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The Science of Negotiation – Patterns to Predict Success or Failure

No one ever plans for their marriage to fail. However, with time – 30 years – and many research subjects, the noted psychologist, John Gottman, Ph.D, developed a coding system that enabled him to do just that – he was able to predict with 90 percent accuracy the outcome of marriages – successful or not. By analyzing patterns of communication between married couples, he and his team developed a framework so nuanced that they could accurately make this prediction with only 15 minutes of dialogue. Though it sounds like science fiction, Gottman has replicated his results repeatedly and even made predictions with an astonishing 80% accuracy with just a three to four minute sample.

Simplified, Gottman analyzed the different types of statements made between married couples and used them to compare couples that stayed together with couples that got divorced. Once differences were isolated, he was able to confidently predict the outcome of individual marriages. This was a huge leap forward in the study of human behavior because it was possible to trace the success or failure of a marriage through communication patterns between couples, while excluding external factors, such as work, finances or other stressors.

By harnessing the same tools of Gottman’s studies and applying them to the situations of hostage negotiators, it’s not impossible to imagine negotiators having the ability to better predict outcomes and develop more effective strategies by understanding key concepts of this research.

The scientific community is now beginning to explore this area of communication and has already found that isolating communication patterns during hostage negotiation, in the same way that Gottman isolated patterns between married couples, is possible. Scientists predict this research can help understand the patterns of success and failure. They hope to unravel the question of why some people are more effective as negotiators than others, and expect it will greatly expand the options for how to train and what to focus on for individual negotiator growth.

What could this do for Negotiators?

Negotiator training, for the most part, focuses on command and organizational structures at the scene and the different roles within the negotiation team, according to Dominick J. Misino, a former NYPD hostage negotiator who trains negotiators nationwide. Beyond basic instruction of active listening techniques, most attention is focused on creating team cohesion and learning techniques to keep the hostage taker in communication with the negotiator.

By applying scientific methods to look for patterns in verbal interactions during negotiation, researchers have the ability to develop more effective strategies for non-violent outcomes. As these strategies are tested and officers are trained on these techniques, law enforcement professionals will have a greater arsenal of tools at their disposal.

In 2006, the Journal of Police Crisis Negotiation published an article by a research group headed by Bryan U. McClain at San Jose State University that described the development and testing of a research system similar to Gottman’s, but intended for use with hostage negotiations. The Crisis Communication Rating Scale identifies and documents each verbal behavior as it occurs between the negotiator and hostage taker.  The scale was designed to document the different types of statements made in the course of a negotiation and then allow for comparison. After years of development and testing, researchers found it passed all tests of reliability and results could be replicable.

Behavior Patterns of the Taker-Negotiator Relationship

In addition to the creation of the Crisis Communication Rating Scale, McClain’s research team applied this system to archived transcripts of hostage negotiations and obtained preliminary results. These findings have identified certain communication patterns that are associated with a peaceful resolution.

First, the research indicated that increased communication between hostage taker and negotiator led to a greater chance of peaceful resolution. By simply keeping the hostage taker on the line, researchers found there was greater opportunity to diffuse the situation, resulting in a peaceful resolution.

Second, it was found that as more personal information about the hostage taker was disclosed, the negotiator-taker relationship deepened, leading to feelings of trust and willingness to cooperate. Establishing the humanizing element of a negotiation allows the hostage-taker to see the situation from another perspective and reflect on the consequences of their actions.

Finally, it was found that the hostage taker tends to follow the lead of the hostage negotiator. Thus, if the hostage negotiator uses relationship-building statements during the negotiation, then the hostage-taker will tend to respond in the same way.

These three communication patterns provide negotiators with simple guidelines when it comes to dealing with the hostage taker. First, it is essential to establish communication and keep the hostage taker talking. It is important for the negotiator to realize that even if the hostage taker shows signs of anger or verbal aggression, it is still preferable to no communication at all.

By asking about the situation, such as if anyone is hurt, if the hostage taker has a gun, or how many people are inside, you mine essential information about the site. While important, that information can only help with the logistical aspects of the negotiation.

It is essential to a peaceful outcome for the negotiator to begin building a rapport with the hostage taker. By talking about topics of interest such as sports, pets, time in the military, or other safe topics, a negotiator can work to build a bond between themselves and the hostage taker by communicating empathy, understanding or showing some other similarity between both parties. The bottom line is to get the hostage taker talking about something. Though seemingly simple, this strategy has been statistically shown to increase the chances of a peaceful resolution, according to McClain, et. al 2004.

Second, a major goal in your communication with the hostage taker is to establish trust and build a personal relationship. In this situation, you are looking for the hostage taker to make certain statements to indicate that he trusts you.

These statements can include the hostage taker revealing personal information about his past. It can also include something as simple as talking about his feelings, such as revealing that he’s scared. If he asks you for help, discloses that he doesn’t want to be harmed, and/or looks for reassurance that he won’t be harmed if he cooperates, it’s an excellent indicator that a relationship has been established and that the negotiation is progressing in a positive direction.

Lastly, McClain’s team found that once trust was established between parties, the hostage taker followed the lead of the negotiator. This means that you can direct the negotiation by transitioning readily between superficial conversation and relationship-building communication. This is extremely valuable given the importance of establishing trust and a personal relationship with the hostage taker. Specifically, you want to make compliments, talk about your own emotions, reveal things about your private life, and use active listening techniques to project that you are listening and care.

Compliments and discussion of emotions should be appropriate and feel natural. An example of a compliment would be something like “you did a good thing by letting the children out; people are going to remember that.” Discussing emotions can include statements like, “you know, when you talk like that, you start to make me really nervous.” It’s important to make statements that feel and are read as natural. It is commonly heard among most seasoned negotiators that it is essential to be yourself during the negotiation.

McClain’s team’s findings indicate that the formation of a relationship with the hostage taker is vital to the negotiation and can be formed through communication. To a large extent, active listening training covers this kind of communication, although other communication techniques can be incorporated. Compliments, for example, are not included in classical active listening but are effective in building a relationship. The conclusion from this research verifies what expert negotiators have been saying for many years.

Phases of Negotiation

Over the course of their research, McClain’s team noticed a general pattern that most successful negotiations follow. Negotiations can be broken down into four phases based on the type of communication techniques the negotiator employs to reach a successful conclusion.

Phase One: Establishing communication. This usually involves a great deal of superficial conversation as the negotiator sticks to safe topics and situational information to get the hostage taker to begin talking.

Phase Two: Relationship building. The second phase of the negotiation occurs after communication is established and includes primarily relationship-building statements as the negotiator tries to establish trust and a personal relationship with the hostage taker. To be successful, the negotiator must try to get the hostage-taker to disclose personal information and statements describing emotions.

Phase Three: Persuasion. During the third phase, the negotiator distills the information obtained from the hostage-taker and applies persuasive communication to try and convince him to surrender. Research and experience has shown that finding a trigger or thread that motivates the hostage taker to re-evaluate their circumstances can give the negotiator significant leverage in convincing the hostage-taker to surrender.

Phase Four: The Surrender. The final phase of the negotiation occurs after the hostage taker has been convinced to surrender and consists of a series of instructions as the negotiator guides the hostage taker through the surrender process.

The analysis of hostage situations in accordance with these different stages can be immensely valuable to negotiators by identifying the type of communication necessary. When negotiators narrow their focus to these key elements, they can more effectively decide how to proceed. Additionally, familiarity with the phases can help coaches anticipate how to assist the negotiator, such as passing notes on how to solidify the relationship with the taker.

In another application, negotiators can choose to focus on one phase of the negotiation in order to build on communication strengths or weaknesses. If, for example, a supervisor notices that a negotiator is proficient at establishing a relationship but weak at transitioning to persuasion, the supervisor can design a training role-play situation where the primary focus is on the persuasion phase of the negotiation. This will allow the training to be more focused and help the negotiator quickly strengthen the skill of persuasion.

You can use this in your training as well. All hostage teams should train together on a monthly basis, according to Dominick J. Misino. Training for four to eight hours a month is usually enough to keep skills up to par and help with continual skill refinement. For some training sessions, try focusing exclusively on one phase of the negotiation. If possible, have individuals rotate through the different roles, ensuring each person has the opportunity to understand both sides. Have your role players make the chosen phase especially difficult for the “negotiator” in order to maximize training effectiveness.

For example, if you are focusing on establishing communication, then have the role player be extremely angry, refuse to talk, hang up the phone repeatedly and demand that the negotiator leave him alone. While making it difficult, it is also important to not make the task impossible, otherwise the training is ineffective. Working through this kind of situation can be extremely challenging but it can also provide great training.

These types of training methods help scientists understand behaviors and find correlation between them. In the field, however, hostage negotiators have learned through training, street psychology and practice. Each approach can only go so far in its ability to completely prepare negotiators for what they will experience in the field. The 3-C model of negotiation is another example of how researchers are innovating in the field of behavior prediction.

The 3-C model of Negotiation – Providing insight into the outcome of a negotiation

Another theory developed by researchers includes the 3-C model of negotiation developed by former NYPD Hostage Negotiation Team Commander Hugh McGowan, Ph.D.

McGowan spent 13 years commanding negotiation teams and during his tenure he used his profound understanding of negotiation to identify certain trends. Following his retirement he was able to scientifically test these trends during his time at the City University of New York by looking at negotiation conditions and comparing them to outcome.

According to McGowan, “the ability to accurately predict the resolution of a hostage or barricade situation has been a dilemma for negotiation/crisis team leaders, tactical/SWAT supervisors and on-scene incident commanders for some time and will continue to be a problem. This (3-C) model, although not perfect, will help in resolving that problem.”

McGowan was able to identify three factors that could reliably predict the outcome of a negotiation. The goal was to determine if the following three factors were either favorable or unfavorable to the outcome of the hostage situation. He labeled these factors Context, Containment, and Communication.

Context refers to whether or not the hostage taker has taken violent action in the course of the situation. If the hostage taker had been violent, then the context is considered to be unfavorable. If the hostage taker has not been violent, then the context is considered to be favorable.

The second factor, containment refers to whether the hostage taker has been surrounded by police. If the hostage taker is contained, then the situation is considered favorable; conversely, if he is not contained then the situation is unfavorable. Additionally, the situation is considered more or less favorable depending on the degree of containment. For example, a situation in which a hostage taker is isolated within a house is less favorable than a situation in which the hostage take is contained within a single room within the house.

The third factor is communication, whereby a situation is considered favorable if the hostage taker is interacting with the negotiator and unfavorable if he is not. These three factors have been shown to reliably predict whether a negotiation will have a successful resolution.

Although McGowan has described his model as imperfect, it provides a major leap forward in our ability to predict the resolution of a negotiation.

What the Future Holds

In order to determine the future of prediction models, we must look at where we are currently. The techniques discussed above offer both theoretical and applied knowledge of behavior prediction, though they each take different courses of action to reach the final conclusion. To find the most effective answer, we must strike a balance between both the technical analysis of case studies in controlled environments and data mined from years of experience in the field.

There is little room for hesitation in hostage situations – negotiators are best prepared for their job if they are well armed with information about the situation into which they are going. As more research is conducted, scientists hope to develop ways to more quickly obtain situational information that can mean the difference between a violent or non-violent outcome.

What is clear is that greater collaboration between negotiators and research professionals will speed that process. More researchers are beginning to study negotiation and information is becoming more readily available. Retired officers like McGowan also continue to contribute to the field by applying their knowledge and experience behind the scenes. Theories like those listed above need to be tested, supported, criticized and improved in order to become more accurate and useful to officers in the field.

However, in order for these advances to happen, negotiators in the field must lend their knowledge and experience to researchers in order to ensure that their work remains accurate and more importantly, useful. Scientists must ask the question of, “how will this make a negotiator’s job easier?” Meanwhile, negotiators must ask themselves, “What information can I provide to help researchers innovate new tools?”

When these questions are answered and collaboration between both researchers and negotiators is strong, the future of behavior prediction is limitless.