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This article has been written by Sanchita Pathak, pursuing the Certificate Course in Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code from LawSikho.


Law enforcement agencies have been employing various strategies in order to establish a communication with people who are threatening violence which include but are not limited to violence in workplaces, domestic violence, suicides, terrorism, stalkers, hostage-takers, and criminals attempting to escape after a botched robbery.  One such strategy employed is a hostage negotiation. Hostage Negotiation (also known as Crisis Negotiation) is a law enforcement technique used to communicate with the people who threaten violence in the abovementioned ways. Modern hostage negotiation principles were established by the New York Police Department in the early 1970s. The FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit and Singapore Police Force Crisis Negotiation Unit are some of the specialized units trained in these techniques. 

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How does the hostage negotiation work

Negotiation is one of the most important aspects of any hostage crisis as the lives of the hostages are at stake. The first and foremost thing that the negotiator has to undertake in a negotiation is to identify the hostage-takers, their demands, the reasons for their actions, and so on. Once the negotiator is able to understand these facets, it becomes easier for him to proceed with the negotiation.  There are few common reasons as to why any hostage taker would keep the hostages.

  1. A criminal may use innocent bystanders as a shield to protect himself from the authorities or police. 
  2. The hostage-taker might be suffering from emotional or mental issues which may result in an illogical reason for the act.
  3. There can be a planned attack by a terrorist or radical political group where the intention for the act is to primarily trade the lives of the hostages for a specific goal to be achieved by them.  

Irrespective of the reasons, the negotiator has to conduct the negotiation in a manner which results in a peaceful outcome and ensure that minimum threat to the life of the hostages is caused. 

While understanding the demands and intentions of the hostage-taker, the negotiator, at the same time, must try and understand the psychology of the hostage-taker and conduct the negotiation accordingly. It is very important to understand the psychology behind the actions of the hostage-taker as it will be beneficial for the negotiator to reach a peaceful outcome from the negotiation and not completely adhere to the demands of the hostage-taker. At the beginning of the negotiation, the demands of the hostage-taker might be unreasonable and the same cannot be granted even at the cost of the safety of the hostages as if the demands are met completely, the world would face a hostage crisis every day. For this, there should be a balance established during the negotiation.

After the psychology of the hostage-taker is understood, the negotiator should formulate a deal which is beneficial for the hostage-taker as well as the law-enforcing authorities. The negotiator must take the interest and demands of the hostage-taker into consideration and develop a deal which is most likely to be accepted by the hostage-taker. Once the deal is struck, a peaceful outcome is achieved. 

However, if a deal does not succeed, the hostage-taker might take extreme actions that could cause a threat to the lives of hostages and in turn, the entire negotiation will prove to be futile.

Who can be a negotiator?

A negotiator does not always have to be a trained professional to conduct a hostage negotiation. It may happen that a person has been accidentally involved in the situation and then continues to be the negotiator. In 1975, the terrorist group Japanese Red Army attacked the U.S. Consulate in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The terrorists made a phone call to notify U.S. authorities that they had hostages, and a junior embassy officer had picked up the phone. The Japanese Red Army agents refused to speak with anyone else throughout the crisis. So, in this case, the junior embassy officer serves to be the negotiator. 

However, as and when the situation demands, the law enforcing agencies may bring in a professional negotiator to coach these accidental and inexperienced negotiators. 

Primary goals in hostage negotiations

Hostage negotiations are risky in nature as the lives of the hostages are involved. Hence, there are certain primary goals in hostage negotiation that need to be followed in order to avoid any threat to the lives of hostages. 

Prolong the situation

One of the most important goals of the negotiator is to acquire more time by prolonging the negotiation. There are higher chances of the hostage situation to end peacefully if it is prolonged. The negotiator must try and prolong the situation as much as possible in order to obtain more time to meet the demands of the hostage-taker, to consult higher officials regarding the situation, to find a way out of the entire situation.  

Ensure the safety of the hostages

The negotiator must always focus on the safety of the hostages. The negotiator can do so by convincing the hostage-taker to allow medical treatment or release for sick or injured hostages, negotiating about the release of as many hostages as possible and so on. Along with their ensured safety, valuable information about the hostage-takers and other hostages can be obtained from the released hostages. 

Foster the growth of relationships between negotiator and hostage-taker

The negotiator must seem genuine to the captor. In other words, the negotiator must act like he or she understands the reasons for the hostage-taker’s actions but still does not support his actions. In addition to this, the negotiator should also try to encourage interactions between the hostages and the hostage-takers. This is because when the hostage-takers develop an understanding with the hostages, it is more likely that they will not attack them or do anything that will risk their safety. In a 1975 hostage standoff on a train in Holland, Robert de Groot, a hostage was chosen for death, but he was spared after the terrorists heard him pray for his wife and children.

Maintain the composure

The negotiator must always keep calm and have a positive attitude while negotiating with the hostage-takers. Hostage takers are inherently volatile and angry about the entire situation which has led them to take the hostages and it will prove to be extremely risky to argue with the hostage-taker which will worsen the situation further. Instead, the negotiator can choose to make counteroffers for the demands and assure the hostage-taker that his demands will be considered.

Stages of hostage negotiation

Behavioral Change Stairway Model (BCSM) was developed by the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit. It outlines the relationship-building process involving the negotiator and the hostage-taker which results in a peaceful settlement of the crisis situation. 

BCSM consists of five stages:

  1. Active Listening, 
  2. Empathy, 
  3. Rapport,
  4. Influence, 
  5. Behavioural Change. 

Stage 1: Active Listening

Every hostage taker would want to be heard and understood by the negotiator and active listening ensures the same. The negotiator must first listen to the hostage-taker carefully in order to understand the entire situation. The hostage-taker can be convinced that he is being heard by way of repeating his sentences, summarizing his views and opinions, engaging in a discussion with him instead of merely questioning him and so on. This will ensure the hostage-taker that the negotiator is attentive and is considerate about the hostage-taker.

For instance, if a hostage-taker has lost a job and he is therefore agitated because of the same, a negotiator can summarize his views by saying, “from what I have understood, you seem to have lost your job and that makes you frustrated.” This will ensure the hostage-taker that he is being heard and understood correctly by the negotiator. 

Stage 2: Empathy

Empathy is the outcome of effective active listening. It implies identification with,

and understanding of, another’s situation, feelings, and motives. The negotiator uses empathy to get the perspective of the hostage-taker on the situation. If the negotiator empathizes with the hostage-taker, then it will be easier to reach outcomes in collaboration. Empathy can be reflected by the tone used by the negotiator while conversing with the hostage-taker.

For instance, when the hostage-taker is narrating the reasons for his actions, instead of disregarding them and calling them as ‘insufficient’ or ‘irrational’, a negotiator should use sentences like “I can understand where you are coming from, but this might not be the best way to deal with the issue.”

Stage 3: Rapport

Till this stage of the BCSM, the relationship between the negotiator and the hostage-taker has been one-sided; the negotiator has been actively listening to the hostage-taker who has been expressing. Once the negotiator shows empathy towards the hostage-taker, a rapport is built between them and it results in increased trust between them. Once the rapport has been established, it is more likely that the hostage-taker would listen and understand what the negotiator has to say and offer instead of blatantly rejecting it.

In the case of Princes Gate, the negotiators successfully established a rapport with the hostage-takers and gave media coverage to his demands, which led to the release of two ill hostages by the hostage-takers. 

Stage 4: Influence

At this stage, a relationship has been established and the hostage-taker is more receptive to the suggestions of the negotiator. Now, the negotiator and the hostage-taker work in conjunction to identify solutions and alternatives that are nonviolent and realistic.

A negotiator can discuss with the hostage-taker and list out alternatives which satisfy both their demands to a certain extent. 

Stage 5: Behavioral Change

Behavioural change will occur only if the previous four stages have been successfully completed. If the negotiator rushes through the stages or omits to follow the sequence of the stages or does not perform a stage in its entirety, then it is uncertain that there will be any behavioural change in the hostage-taker. The negotiator must follow each and every step in order to establish a relationship with the hostage-taker so as to successfully reach this stage. At this final stage, the hostage-taker is likely to follow the suggestion of the negotiator and come to a peaceful outcome if the previous stages are successful. 

Following are some of the cases which reflect the consequences of a good as well as bad negotiation:

  • In the case of Pan Am Flight 73, the hostage-taker shot a man due to delay on the part of the negotiators to comply with the demands of the hostage-takers. The negotiators failed to understand the demands of the hostage-takers effectively and that cost them an innocent man’s life. 
  • In 2011, Kalamazoo, Michigan, a police negotiator Andres Wells received a text from the suspect who had ignored the calls of the negotiator. After his initial text, he became unresponsive. But eventually, he agreed to accept a phone call and in the next fifteen minutes, he surrendered. The negotiator conducted a successful negotiation which resulted in the suspect surrendering himself. 
  • In the case of Branch Davidians Standoff, 1993, the negotiators initially conducted a good negotiation, which led to the release of a number of people. However, the nature of the negotiation started becoming worse and it failed due to ignorance on the part of the negotiators to take into consideration the religious motivations of the hostage-takers and the recommendations from the experts. 

Techniques of hostage negotiation

The negotiator can incorporate certain techniques for the negotiation to be successful and to achieve a peaceful outcome. Some of the techniques are as follows:

Ask open-ended questions

It is very essential for the negotiator to ask open-ended and descriptive questions to the hostage-taker. The negotiator should also avoid being judgmental and disinterested in the information shared by the hostage-taker. It will result in defusing the existing tension and the information shared will be more reliable and comprehensive.

For instance, the negotiator can ask a question like, “It seems like you are in a tough spot. I would like to get to know about it in detail.” In this way, he can get a much detailed and comprehensive answer. An inefficient question would be “How many arms and ammunition do you have?” or “What are the types of guns that you possess?”

Effective pauses

It is important for good communication that pauses are included in the conversation. The hostage-taker should be given enough opportunities to express himself and the negotiator must not interrupt him while information is being shared. A one-sided conversation will not be effective for a successful negotiation. 

For instance, nodding while receiving crucial information is a better response than immediately asking for minute details of the information.

Minimal Encouragers

The negotiator should use simple responses instead of an elaborated response. It will encourage the hostage-taker to express more and at the same time reflect the attentiveness of the negotiator. However, it should be seen that the responses do not in any way reflect a lack of interest on the part of the negotiator.

Usage of relatively simpler phrases and terms is effective such as O.K., I see.


Mirroring is repeating the sentences of the hostage-taker. It is a vital component of being an active listener, and it shows that the negotiator is attentive. It does not essentially have to be the repetition of the entire sentences, and mere repetition of two-three words would be effective.

For instance, if the hostage-taker says, “I am frustrated with the way this system works”, a suitable response would be “Feeling frustrated, I see.”


When the negotiator repeats the sentences of the hostage-taker in his own words, it proves to be beneficial in two ways:

  1. It helps the negotiator to understand the important aspects of the conversation for the hostage-taker, and 
  2. It helps the hostage-taker to listen to the sentences that he has said and identify if they are understood correctly.

For instance, if the hostage-taker says, “I am going to kill all the hostages so that I will get justice”, the negotiator can respond by saying, “So you are saying that the death of the hostages would serve justice to you?” In this way, the hostage-taker can not only ensure that he is being understood correctly but also re-think about his sentences and whether they are making sense. 

Emotional Labeling

The feelings and emotions of the hostage-taker should be considered and labelled by the negotiator in a non-judgmental manner. It reflects that the negotiator is understanding and identifying with their emotions even if he thinks that they are not valid.

For instance, good response by the negotiator can be “I understand that you have been mistreated and it is unfair.” A bad response would be “You do not need to feel that way, be logical and rational.” It is not only judgmental but it can also give an impression to the hostage-taker that he is not being understood and heard. 


Hostage negotiation is an informal way to communicate with the hostage-taker and understand the reasons behind his actions. A peaceful outcome can be achieved if the negotiator follows the stages and techniques of the hostage negotiation. Long term data suggests that around 85-90% of the crisis situations are peacefully resolved by way of a hostage negotiation. It can be seen in the case of Balcombe Street Siege, 1975, that the hostage negotiation strategy adopted by the police was extremely efficient as it observed a resolution without any tragedy. Thus, it can be concluded that hostage negotiation is an effective way adopted by the law enforcing agencies to resolve crisis situations peacefully. 

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