You think your job is full of pressure? Gary Noesner spent his thirty-year career with the FBI helping resolve hostage and suicide incidents, hijackings, prison riots and kidnapping cases. During his tenure as chief of the FBI’s groundbreaking Crisis Negotiation Union, he helped the FBI develop its policies for handling hostage negotiation. The author of Stalling for Time: My life as a hostage negotiator, Noesner shares his secrets of persuasion with Life Reimagined.
How would you define negotiating? Is it an art or a science?
It’s both, in the same sense that a golf swing is; the actual swing mechanics constitute the science, but how someone plays the game is the art. Both parts are just as important. The goal of a hostage negotiator is to influence behavior, to get people to do what we want them to do, whether it’s to start talking or ultimately to surrender. We know the basic tenets of influencing people, but in large measure it’s up to the individual negotiator to make that happen. And that comes down to several factors including the negotiator’s likeability, compassion and genuineness.
How has the FBI's definition of negotiating evolved over the years?
When we first got into hostage negotiation in the mid-70s, it was all about using talk as a tool to forestall violence and encourage surrender. The FBI has made a lot of strides since then, and we’ve developed a way more sophisticated and calculated approach. The goal now is to create a relationship where we can influence what they do. The honest and sincere negotiators are the most successful at this. You can’t overpromise or be deceitful in trying to get what you want. That’s why first creating trust by showing genuineness is so critical.
What can everyday people learn from hostage negotiation techniques?
First, that listening is the most important tool. We too often rush to close a deal or offer up a solution, but if we really want to influence someone we have to take the time to truly listen and understand what’s important to them before offering up solutions. Trust me, they’ll know if you’re really listening or not. Most people think of that as a passive endeavor. But to be most powerful and effective, listening has to be active. The manner in which we respond demonstrates that we understand their issues and feelings; we get what they’re going through. And if this technique works when someone is holding a gun to someone’s head, it will also work in a marriage or friendship that has a few (non-firearm-related) bumps.
Is reading the body language of the person you’re dealing with criticial when negotiating?
It’s important, but some experts think every twitch or nuance means something, which it may not. It’s easy to place too much emphasis on body language. In law enforcement, we often don’t have the luxury of studying a person’s body lingo since they have a weapon—forcing us to speak on the phone instead of face to face. That’s why active listening is so important. We are trying to judge whether or not we are connecting with someone to influence them in a positive way.