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Negotiate Like a Hostage Negotiator

Throughout your career you’ll face difficult conversations – job termination, business deal gone wrong, merger and acquisition talks. When I spoke with veteran hostage negotiator George Kohlrieser, he offered some common negotiation tactics that you can use to navigate tough talks. Here’s what he had to say.


“Hostage negotiation is a very special form of negotiation that involves a kind of container, but it shows many, many skills that could be used in any type of negotiation. For example, the need for bonding. You can’t effectively engage in a hostage negotiation without some bonding, and people are shocked to hear that the hostage negotiator must authentically show some kind of caring in their needs, wants or interests.
The second thing is being able to ask questions. Use questions to know their motivations, and try to accommodate the motivation as quickly as you can. Try to analyze the motivation within two minutes or less, because the motivation is going to be around trying to repair or get back something that they lost. And behavioral economics teaches us that people are generally more motivated by losses than benefits.
Another tactic: ask them what they want. Really get to know what they want, and know the circumstances around that person’s goals, so that small talk becomes a part of the core talk. That will help you to know when to make the right concession at the right time.
Making the wrong concession gets you into trouble later. Knowing when you can offer something is very important. A long reciprocity is activated by how concessions are rewarded. When a hostage taker responds to one of my questions, that’s a concession. If they argue back, it’s not a concession. Being able to give a verbal or non-verbal reward to that concession teaches them how to cooperate with you. As long as there is a connection you can discuss or find some hopeful outcome.
Negotiators must be optimistic. I have never seen a negative negotiator work in private, business, or hostage negotiations. Negotiators have to be able to create a positive environment, a container of secure base. I don’t know anybody who gives up their weapons where they don’t eventually have some form of trust for that hostage negotiator. In business, the best thing is when you shake hands and you know you can trust that person.
Many negotiators think that the best approach is to manipulate, trick, lie, or do anything to get the best deal. I don’t think so. Authenticity is still the best way to go, especially when you want to build long term relationships.”
Watch my discussion with George Kohlrieser about high performance leadership in my video series Leadership: A Master Class
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