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!

Negotiator interrupted

“Hey… I just noticed something. Every time we interrupt you, you stop talking. That seems like a pretty smart thing to do. Is there an intentional strategy behind it?”

The business owner who had asked me for advice on negotiating the sale of his company was on the right track with his question. Throughout the meeting the owner and his two executives kept fighting for airtime. Not in a rude or aggressive manner. Rather they were simply keen to share their ideas and opinions, and in the process kept cutting each other off.

But whenever this happened while I was ta….. …… …… ……. ……… …… ….. …….. ……… ………. ……. ….. …….. …… …….. ……. …… ……… ………. ……….. ……….. ………. …….. ………. ……… ……. ……….. ………….. ….…. ……………. …………. ………… ……..… . ………….. ……….. …………….lking, I would stop mid-sentence. Why?

Well, when someone interrupts you they have already made it abundantly clear that their present need is to talk, not listen. So there is little point in engaging in a competition over airtime. What do you get if you win such a competition? Their undivided attention? Unlikely!

So when negotiators get interrupted, they stop talking and instead start listening. Whether your boss is spending 90 minutes chewing you out, or your partner is telling you why everything is your fault, or a customer is telling you all the reasons your company is crap, you can also choose to adopt our approach and simply listen.

This has several additional benefits for the negotiation process, and you can read further in our book.

The bad news is that this approach will strike most readers as quite odd… which tells me that this is not what people normally do. Some of the main reasons we don’t are:

  • We don’t understand how influence works. Specifically we assume that we influence by talking. However, negotiators know we influence much more by asking questions and listening.
  • We think we know where the other party is going, or we think they are wrong. Either way we believe they’re wasting our time by continuing talking!  However, negotiators know that talking is a need, and depriving the other party of this need is likely to cause resentment, resistance and other forms of pollution.
  • We have things to say of our own, and we want to share them now before we forget. However, negotiators don’t think either/or, but rather both/and. How can both the other party and we get a chance to talk? How about they start, we capture our thoughts on paper, and then we talk after the other party has finished?

In negotiation circles listening is commonly referred to as the cheapest concession you can give. So give generously!