Thanks to pop culture, we feel we have a pretty firm grip on hostage negotiation procedure. Hell, we could do it ourselves: You just walk into a shiny skyscraper with a pistol taped to your back, point behind the guy and yell "Look over there!" then put a bullet between his eyes at 100 yards without harming the pretty blonde girl he's using as a human shield. Then we spoke to Gary Noesner, a 30-year veteran of crisis negotiation who was present for the first half of the Waco standoff of 1993. We learned that the movies had wildly misinformed us about the reality of hostage negotiation, and that we had wildly misinformed ourselves about our firearm skills and general competence under pressure.
#4. Hostage Negotiation Is Like Picking Up a Date
In The Negotiator, Samuel L. Jackson's character is so hard to deal with precisely because he's a negotiator himself and knows all their "tricks." In real life, there are no tricks, and in fact hostage negotiation is less "careful game of psychological chess" and more "really awkward first date."
Only instead of avoiding the awkward-kiss lean, you're trying to avoid having to kill them.
As Noesner once explained to an audience of university students: "Guys, if you're truly interested in a young lady in here, listen to them ... Listen to them talk about their likes and interests, and ask good follow-up questions to show that you are interested and paying close attention to what they have to say."
Noesner uses that same approach for high-stakes negotiations. The criminals don't usually plan on taking hostages, after all -- they're just panicking at a situation that has escalated beyond their control. It's not about exploiting some psychological loophole mis-wired into the human brain so much as it is listening to somebody like they're a human being. After every successful negotiation, Noesner would ask perpetrators what it was he said that made them agree to surrender -- and the answer was always "I don't remember what you said, but I liked how you said it."
"Yeah, I can do it like Morgan Freeman."
Another example: Noesner was once negotiating with a man who had holed up inside his house and threatened to kill himself if anyone came in. They had a line of communication, but no one could figure out how to get a real conversation going until one negotiator, who was interviewing the man's sister, discovered that he really, really loved his dog. Just asking the guy about Sgt. McFlufferbottom (dog's real name omitted for anonymity) opened up a line of conversation and eventually got the man out of the house alive.
Who's a good boy? Sgt. McFlufferbottom is a damn good boy.
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So much better than that Son of Sam dog.
#3. Hostage Negotiators Don't Work Alone
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Every movie portrays them the same way -- the hostage negotiator is a solitary creature. Like a nonviolent Mad Max. He works alone. He heads into that building unaccompanied, cut off from the outside world, and only his cunning brain can get him, and everybody else, out of the situation alive.
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If things get too hairy, his sick dance moves totally serve the criminals.
That's not how it plays out in reality. You're not trying to outwit the criminal, you're trying to help him make the decision that's best for everybody involved. Why wouldn't you want the largest team possible at your back, gathering intel?
When Noesner was lead negotiator at the Waco standoff, he had over a dozen people on his team working 12-hour shifts, digging up every bit of information he could -- which is why they were able to negotiate the release of 35 individuals, including 19 children, before that whole situation turned into, well, Waco.
And yes, we are absolutely going to focus on the 19 children who went free instead of literally everything else about those tragic events, because we are psychologically fragile beings and were once traumatized by an episode of the Care Bears.
AP Photo/Ron Heflin, File via Komo News
Some shit we just cannot handle.