Negotiation Training with Heart

A legendary hostage negotiator puts feelings first

By on / Negotiation Training

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In typical negotiation skills training, we are taught to get beyond our emotions and look at situations rationally. There’s merit to this approach, of course, as feelings can cloud our judgment.

But consider what Lieutenant Jack Cambria, who retired in August as the longest-running head of the New York Police Department’s (NYPD’s) hostage negotiation team, said during a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal: Successful negotiators must “experience the emotion of love at one point in their life, to know what it means to have been hurt in love at one point in their life, to know success and, perhaps most important, to know what it means to know failure.”

“The very good negotiators, I think, are the ones with the life stories,” he concluded.


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Cambria began learning to appreciate people’s complex life stories early in his career. He told the Journal that as a beat officer in the 1980s, he stereotyped the homeless people he encountered as “violent,” “dirty,” and “mentally ill.” That changed after he searched the bag of a homeless man and found a play the man had written about his struggle to improve his life. “In that two-minute space of time, he had transposed himself from a homeless guy—my baggage—to a playwright,” Cambria said.

Having learned on his first day of patrol that smiling was a more effective strategy than staring contests, Cambria eventually went on to be known as “Gentleman Jack.”

Retired psychology professor Stuart Kirschner, who helped develop the NYPD’s hostage team’s negotiation training program with Cambria, compared the program to group therapy. He told the Journal that the program was “incredibly moving” due to Cambria’s empathetic negotiating style, which leads him to tap into trainees’ life experiences.

The following lessons from the NYPD’s negotiation training could be elements of successful professional negotiator training in the business world as well:

1. Deal with emotions first.

According to Cambria, the first 15-45 minutes of a crisis negotiation are the most critical. He said that the NYPD’s negotiation training teaches officers to “manage the emotion level first.” Confronting the emotions of hostage-takers, those threatening suicide, and others in crisis head-on allows the negotiators to gradually defuse them.

The majority of hostage situations are driven by emotions and relationships, research has found. Even when hostage takers say they are motivated by money or some other tangible outcome, their demands tend to mask a greater underlying emotional concern, such as a desire for respect, attention, or love.

The best negotiation courses promote rational decision making but also acknowledge the need to deal with emotions. A colleague who refuses to share scarce resources may be fearful that her position in the organization is in jeopardy, for example. It can be difficult to confront emotions at the office, but doing so often leads to unexpected breakthroughs and promotes a calmer, more collaborative discussion.

2. Listen to learn.

In their negotiation training, members of the NYPD hostage-negotiation team learn to listen carefully to a hostage taker’s demands with the goal of identifying his key underlying problem or motivation, Cambria wrote in a 2002 Negotiation Journal article with Richard J. DeFilippo, Robert J. Louden, and Hugh McGowan. Instead of trying to debate the hostage-taker’s concerns rationally—by saying, for example, “But you have your whole life ahead of you!”—trainees learn to manage the hostage taker’s anxieties.

As reflected in the team’s motto, “Talk to me,” the NYPD’s negotiation skills training emphasizes active listening skills. In their negotiation training, officers learn to repeat back what they have heard and make supportive remarks, such as “It sounds like you feel misunderstood.”

Virtually all of us can benefit from spending more time listening and less time talking in our negotiations, as professional negotiator training should remind us. When we synthesize what we’ve heard and probe our counterpart’s underlying feelings, we can get beyond simply focusing on what we’re going to say next.

3. Build trust through small concessions.

By listening closely, crisis negotiators gain a better understanding of the underlying motives of the other party. In the process, they work toward building a trusting relationship that allows for productive tradeoffs. In their attempts to broker a safe surrender, hostage negotiators might agree to make minor concessions, such as booking a hostage taker in another police district.

Similarly, you can build trust in your negotiations by making concessions that are easy to give but valuable for the other party to receive. For example, you might promote a cooperative spirit from the start by agreeing to meet at the other party’s preferred venue.

Business negotiations are rarely the type of life-and-death situations that hostage negotiators encounter on the job. Yet as Cambria learned in his encounter with the homeless playwright, we are more alike than we are different—a fact that effective negotiation courses emphasize.

Related Negotiation Training Article: Make the Most of Negotiation Skills Training


Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


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One Response to “Negotiation Training with Heart”

  • Robert A.

    Excellent summary and insights. Too often lawyers refuse to recognize, let alone, defuse the emotionally laden aspects of the case or the dispute. If this emotional affirmation and defusion is the starting point in life-or-death situations, we all need to hone our own Emotional Intelligence and de-escalation tools.

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