It Depends…


As I read and hear about the accounts and comments regarding the release of Bowe Bergdahl, I am struck by the hand-wringing over the question of whether or not we should negotiate against terrorists. There are those who stand strongly on the side of NEVER and a growing number believing we should. The NEVER crowd suffers from antiquated thinking and fails to understand hostage negotiations and recovery is constantly evolving. It is constantly evolving because we are more flexible than ever in our approach in resolving incidents. This flexibility is a byproduct of our willingness to learn from each mission, incident or job we (or someone else) handle. As someone much smarter than me wrote in an article recently, each critical incident that we have handled is a prelude to the next. If we, as negotiators maintained the status quo of how we were trained and operated in the early 1970s I would venture to say that our success rate would not be as high as it is today.

The first generation of negotiators, those trained from 1972 to the mid-1980s (and frighteningly enough, some agencies today) focused more on bargaining principles than crisis Intervention techniques. Quid Pro Quo and tit-for-tat were the orders of the day.

The second generation of negotiators, those trained from the mid-1980s to approximately 2005 shifted attention away from bargaining with prisoners, hijackers and other criminals. Instead, regardless of motivation, these as individuals were viewed as operating under a certain amount of stress, pressure and crisis. Those within the discipline began applying crisis Intervention techniques and Active Listening Skills to resolve incidents. It is no coincidence that many teams began change their names form Hostage to Crisis Negotiations Teams during this time.

The third generation of negotiator, those trained from 2005 to present have begun to realize the value of an integrated model of negotiations wherein there is a parallel application of ALS with power and bargaining. This generation has learned power and bargaining are not as effective without empathic listening and vice versa. We have become blade runners in that we have to compare and contrast the benefits of a negotiated solution with the risk very capable tactical intervention. Of course, the circumstances dictate which one we play up more. The integrated model synchronizes crisis intervention principles with power and bargaining to create a comprehensive, balanced framework within which negotiators can operate. Is it art? Is it science? It is a little of both or as I like to say the artful application of science. We got to this stage because of our willingness to be flexible. We have learned to adapt based on the situations as they have unfolded before us. Ten years ago, if you had asked me if I would allow a suspect to surrender to the primary negotiator, I would have said no, because that is how I was trained. Eight years ago, I did just that. The only thing impeding his surrender was being able to walk out to the primary who was in a voice-to-voice position. The circumstances and environment were such that I was confident my negotiator was appropriately covered. With safety measures in place to my satisfaction, she walked him through the surrender.

There was a time when we had a stringent set of rules within the discipline. We would say we will never do this or that. Now, as was the case of the Bergdahl recovery, we don’t say, “never”. We say, “it depends”.


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About The Author

Derek Gaunt is a seasoned negotiator and leader. With 23 years of experience, Derek has commanded and trained police department hostage negotiation teams. Derek handles for law enforcement, military and security training.