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!


Ask… then ask again!

The real world is very complex, and yet physicists can reduce complex interactions between objects into simple diagrams and formulas. Similarly, human interaction is tremendously complex – and in this domain it is the negotiator who will reduce what goes on into almost trivial simplicity. But don’t be fooled; these insights are still very powerful!

Let me illustrate. In the last few weeks I have had three very similar conversations. And while these have involved more complexity than I will capture here, I can actually summarise the key parts of each dialogue in just a few sentences.

See if you can spot the pattern (which I’ve hopefully made abundantly obvious!)

Dialogue 1:
Obstacle: “You can’t return the product for cash. You can only exchange it.”
Negotiator: “Really?”
Obstacle: “Yes.”
Negotiator: “Really?”
Obstacle: “Ok, ok, you can get your money back.”

Dialogue 2:
Obstacle: “We will will allocate just over half the funds you expected.”
Negotiator: “Really?”
Obstacle: “Yes.”
Negotiator: “Really?”
Obstacle: “Ok, you’ll get all the funds you expected.”

Dialogue 3:
Obstacle: “I’m sorry, but the price for our services is now three times higher than what you paid last year.”
Negotiator: “Really?”
Obstacle: “Yes.”
Negotiator: “Really?”
Obstacle: “Yes.”
Negotiator: “Really?”
Obstacle: “Ok, you can continue paying what you paid last year.”

I have of course cut out all the irrelevant noise. What is left is the following – a challenge. Not in a confrontational way. Not a counter proposal. Not even articulated as a specific question. Merely an indication that I’m not quite ready to accept what the other party is proposing. And in each of the scenarios this approach gave me exactly what I wanted.

There is a common saying in negotiations circles that goes like this: “if you don’t ask the answer is always no”. Based on these three mini-dialogues I would like to add: “…and if the answer is no – ask again!”