The Negotiator Magazine

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Negotiation Lessons Learned by an FBI Hostage Negotiator

Frederick J. Lanceley

In the early 1970s, between graduate school and my FBI career, I had worked as a salesman. When I became involved with and, later, led the FBI’s hostage negotiation program, the similarities between hostage negotiation and what I learned as a salesperson became evident.

Qualifying clients and non-negotiable incidents

One of the first parallels between law enforcement negotiation and sales is determining what is a negotiable situation is and what is not. A failure to make this distinction in law enforcement can cost lives and in sales can cost hours of effort and wasted time. I view this early determination to be very much like qualifying a potential client. Some persons we can work with and some we cannot.

The 1993 negotiation with David Koresh in Waco, Texas is an example of a non-negotiable incident I have worked. It is my opinion that a fully successful resolution to this incident was not going to be achieved via negotiation. I had talked to persons who knew Mr. Koresh personally. The story that came through was that in the past Mr. Koresh had made predictions then he ensured that his prediction came true. The obvious question was, “What had he predicted about this incident?” What Mr. Koresh had predicted was that the Branch Davidians would die when the “the beast” attacked. Some followers believed Mr. Koresh to be never wrong.

The question then becomes, “If the incident is not negotiable, what do we do?” Federal agents and Branch Davidians had died in the initial stage of the raid. It was unlikely that law enforcement was going to “walk away” because people had died and crimes had been committed. The operation was also very, very expensive. One estimate of cost was $1 million per day. How long does one keep up an effort at $1 million per day or even half that amount? The FBI and federal government kept it going for 51 days. If one cannot afford $1 million or even $500,000 per day, what do you do? How much effort and expense would a corporate entity put into what is believed to be an important but most likely, losing endeavor?

It is not about you

We, negotiators and sales people, know that our subjects and clients sometimes behave in seemingly irrational ways. We know how difficult it is to be truly heard or understood. Not matter how difficult the client or subject, we must remember that this negotiation is not about you, the negotiator or salesperson. It is about the subject or client and his or her needs. This point is may be hard to keep in mind especially when the client is nasty, insulting or worse.

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December 2004