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Applied Training is the Secret to Active Listening

The art of hostage negotiation does not focus on one particular moment: the most successful negotiations are built from solid understanding of the hostage taker, and the development of mutual trust between negotiator and taker. Many negotiators have found that the most effective way to accomplish this is to listen actively to the hostage taker as he tells his story, absorbing and processing not only content, but also emotion and subtext. This deeper understanding can give negotiators better leverage to convince the hostage taker into giving up and walking out.

Seasoned negotiators say active listening is the most powerful tool available to build rapport with hostage takers, and significantly increases the chance of successful negotiations.

“Hostage negotiation is nothing more than a conversation under stress with peoples lives at stake, active listening is the foundation on which that conversation is based,” said, Dominick J. Misino, a former NYPD hostage negotiator.

Since the mid 1950’s active listening has been widely accepted and practiced in the field of psychotherapy. It’s a skill used to build bonds with clients whose experiences can range from post-traumatic stress disorder to marriage problems to career development. However, it has yet to be widely used in the law enforcement community, though its effects in other areas have been accepted. When applied in the law enforcement community these techniques will help negotiators gather accurate information, establish rapport and get the hostage taker to reveal personal information.

Negotiation trainers have begun adding active listening training into their curriculum; however, due to time constraints, trainers do not always have the ability to thoroughly educate participants on each and every technique. In response to this need, ActiveComm, a research and development company that focuses on human behavior, has developed a training workshop focusing on applying techniques of this concept. Endorsed by the International Association of Hostage Negotiators (IAHN), ActiveComm has developed a fully hands-on course entitled Applied Active Listening for Hostage Negotiators.

The course has already been shown to be effective. “ActiveComm’s Applied Active Listening for Hostage Negotiators course proved to be invaluable to our team. The hands-on scenario and role-playing provided the best training to date,” said, Detective Mindy Zen, hostage negotiation team leader for Morgan Hill Police Department.

“Bryan, Demetrius and Jason are experts in their field, providing current and accurate information on a negotiations front. We strongly recommend Active Listening for Hostage negotiators by ActiveComm for all negotiators.”

How active listening techniques should be used

There are key strategies to making active listening effective. Establishing rapport between the negotiator and hostage taker is crucial. This is done through active listening skills that show you are interested in the person. Adding trust, empathy and honest communication to a negotiator-taker relationship leads to successful negotiations. Trust helps the hostage taker believe the negotiator who promises he won’t be hurt if he comes out. Empathy will make him feel like he has something to live for and he can make the best of a bad situation. And honest communication will help negotiators obtain situational information to help keep fellow officers from getting hurt should the negotiation take a turn toward a tactical resolution.

Building this relationship does not merely entail repeating a series of techniques; it requires the strategic application of the proper technique to the proper situation in order to accomplish the goal. With this in mind, it is important to know not only active listening techniques, but also when and which technique to use.

Typically, active listening is used most at the beginning of the negotiation, when the hostage taker doesn’t want to talk to you. It will help the person feel that he made the right choice by opening communication. It is important in these situations to maintain active listening and be careful not to slip back into command presence. Even experienced negotiators can get emotional and slip back into that role, thus changing the tone of the conversation and possibly jeopardizing a negotiation.

However, if you are in a tactical situation in which you require immediate control of the subject as a matter of safety, it is not an appropriate time to use active listening. You must use command presence to instruct the subject to perform the actions you require immediately and convey that force will be used if he does not comply. When you feel that you have built a strong rapport and the hostage taker is thinking about coming out, it might be better to use influencing skills to talk the person out rather than to continue to build a relationship.

It is for this reason that another major area of focus for active listening is maintaining communication awareness. It consists simply of being aware of the emotions of the hostage taker based on voice tone, speech rate and content to name a few. Other important components include your emotions as the negotiator and how you present yourself to the hostage taker. It’s not uncommon for a negotiator to become angry or frustrated without realizing it. And it is very common for a negotiator to miscommunicate messages, saying something that he didn’t mean or saying it in a way that could be misinterpreted. Strong communication awareness helps keep you in control of the negotiation and avoid mistakes that could be costly.

Communication awareness is essential for knowing which active listening technique to apply. This skill requires you to read the situation, determine your status in the negotiation and choose the technique that will be most effective. For example, the skills of emotional labeling and empathy are arguably the most powerful active listening skills to building rapport.

Emotional labeling – naming the emotion that the person is feeling – is a facet in creating trust. By saying to the hostage taker, “you sound like you’re upset,” it can name their feelings without making them angry or uncomfortable. If you get a “yes” you can follow up with an empathic statement such as, “you know, if I were in your shoes, I’d probably be upset too.” If you get a “no” you can easily change the subject without having delved too deeply into the person’s emotions.

Emotional labeling combined with empathy is the one-two punch for hostage negotiators. It communicates to the hostage taker, “I know that this is how you are feeling and it is okay to feel that way.” The best time to use emotional labeling or empathy is when you have already established a bond and the subject has begun to open up and reveal personal information. Typically, if you can use emotional labeling and empathy successfully, it will lock in rapport and increase the level of trust. However, if used too soon, it may appear insincere.

Overall, learning to use the skills of active listening is not that difficult. Most of the techniques are used in everyday communication. But, because of the intensity of a hostage or barricade situation, it is important to leverage those techniques in order to apply them most effectively. This is why ActiveComm strongly encourages training over teaching in addition to recurrent training. By training properly on a regular basis, active listening will become an automatic and natural part of your communication toolbox.

It begins with training

ActiveComm has the highest standards for training effectiveness. The key to any skill is learning it properly, and that requires proper training. With a deep background in psychological learning theory and with experience training the scientific observation of human behavior, ActiveComm consultants offer deep insight into effective training methods. Emphasis on hands-on training, rather than lectures and more traditional styles of teaching gives participants time to practice the tools needed for successful negotiation. Repetition of these skills helps cement the action without having to consciously think through them.

Though active listening can be compared to normal communication, the situations in which it is used are heightened with the stressors of ensuring public safety, officer safety, and aiming for peaceful resolution. Active listening, like many communication skills, tends to work best when they’re automatic. When time is spent thinking about what to say next, it detracts from the capacity to fully grasp the emotional and tactical clues that will inform decision-making. If communication sounds forced or planned it may be perceived as suspicious. Moreover, negotiation and actions may move too quickly to plan your next move; emphasis should be placed on what the other person is communicating, rather than what you are going to say next. This should be your goal any time that you are training: to be able to perform the skill without thinking.

Another important requirement in training is frequency. Every officer undergoes recurrent training in firearms and practices regularly between training. The same is necessary with active listening and hostage negotiation skills. A negotiator should practice regularly with his or her team in order to build cohesion and improve skills. At the very least, practice must be undertaken in order to keep skills from degrading.

ActiveComm’s training course not only prepares negotiators to effortlessly use active listening skills, but also provides officers with excellent practice methods and guidelines. These include tips for practicing in a team or individually. Regular practice will increase comfort levels in a negotiation and enhance the ability to extract information from the subject, keep them calm, and get them to surrender.

Putting Skills to Use

For any negotiator that wishes to learn to use active listening more effectively, one important training strategy is listening to audio clips of experienced negotiators. Observe how that negotiator uses active listening; it is typically so smooth that you will miss it half of the time. When used correctly, active listening sounds completely natural and spontaneous. Through the application of the techniques discussed above, combined with recurring individual and team practice, active listening will become an integral part of your everyday communication. More importantly, increasing comfort and awareness in high-pressure negotiations will help keep you and your team safe and increase the chances of a successful negotiation.