Business negotiations often fail; meanwhile, hostage negotiations have an incredibly high success rate—up to 94%. We spoke with former police psychologist and hostage negotiator George A. Kohlrieser, the Distinguished Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD Business School in Switzerland and the author of Hostage at the Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others, and Raise Performance (Jossey-Bass, 2006), about what business negotiators can learn fromthe high-risk enterprise of hostage negotiations.
Negotiation Briefings: What is the key to success in hostage negotiations, and how can it be applied to business negotiations?
George Kohlrieser: The key is to build a relationship by creating an emotional connection. Hostage negotiators are trained to use questions to investigate and understand the hostage taker’s wants and underlying motivations. Once you’ve done that, you start looking for concessions. The hostage taker focuses on what he or she has or will lose. The history of loss will not change. But when your way of understanding changes, the hostage taker becomes much more willing to make concessions.
In the business world, people can be a psychological hostage to a boss, client, team, or supplier. They can also be a hostage to themselves—their own past experiences of guilt, regret, or other negative emotions—and start reacting destructively. When someone feels you are honestly interested in them, they will be much more willing to connect and bond. Out of that bond, negotiation works.
NB: You’ve written that the person effect has a big impact on whether we reach our goals in negotiation. Can you describe what you mean by the person effect?
GK: The person effect is our unique impact, positive or negative, on others. Every negotiator has a unique person effect. It includes our state of being, our words, body language, energy level, and much more. The famous physiologist Ivan Pavlov first identified the person effect when he noticed that the physiology of the dogs he studied changed when people came in and out of the room. Later, my mentor, psychologist James Lynch, documented that close human relationships have a beneficial impact on people’s health, emotional behavior, and mental state.
Close connections have a similarly beneficial impact in leadership and negotiation activities. When we’re threatening, dismissive, and unresponsive, we trigger defensiveness and distrust. When we listen and empathize, people lower their defenses and become more receptive to change. To capitalize on the person effect, we need to closely monitor our behavior, being aware of how a smile, a lack of eye contact, or raised voice can affect how others respond to our message and whether they ultimately trust us.
NB: You say that most people focus on what they have to lose rather than what they have to gain. How can we shift that focus?
GK: Rather than focusing on what you and the other party stand to lose, start thinking about how you will each benefit. Imagine that you’re an art gallerist who is negotiating with a designer to redo your website, and you’re $3,000 apart on price. Don’t get held hostage by that number. Instead, think about how the designer could benefit from associating with you, such as gaining business from wealthy clients. The financial difference becomes less important when you reframe this way.
Similarly, when driving change, leaders often don’t see that change produces loss and pain. Some people are motivated to seek change, but 80% are too risk avoidant. Leaders should use negotiating tactics— questioning, inquiry, and dialogue—to hear about the pain that followers anticipate. Then help them understand and accept that pain, and see the benefits of change. At that point, choice drives the change or resistance to change.
NB: What hostage negotiation techniques can employees use when dealing with difficult bosses, such as those who are demanding and unsupportive?
GK: The challenge is to bond with someone you don’t like. Again, asking questions helps. If you have a problem with your boss, you need to be able to put that issue on the table and communicate that you want to help your boss get what he or she wants. If your boss wants better customer service, you could say, “I need more autonomy rather than micromanagement to help you meet that goal.” Here again, make it clear what you are asking for and what the benefit to the other person will be.
Most negotiations fail either because there is no bond or because parties get caught up in a destructive conflict. When the other person becomes the problem, you become a hostage. You have to be able to build a bond and understand what the other side wants and his or her underlying emotions. It’s quite a simple process; people make it more complicated than it needs to be by approaching it as a rational problem-solving activity. At some point, you can use the bond you’ve formed to resolve your differences and the underlying emotions, such as fear, anger, or sadness.