Conflict intervention is a risky process. Very often one or all parties will reject the outside interruption. From initial contact with the parties, building a rapport, through to generating dialogue and process building – there are many opportunities to make a bad situation much worse.

How do you minimise the risk of a failed process?

There is no single, prescriptive method for ensuring a successful intervention first time, every time. One arena that best typifies an approximation of such a method is that of hostage negotiation.  Here the consequences of error can have devastating consequences. Experiential learnings from these types of conflict situations can give negotiators and mediators the types of highly effective and flexible tools necessary to give their processes the best chance at success.

“Stalling for Time – My Life as a Hostage Negotiator”…

Gary Noesner, FBI hostage negotiator for twenty-three years and ten years as the FBI’s chief negotiator, has seen this realisation evolve through the world of law enforcement and candidly describes his fascinating journey in his book “Stalling for Time – My Life as a Hostage Negotiator”. From managing the process to “managing  up” the external stakeholders, this book is a dramatic account of the development of negotiation techniques for high stress situations.

Thirty years of resolving desperate situations …

Noesner’s experience of conflict resolution is unparalleled. As well as providing insight into the Munich Crisis of 1972, his book contains first-hand accounts of the hijackings of the Amtrak Silver Star hijacking (1982), TWA flight 847 (1985), Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro (1985), EgyptAir Flight 648 (1985) and Royal Jordanian Flight 402 (1985).

He provides detailed analysis into the prevailing circumstances around the tragedies of Lockerbie (1988), the infamous Ruby Ridge (1992) and the Branch Davidian assault in Waco, Texas (1993). Though Noesner has been involved in some of the most high-profile hostage crises known it is for his bloodless victories and the subsequent deserved recognition and respect of his peers that is the real source of his acclaim.

“Primum non nocere” – First do no harm…

Noesner points to the critical realisation that in hostage situations, when someone is holding someone for the fulfillment of a subsequent demand, that they are there to get their demands met, not for someone to die. This learning was slow to receive acceptance in the FBI, as many senior policy makers believed that anything less than the standard “Come out with your hands up or we are going in” could only be interpreted as weak and acquiescent.

How to successfully interrupt an escalating situation…

The title of Noesner’s book alludes to the need to slow down the process, to create the time and space for meaningful negotiations to take place. Noesner’s tradecraft is to initially contain the process, identify participants, generate information and establish logistical support structures. Utilising nonviolent confrontation techniques he then proceeds to open communications to de-escalate tension.

Noesner believes that emotion and rationality compete for the same resources in people. By reducing emotion levels through a process of Active Listening the ability to think clearly is re-established. Once he feels that the situation is amenable for negotiation he and the participants begin to establish clear purposes and goals, identify conflicting agendas and reality test potential outcomes.

“Never give something for nothing…”

Noesner considers the principle of reciprocation and trading to be critical to hostage negotiations. His rule is that the negotiator must make the hostage taker work for every concession he or she receives.

As a humorous example of quid-pro-quo bargaining Noesner cites the story of a hostage taker who demanded a jet to take him from New York to Europe. Later, feeling empowered, the hijacker also demands a hot cup of coffee with cream and sugar. Two hours later he got a cold cup of coffee in a paper cup. He soon surrenders saying, “I figured if I couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee then the whole plane thing wasn’t going to work out”.

How do we influence someone who wants nothing from us?

Noesner points out that in the vast majority of situations the opposing party is enraged or high emotional state and in is rarely thinking rationally. They may feel that they have been unfairly fired from their job or a loved one has decided to leave them. They may feel that they don’t need anything from law enforcement other than to be left alone. Convincing these people that their future looks better having engaged with the negotiator and the process being proposed is a core skill  requirement for a successful outcome.

The”Paradox of Power”…

For hostage negotiators the use of force is similar to their BATNA . A limited demonstration of tactical capability can help the negotiation process along by encouraging dialogue. Too little of this can empower the subject, reducing their desire for earnest participation. Too much could trigger a firefight. Noesner cautions that a lack of progress often leads to the types of frustrations that can tip this fragile balance one way or the other.

“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…”

Kipling’s poem “If” (1895) has a special significance for Noesner; “If I’ve gained any wisdom in my FBI career, it has come from the recognising the degree to which everyday life can mirror the dynamics of the destructive standoffs I faced in my FBI job. Each of us is called upon to negotiate stressful situations in business, social encounters, and family life time and again. From what I’ve observed, the happiest and most successful people tend to be those who are able to remain calm at these difficult times and put aside emotions such as pride or anger that stop them from finding common ground. We all need to be good listeners and learn to demonstrate our empathy and understanding of the problems, needs and issues of others. Only then can we hope to influence their behaviour in a positive way.”



Noesner, G., 2010. Stalling for Time: My life as an FBI hostage negotiator, 1st ed. ed. Random House, New York.


By FBI –, Public Domain,