Crisis negotiation, deadlines and complexity

The field of crisis negotiation has developed rapidly since the poorly managed Munich Olympics hostage crisis in 1972. A general trend has been towards seeking better understanding of human behaviour. This understanding often allows negotiators to resolve crisis events in ways that carry much lower risk than the traditional approach of forceful intervention.

One of the key techniques involves intentional and informed management of time to facilitate a weakening of perpetrators’ resolve. What seemed like a good idea on day one of a siege may not seem equally appealing after days or weeks of uneventful inactivity and lack of progress. With the passing of time, the initial heightened emotions and inflated expectations of success de-escalate and tend to get replaced with fatigue, exhaustion, boredom, hunger and despair.

It is then interesting to read the article on BBC today where Ukraine’s interior minister proposed to resolve the present hostage crisis by establishing a 48h deadline for resolving the crisis with “either talk or force”. This strategy would seem at odds with recent thinking in crisis negotiation, and actually opens up a wide range of undesirable risks, including:

  • While stalling for time serves to defuse emotions and increase rationality, the introduction of deadlines instead increases stress and emotions, which in turn increases the risk of rushed, impulsive and unpredictable decisions.
  • Imposing a deadline is an overt display of power, and the hope is to motivate submission. But more often than not the use of power instead motivates resentment, resistance, revenge, escalation and even mutual destruction. Power is often an element in crisis negotiations, but due to the negative by-products it creates, power is often introduced gradually by negotiators and primarily for the purpose of motivating a continuation of negotiations. In contrast an ultimatum introduces maximum power in one hit, and is more likely to result in a fight or flight response.
  • Note that in this case Ukraine has effectively imposed the deadline on itself – not just on the activists. And Ukraine has in the process reduced the number of available options for resolution by locking itself into one course of action. This is a legitimate strategy from a game theory perspective. But from a negotiation perspective there is now a risk that the pro-Russian activists will test the deadline. If the deadline passes, and Ukraine doesn’t use force, then the Ukraine’s power of any similar threats in the future, even in unrelated negotiations, will be severely reduced. Thus by imposing the ultimatum Ukraine has significantly increased the likelihood of a forceful resolution to the crisis. And use of force may be particularly undesirable given the current political context in Ukraine.

Of course, we have to be careful to not assume that we know Ukraine’s motivation behind the strategy. If the goal is to resolve the situation with minimum risk of losing lives then we might question the strategy as above. But if the goal different, e.g. to end the siege swiftly for political reasons in order to better manage local and international constituents, then there is of course more rationale for the strategy.

International crises are very complex. Here we focused on one small piece, and that is the impact of deadlines and ultimatums on the likelihood of peaceful resolutions with barricaded perpetrators.

Let’s see how it pans out!

Dealing with emotional people

“…and you’re a !&#$!@ and this lecture is a *#@!$ waste of time!”

The words coming out of this participant’s mouth are foul offensive to say the least. But yet all participants in the crisis negotiation seminar are laughing. In fact, lying there on the floor in front of everyone, even the student shouting these profanities could barely contain a big and welcoming smile.

I had told the student to tell me off to the best of his ability. And I told him to do so repeatedly while we changed his posture, our seating arrangement, and other aspects of the situation. As it turned out, lying there on his back made it quite difficult to keep the fight going. In contrast it was much easier for him to act aggressive two minutes earlier when we were face to face and two inches apart.

We ran this exercise in response to a participant asking the question: “How do you deal with emotional people?” When a person is in an emotional state, perhaps as a result of experiencing a crisis, he or she will have very little available attention for you or what you want. This typically makes it much harder for you to have the type of constructive dialogue that you probably prefer. Thus the key to dealing with an emotional person (or more accurately, a person who is in an emotional state) is to first influence that person to adopt a more rational frame of mind.

Many of the most powerful tools for achieving this are derived from crisis negotiation, and you will find several of these in our book, Negotiation Evolved.

Or you can keep doing what you do know. If you belong to the majority, then there is a pretty good chance that your favourite tool at present is to tell people to change their emotions: “Stop being so emotional”, “don’t be sad”, “watch your temper!” or “CALM DOWN!!”

…and you must really, really love this technique, because you keep at it even though there is no chance in hell that it will work 😉

Negotiations never involve just two parties

(This is a repost from Filip’s original blog)

A common misconception about negotiation is that there are only two relevant parties to most negotiations; “us” and “them”. In reality this is never the case. Whether we consider contract negotiations between companies, relationship negotiations between romantic partners, second hand car purchases, or crisis negotiations between law enforcement and perpetrators, there arealways additional stakeholders who either:

  • Can influence the outcome
  • Are affected by the outcome

One of the cruellest lectures I give (and I always apologise for this ☺) is the one on advanced stakeholder analysis in negotiation. In one hour I reveal how tremendously complex it becomes to manage the negotiation process once we begin to understand the real dynamics in the system. It is cruel because participants have usually enjoyed the topic of negotiation up to this point, and now they suddenly realize that negotiation is challenging, and requires a lot of work if we want to increase our influence over outcomes.

In one hour I only have time to cover the first 20 or so stakeholders that we wish to consider for most negotiations between organisations. Not only does this map include many stakeholders, but we also wish to understand about one hundred things about each stakeholder, e.g.:

  • What does each party want?
  • What does each individual want?
  • Who sides with whom? What sub-coalitions can we see? And how do these coalitions change based on the options on the table?
  • Who communicates with whom? Who listens to whom?
  • Who likes whom? Who trusts whom? Who might seek revenge with whom?
  • Which parties are dependent on others? Which parties are replaceable?
  • And much, much more!

And we haven’t even reached the cruel part yet. Where my participants’ collective spirit is usually crushed is just after I ask the question: “Is this map static?” The answer is of course “no”. Any change in the negotiation can drastically change the stakeholder map. Even discussing two separate options/solutions may require two completely separate stakeholder maps!

Ramsay Taum, an expert on sustainability in Hawaii, gave one of the best presentations I have ever attended. In passing he mentioned that the local tradition is to always include empty chairs in meetings, because these chairs help remind those present of the relevant stakeholders that aren’t present in the meeting. I strongly recommend making this practice tradition for all our negotiations as well.