Let’s straighten one thing out right away. Hostage negotiators—all negotiators, for that matter—aren’t aiming to sympathize with the person on the other side of the barricade. What they’re shooting for is empathy: understanding the other person’s emotions. The negotiator is not putting himself in the other person’s shoes; he’s figuring out where those shoes are.
In a hostage situation, understanding that a person is angry about, say, the fact that his wife wants to leave him, gives the hostage negotiation team a great deal of information and ways of influencing his behavior. Let’s get obvious here for a second: If he’s angry about his wife, you’re not going to bring his wife to the scene. More subtly, if he’s depressed, you may have to consider whether he’ll try to commit suicide.
Everybody has emotions. Everybody has experiences. The two are not the same. Emotions are universal—we all know what sadness is like. Experiences are different. They are seldom shared. Negotiators shouldn’t pretend that they have experiences they don’t. They also shouldn’t tell the person how they’re feeling—that’s a gimme for the response: “How dare you tell me what I’m feeling?”
What they can do is tell the subject how they sound to him. “You know, you sound pretty sad,” is a lot different than saying “You’re sad,” because it’s much harder to argue with. It gives the person on the other side of the barricades a chance to talk about what they’re feeling (or not feeling) rather than arguing about it.