Recent events worldwide have sparked a resurgence in articles on hostage negotiation, and it brings to mind a lecture I was once privileged to attend. As a lecturer, trainer and consultant on negotiation I was at an event in London for negotiating professionals. One of the speakers was from an international agency whose prime role is risk management and hostage negotiations for large companies whose staff work in dangerous areas of the world.


The lecturer gave a fascinating account of how the process of negotiating with hostage takers worked, and it ended with him playing a recording of an actual telephone conversation between him and a hostage pleading for his life and for the company to pay the ransom demanded. It was heart stopping. For all the deals I had done, none of them mattered the way this one did.


The process of negotiating for hostage release was very different to the way business deals are done: not only are the stakes much higher, but the whole way they go about the exchanges of information are incredible. The tactics can be shocking and ruthless (on both sides) and there is a distinct lack anything remotely like the “win-win” negotiating style we all strive for. Once interesting aspect was that the company never let one negotiator stay in the role for more than 4 weeks, it safe guarded them from becoming too emotionally involved with the family and the situation – gave them the distance needed to be as ruthless as the hostage takers. Communication was short – 30 second phonecalls, often spaced weeks apart, with huge demands made along with the threats. Stress levels seemed extreme – mistakes didn’t bear thinking about.


However there were distinct lessons that can be applied not just in such extreme negotiations, but also in our own more mundane ones:


  • Communication is crucial
  • Never let the other party think it has power over you
  • Don’t let your emotions take control of the negotiation
  • You don’t have to be able to agree on “facts” to come to an agreement on the solution


Florence Kennedy Rolland