our podcast and make a donation to keep this program going into the future at www.peacetalksradio.com.
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