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What Can Businesspeople Learn from Hostage Negotiators? Miami-Dade Police Department Shares Negotiating Strategies with Students

March 09, 2017
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Whether you’re negotiating in the boardroom with a fellow business leader or on the other side of a barricade from a terrorist, there are certain strategies you can employ to steer the outcome. Drawing on his 30-plus years of experience as a crisis and hostage negotiator for the Miami-Dade Police Department, senior staff police psychologist Scott Allen shared hostage negotiation strategies with students enrolled in the School’s undergraduate negotiation classes offered by the Department of Business Law. Students then met in groups to draw parallels with their coursework and practice in negotiation. They asked: What can businesspeople learn from hostage negotiators? 

One lesson is using communicating wisely to establish trust. When Allen arrives on a scene, it’s one in crisis. “Most likely shots are fired, and the subject is barricaded,” Allen said. “We use communication to influence someone’s emotional state, their thinking, their problem-solving, their decision-making and, hence, their behavior.” One go-to tactic is self-disclosure. “Self-disclosure initiates an ongoing level of trust in the negotiation process,” Allen said. “The more you self-disclose, the other person feels compelled to self-disclose back to you at a similar level of intimacy, but police officers are not very skilled or comfortable self-disclosing. Most of my effort in monthly training is practicing self-disclosure by members.” As students observed, neither are many businesspeople.

Patricia Abril and Scott Allen discuss the negotiation process and strategies applicable to the business world

Careful logistical planning is also critical -- especially in charged situations, Allen told students. In police negotiations, he added, the primary negotiator does all the talking, while the backup negotiator transmits information on hand-written notes in real time from other team members who are gathering background information from family members, medical records and social media. Finally, Allen emphasized the importance of allowing the other side to save face. 

“Make sure the other person isn’t being embarrassed when they’re giving up,” Allen explained. “There’s always a power differential when you’re negotiating and you don’t want to make them feel bad.” As one student mentioned, “If the police are careful to save face in hostage negotiations, imagine how important it is in business, where you have an ongoing relationship with the other person.”

Patricia Abril, chair and associate professor of business law, moderated the talk and asked questions students had submitted. The suspects rarely ask for money, and the movies are not accurate depictions of how things go down. “You watch a negotiation movie, and it is nothing even close to reality,” Allen said. “The Negotiator is one of the worst.” The most surprising response to students came when Allen was asked to describe his “worst bluff.” Allen said he had a policy against lying to hostage takers for several reasons, including the possibility of eroding trust and reputation – and of course, forgetting the lie. In the later debriefing sessions, students suggested that those were all good reasons to avoid lying in business, too.

Abril reminded the students that these real-world examples illustrate what they’ve been learning in class should be applied to both their personal and professional lives: “I want [our students] to translate this skill set – very high stakes negotiation tactics and strategies and psychology – into negotiations in daily life and in the workplace. Any time we can take what we are working on and compare and contrast it to a different context, we can learn a lot. In the end, the parallels are exciting and instructive.”

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