Bob's Gutsy Leadership Blog

Five Leadership Lessons from Hostage Negotiators

A hostage situation is law-enforcement’s worst-case scenario, because it places innocent civilians directly in harm’s way. Armed intervention becomes very risky, since the hostages themselves can be harmed either by stray bullets or by the hostage-takers. That makes the negotiation the most important aspect of any hostage crisis. A skilled negotiator must find out what the hostage-taker wants, who he or she is and what it will take to achieve a peaceful outcome, all while ensuring the safety of the hostages and other bystanders.  Ideally, a hostage situation ends with everyone walking away (albeit with some of them in handcuffs!).

In a recent article in Fortune, it points out that leaders can learn some valuable lessons from the techniques that hostage negotiators use to try to resolve the standoff.  After reading this article, and probing the topic of how hostage negotiators operate, here are the principles that hostage negotiators use which I think a leader needs to keep in mind in working with his or her employees in tackling a problem/opportunity and nailing down action plans:

1.) Get people talking – Don’t start with a bunch of directives and facts.  Begin with a non-stop set of question and probes so you are getting at the issues, the available facts, and how people are viewing the challenges.  You should be doing at most 10% of the talking.

2.) Listen carefully – You need to realize that your task initially is to find out how others are viewing things and what they see are the facts and issues.  You should not immediately react to what is being offered, but keep probing and seeking understanding.

3.) Be respectful – Questions need to be asked in an honest, even-handed way, with none of your instincts or pre-conceived notions reflected as you probe for the facts and an understanding of the various points of view that are being offered.

4.) Postulate solutions – Eventually you need to steer the conversation toward possible solutions for the issues being discussed.  As ways to tackle the problem/opportunity are discussed, be clear about what should and can be based on facts, and what needs to be based on judgment because of lack of facts.

5.) Be firm and clear about the boundaries – An important role the leader plays is making sure people are being realistic and reflecting existing constraints.

When a leader takes these steps in developing a plan with his or her people, it vastly increases the feeling among your people that they are being heard and have played an active role in developing the solution.  That is why it sometimes works with hostages (note: sometimes!).

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