As I reflected on my time as commander of my former agency’s Hostage Negotiations Team, I realized that eight of the 15 negotiators was a woman. It was not necessarily by design. It was just the way it shook out. They competed for the spots and outperformed other candidates; male and female. Three of the women on my team were some the best hostage negotiators I have worked with. In other words, if a band of crazed criminals stormed a religious orphanage, taking the caretakers and children hostage, it is one of these women who would get the nod as the primary negotiator. Their adoption and conversational application of active listening make the choice a no-brainer. My comfort level was just higher with the women. As I took stock of other agencies that I have worked with, their best performers too are women. That is not to say that I have not worked with or know fully competent male negotiators. In fact, my mentors in the discipline have all been male but...are women naturally better at negotiating than men? I don’t know, but I can tell you what I have witnessed.
In my experience, female negotiators are more receptive to the counter-intuitive approach espoused by negotiation instructors. They are more courageous at jumping in and applying the skills as they have been taught. I call it sticking to your training. Most that I have encountered engage others using the skills far sooner than their male counterparts. They appear to have more trust in the process and less fear of failure. In addition, these women seem to have a better appreciation of the power of empathy, using it to their advantage to gather information in order to influence. There are those who may say that women are genetically predisposed to demonstrating emotional empathy; a subjective state related to emotional contagion. I cannot tell if that is accurate or not but the female negotiators that I speak of show a high degree of proficiency in demonstrating cognitive empathy; making a conscious effort to view the world through the prism of another.
Case in point, the negotiator (I will call her S) negotiated for almost 10 hours with a man whom had shot his girlfriend and then barricaded himself inside a home. The suspect had in his background training and employment with a three lettered Federal agency that rhymes with B-Y-K. He had been involved in some shady activity while stationed in Bosnia and told S that he was versed in psychological manipulation and knew what she was trying to do. Sticking to her training and applying the skills in a conversational tone, S engaged him for the entire 10 hours until she was relieved by a male negotiator from another agency. The suspect remained on the phone for about five minutes with the male negotiator before he shot and killed himself. Why didn’t he do it in the 10 hours prior? Because S had demonstrated empathy and established rapport. By extension, he had established such a relationship with S that he did not want to subject her his final act.
Another case involved negotiator M. M was tasked with engaging a man who was threatening to commit suicide. This was M’s first time as a primary negotiator. She did not have the same real-world experience as S had and as such she had nothing to rely on but her training and she did so with incredible acumen. She allowed him to expound on his religious philosophy, explain how he was being victimized and showing an understanding of how his current predicament was everyone else’s fault. To this day I still tout it as some of the best conversational active listening that I have ever seen.
These two cases show outstanding work, but not all women are top performers. Some, like some men, are terrible. The key point here is, they are not terrible because they are women. They are terrible because their advice, training, and approach are woeful.
In the corporate world, some women have even bought into misconception that aggressive communication tactics are the key to getting them what they want. Recently, I was told just that by a female participant at a negotiation seminar we conducted on the west coast. No! If either of the women mentioned above had gotten aggressive with either of the men, the outcome would have been disastrous.
Man or woman, your success or failure in negotiations and difficult conversations is not predicated on your gender. It is predicated on the quality of your training, adherence to the process and your courage. Which gender is better? There are probably equal numbers on both sides of that argument but gun to my head, if a male and female, with whom I have no history, are standing before me and I am forced to choose a primary negotiator...I would choose the woman.