Promises are an important tool in hostage negotiation, helping the negotiator establish rapport and credibility. I promise to do something for you, you see that I do it, you realize I have credibility. We have a relationship—I promise, you promise.
Generally, promises start small and work toward the big one—the promise to surrender. A hostage negotiator will often go first, making a small promise he knows he can keep. One typical promise a hostage negotiator might make would be to tell the subject the truth. Small promise, but an important one. Down the line, maybe food and water would be delivered in exchange for a number of hostages. As promises are made and kept, the negotiator gains credibility—he (or she) can deliver on his promises.
The corollary to this is to never make a promise you can’t keep. You don’t promise that the suspect won’t be cuffed when you know he will be. It’s a quick fix that will bite you in the end.
Negotiators should remember that there are really two types of promises—explicit promises and unspoken ones. The explicit promises are pretty obvious: I promise to send food in, you promise to send out three hostages. But there are unspoken promises as well. And it’s important to keep them.
They begin with the agreement to start negotiations at a certain time and place. Saying that you’ll get information about a certain item is an important commitment—a promise, whether it’s stated that way or not.
Keeping promises does more than demonstrate to the other side that the negotiator is consistent and trustworthy. It shows that the negotiating team has the power to follow through on an agreement. It’s also a chance to build up trust with the person on the other side of the negotiation. Coming through on a promise is like pushing down on a seesaw—I helped you up, now you do the same for me.
Being macho means never asking for directions. Ever. For some reason, it’s like an admission not just of ignorance, but of impotence. As someone who travels a lot, I know the feeling very well. Just asking a question like “Where’s the restroom?” for some reason makes many guys feel like George Custer when Chief Sitting Bull and his five thousand Sioux warriors came up the hill.
On the other hand, it’s better than the alternative.
Some negotiators believe that asking questions is a sign of weakness. On the contrary, I think it’s a sign of strength. The most powerful question you can ask the other person is: What do you want?
Think about it.
If the negotiator can ask it, then he’s implying that he can fulfill that need. That takes power.
Now I may not, and I may not want to, fulfill all the needs of the other side. That’s not what the definition of a win-win solution is. But by asking, I’ve clarified the situation greatly. I’ve gotten the other side to tell me his or her main issues in the negotiations that will follow. If nothing else, we won’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out what those issues are.
Asking what exactly the other side wants can be especially important when dealing with complicated legal matters. Looking at a clause in a contract recently, one of my associates was baffled by the legalese. The clause seemed to take away all of the associate’s rights—and yet maybe not. The lawyers couldn’t figure it out either. Finally the negotiator went back to the other side and asked simply, “What are you trying to say here?”
The other side thought about it, then struck the clause.
Talk about your easy solutions . . .