First a confession: motivational speakers rarely motivate me. I often find their message shallow and too general to apply in practice. Chris White the hostage negotiator did, however, impress me. It may seem almost irreverent to compare a hostage negotiation with issues we encounter in our daily life, but by looking at the extreme situations that Chris encountered, there can be lessons to be learned. Perhaps the reason he impressed me is that he described his experiences and allowed us to draw our own conclusions.

Chris is the real deal. His early career was with the police in the UK and his experience includes work for Scotland Yard and in the Middle East. His tools are his ears and his words – that is all. It’s the ears that are most important; you have to maintain your active listening skills throughout.  I summarize some of his key points:

  • Understand and empathize with the hostage-taker’s point of view, however irrational or ugly it may seem. Your initial reaction may be that the hostage taker is a reprehensible person, and of course he is doing something very wrong. However, if you think like that, the hostage taker will pick up your feelings in your tone of voice. From the hostage taker’s point of view, if it is about how his wife took the kids in a messy divorce and the real victim is the hostage taker then that’s good enough for you as the negotiator and that is how you must think also.
  • First impressions count. You have to earn the right to solve the problem. You may wish to be gentle and open by saying you know the hostage taker seems to be in a situation and you thought you might help.
  • While your objective is “getting to yes” you must make “no” your friend on the way. People find it much easier to say “no” than “yes” because “yes” sounds like a contract. For example, in daily life, “is this a good time to talk?” often solicits a reply of “no” whereas “is this a bad time to talk?” may result in “no – I can spare a few minutes”.  Practice phrasing questions where “no” is the answer you want.
  • Phrases that indicate a shared bond help make progress together. These include “that’s right” or “how can we do that?”
  • Hostage negotiators have to be patient. Ultimately, while the negotiator tries to set the direction of travel and make progress, how long the journey takes is up to the hostage taker. It typically takes many hours.
  • Finally, Chris said he has a good track record and the large majority of cases have been successful, but you have to accept failure, tragic as it may be, and he has lost at least three people.

Chris only had half an hour on stage, but I talked to him later in the bar. He talked again about how to put aside judgements and work with the hostage taker. His example was working with someone who was a serial rapist of children. Although Chris is a father of two children, he still had to empathize with the alleged perpetrator’s point of view.

Perhaps my view of motivational speakers has improved!