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Hostage negotiations: Psychological strategies for resolving crises

Insights into crisis response team structure and communication strategies

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The essence of a hostage crisis response team is the negotiator. The preferred model is to have one primary negotiator and one or more secondary or backup negotiators.

Question: Our department is in the process of reformulating its hostage and crisis negotiation team. Any insights or advice about how to use psychology in the negotiation process?

Answer: The answer to that one is simple: hostage negotiation is all about psychology, and successful crisis negotiators are among the most skilled practical psychologists I’ve ever met.

Think about it: In the typical hostage scenario, lives are at imminent risk of violent death at the hands of a depressed, suicidal, homicidal, delusional, drug-fueled, or cold-blooded hostage-taker, often in the midst of a chaotic and uncontrolled workplace or family environment.

Resolution of hostage crises may take hours or even days of incredibly focused and intense negotiation, and require the use of virtually every type of skilled communication strategy in the crisis intervention skillbox.

Hostage crises: Facts and fiction

Fewer than 20% of law enforcement critical incidents deal with actual hostage-taking, and most crises are successfully resolved without loss of life. In fact, containment and negotiation strategies yield a 95% success rate in terms of resolving a hostage crisis without fatalities to either hostages or hostage-takers (HTs), which is a remarkable statistic for any form of lifesaving crisis intervention strategy.

There are three especially dangerous periods during a hostage crisis. The first is the initial 15-45 minutes when confusion and panic are likely to be greatest. The second is during the surrender of the HTs, when strong emotions, ambivalence, and lack of coordination among HTs and crisis team members can cause an otherwise successful resolution to go bad.

Finally, tactical assault to rescue the hostages carries the highest casualty rate, probably for two interrelated reasons. First, the very fact that tactical intervention is necessary indicates that all reasonable attempts to resolve the crisis by negotiation have failed and that violence against the hostages has already taken place, or is imminent. Second, if a firefight ensues, the resulting panic and confusion may result in hostages being inadvertently killed or injured.

Crisis Response Team structure

Consistent with the evolving conceptualization of law enforcement crisis teams as multidimensional response units, the term used to describe these teams has broadened from hostage negotiation per se, to crisis negotiation teams, and the techniques and strategies are similar across the different types of crises they deal with. Different departments may have varying team structures, depending on their individual needs, but some basic, universal components of crisis team structure include the following.

The team leader is a senior officer who organizes the crisis response team, selects its members, plans and oversees training, and makes deployment decisions in emergencies. His or her role may overlap with that of the on-scene commander, who is the person in charge of the actual hostage crisis. This individual is responsible for everything that goes on at the crisis scene, from establishing perimeters and traffic control, to directing the activity of negotiators, to deploying the tactical team, to liaising with emergency medical and community services.

Of course, the essence of a hostage crisis response team is the negotiator. The preferred model is to have one primary negotiator and one or more secondary or backup negotiators. The backups take over if the primary negotiator is unable to establish sufficient communication with the hostage taker, if there are language or cultural barriers involved, or if the primary negotiator needs a break after many hours of talking.

The job of the intelligence officer job is to gather information about the hostage-taker and hostages – including family members, past criminal and/or mental health treatment history, demographics, the identity of the hostages and their relation to the HT, and any other intelligence that will be useful in planning and carrying out the negotiation. Sometimes this information is available and sometimes it isn’t.

The role of the communications officer is to keep in contact with all of the individuals and agencies who are important in managing the crisis, such as firefighting and emergency medical services, local electrical power and phone companies, public transportation agencies, local businesses, and the media. Many departments have a public information officer who is charged with the specific duty of timely, accurate, and rumor-free information to the media and general public, without compromising the operation.

The tactical team consists of a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit, specialized marksmen, and other professionals whose sole job is to make a forced entry if and when it is determined by the on-scene commander that negotiations have failed and that hostages are in imminent danger.

Considering that the highest fatality rate in hostage crises occurs during tactical incursion, the decision to order such an action is an excruciatingly difficult one. In some cases, no actual forced entry may occur, but other tactical measures may be utilized, e.g. sniper action against the HTs, or sending in gas or flash-bangs to immobilize the HTs or flush them out. Again, these measures are to be used with extreme caution and only as a last resort, when life is in immediate danger.

Finally, many crisis teams include a team psychologist who generally has two main roles:

  1. Participation in team development, training, and selection of personnel;
  2. Operational assistance during the crisis itself, including monitoring of negotiation progress, psychological profiling of hostages and HTs, assessment of danger and risk level, monitoring the mental status of negotiators and other personnel at the scene, and participating in both operational and critical incident stress debriefings following the incident.

Hostage crisis response: Basic protocol

Just as the basic guidelines for emergency medical procedures must be adapted to the needs of each individual case, so should the following protocol for the psychological principles and practices of hostage and crisis negotiation be thought of as an outline that can be flexibly adapted and modified according to the needs of the situation.

The first priority is to isolate and contain the HT and to secure the perimeter. The goal is to keep the HT in and keep others out. As a general rule, the perimeter should be large enough to allow freedom of movement of the tactical and negotiating teams, and small enough to be kept under observation and control by the authorities. More than one perimeter, i.e., inner and outer, may be necessary.

An associated need is to provide for scene control, which involves the dual task of working around the realities of the surrounding community, and where possible, getting the surrounding community to work around the needs of the crisis team. This includes marshaling medical services, controlling local traffic, dealing with the media, and keeping the surrounding community sufficiently informed to protect their safety.

Obviously, some form of communication must be established with the HT because the sooner you begin a dialog, the less time he has to consider drastic options. While face-to-face contact between the negotiator and the HT is categorically discouraged because of the potential danger involved, any safe means of communication should be established as soon as possible. For convenience, telephone contact is most commonly used, sometimes by means of a special throw phone with a dedicated line.

General communication Strategies in hostage negotiation

While always striving to customize your communications approach, based on your understanding of the HT’s motives and personality, there are a number of general recommendations for dealing with hostage and crisis situations in general.

First, when beginning negotiations, try to minimize background distractions, such as more than one person speaking at a time, background radio chatter, road noise, etc. If there is noise at the HT’s end, ask him if he can go to a quieter part of the room, speak up a little, or otherwise enhance the clarity of the communication channel.

Open your dialog with an introduction and statement of purpose: “This is Sgt. Bruce McGill of the Metropolitan Police Department Crisis Unit. I’m here to listen to you and to try to make sure everybody stays safe.” Keep the introduction as simple as possible, and always strive for honesty and credibility. Keep your voice firm but calm, and convey your confidence in the fact that this is a temporary crisis that will be resolved safely.

To build rapport, ask what the HT likes to be called. When in doubt, address him respectfully. Try to use a name that is familiar to him. If you’re not sure, don’t automatically assume that William will respond favorably to “Bill” or “Willy.” If no first name is available, use respectful titles, like “Mr. Smith.” If the name is unknown, use “sir,” rather than “pal” or “buddy.”

Speak slowly and calmly. People’s speech patterns tend to mirror the tone of the dominant conversation, so provide a model of slow, calm, clear communication from the outset. This doesn’t mean speaking in a mechanical, droning monotone, but avoiding letting your pitch rise or your speech rate quicken excessively in response to frustration, irritation, or provocation. Set the standard of mature, adult conversation from the outset.

Adapt your conversation to HT’s vocabulary level. You want to avoid either talking over the head of the HT or talking down to him or trying to mimic his pattern or level of speech too closely. A few minutes of conversation should allow you to adapt your own speech to his style and rhythm. Of course, if the HT’s native language is not your own, a negotiator fluent in his language would be ideal, but if this is not possible, a skilled interpreter should be available.

Even with foul-mouthed HTs, avoid using unnecessary profanity yourself. Remember that people who are stressed or angry are more likely to use profanity. You are trying to model mature, adult speech and behavior in order to calm the situation. So, just as you modulate your voice tone in the direction of greater control and rationality, do the same with your speech content. This doesn’t mean you have to orate like a church pastor: you can keep it real, just use a bit of verbal decorum and respect.

For emotional HTs, allow productive venting, but deflect dangerous escalation of speech tone and content. In many instances, the whole rationale for the hostage situation is so the HT can “make a point” or “tell my story.” Good. If that’s what he wants, allow him to freely express his frustrations and disappointments, but don’t let venting become ranting or spewing, which can lead to further loss of control. Instead, modulate your own speech style and content in a calming direction.

If you’re not sure what the HT is saying, ask for clarification. Clarity is a general principle of negotiation and all forms of crisis intervention. Don’t respond to – or act on – a HT’s statement unless you’re reasonably sure you know what he means. Remember that asking someone to help you understand what they’re saying is a sign of interest, concern, and respect.

Focus your conversation on the HT, not the hostages. In most circumstances, the less the HT thinks about the hostages, the better. This is especially true where the hostages are not neutral parties, that is, where they may be family members or coworkers who have been targeted to make a point. Remember that hostages represent power and control to the hostage taker, so try not to do anything that will remind him of this fact.

Inquire about the welfare of all parties, but focus on the HT first, and then weave in concern for the other people: “Are you okay? Are you injured? Does anyone need medical attention? Is everybody safe for now?”

This is an exception to the general rule of not soliciting demands (see below), because you want to firmly establish your concern for everyone’s welfare, including the HTs, from the outset. Also, if someone really does require emergency medical attention, you don’t want to overlook the opportunity to provide it early on.

Be supportive and encouraging about the outcome. Downplay the HT’s actions so far: “Right now, it’s only an attempted robbery, nobody’s been hurt [or if there has already been an injury or fatality:] “...nobody else has been hurt.” Remember, the goal is to keep violence from escalating from this point on.

If there is a chance of saving lives, then interpret the situation in any positive way you can. If shots have been fired, point out that no one has yet been hurt. If injuries have occurred, emphasize the lack of fatalities so far. If a hostage has died, focus on saving the rest. The emphasis should always be on what the HT can still do to save his own life and score points in his favor, that whatever he has done so far, the situation is still salvageable:

“William, I want you to know that, even though the guy got shot [passive tense: it wasn’t completely your fault] in the foot [not a critical wound] at the beginning of this thing [everybody was confused], all kinds of unexpected things [you didn’t intend to cause harm] can happen in a panic situation. But you’ve done a good job of keeping things cool from that point on [you’re still in control, but in a positive way], and no one else has been hurt [you’re now part of the solution, not the problem]. That counts for a lot, and everybody here knows it [there’s still hope of avoiding dire consequences]. Let’s see if we can keep things peaceful for now so we can all come out of this safely, okay? [we want you to be safe, too, not just the hostages]

Along with the above, compliment the HT for any positive actions he’s taken so far. If the HT does something constructive, reinforce it. This applies whether the action is a major thing, like the release of one or more hostages, or a seemingly minor thing like allowing the hostages to eat or go to the bathroom, or keeping the phone line open.

The aim here is to establish a pattern of constructive actions that allow the HT to reap repeated positive reinforcement, leading ultimately to his surrender with no further injuries to anyone.

Demands and deadlines

One of the defining characteristics of most hostage crises is the presence of some form of demand, which may range from the immediately practical (food, transportation) to the more grandiose (release of political prisoners, access to media) to the bizarre or psychotic (freedom from conspiratorial persecution; emancipation of downtrodden classes). Most demands will be of the first type, and most experts would agree with the following principles and practices.

The standard operating procedure in hostage negotiations is to make the HT work for everything he gets by extracting a concession in return. The is to maintain your bargaining position without unduly agitating the HT and triggering a violent confrontation. Within these parameters, don’t give anything without getting something in return: “The electricity turned on? I’ll work on that, but I’ll need you to do something for me, okay? Can you keep the phone line open so we can keep communicating while they’re hooking up the cable?”

Other guidelines include: don’t solicit demands; don’t do anything not explicitly asked for; and don’t deliver more than absolutely necessary to fulfill the request. The conventional wisdom is to never say “no” to a demand, but that’s not the same as saying yes. The negotiator’s job is to deflect, postpone, and modify: “Okay, you want a helicopter out of here, right? I’ll see what I can do. Meanwhile, tell me...”

When negotiating for the release of multiple hostages, start with the most vulnerable or least desirable, from the HT’s standpoint. Where the hostages are strangers to the HT, as in the case of robberies, and where the HT has specific, utilitarian demands (food, escape), many HTs will relinquish hostages that they perceive as being too much trouble to keep around, such as sick or injured victims, crying children, or overly emotional hostages, while holding on to the more healthy and manageable ones. As in any bargaining maneuver, let the HT make the first offer, that is, how many hostages he’s willing to release. Remember, it is better to get one or two people out safely now, rather than risk having the HT change his mind because he feels you’re pressuring or manipulating him for more.

Where there is only a single hostage or very few hostages, and where the hostages are known to the HT, as in a family argument or workplace beef, the situation is more dangerous because the hostages have a particular personal or symbolic value to the HT. Additionally, there is a greater chance that the HT may be exhausted, agitated, intoxicated, delusional, suicidal, homicidal, or any combination of the above. He may not care about negotiating demands because he’s already resolved to kill everyone including himself. In such cases, conventional hostage negotiating strategies may overlap with suicide intervention and other crisis intervention strategies.

A common feature of HT demands is that they often come with a deadline: “I want that car here by 12 noon, or someone’s going to die.” To begin with, although deadline demands are relatively common, very few deaths have actually occurred as the direct result of a deadline not being met, especially in more common robbery or family dispute hostage crises (political hostage-taking may present unique challenges).

Although this may seem obvious, don’t set deadlines yourself. If the HT sets a deadline, record it but don’t mention it again if he doesn’t bring it up. The goal is to ignore the deadline and let it pass by keeping the HT engaged in conversation about something else. If there has been no conversation with the HT for a while, try to initiate contact prior to the deadline and keep him engaged and distracted.

Use the passage of time to expend adrenalin and let fatigue set it, but beware of total exhaustion which may lead to heightened irritability and impulsive action. As a general rule, however, the more time that has passed without injury, the more likely is a nonlethal outcome to the crisis.

The surrender ritual

Nobody likes to surrender. Yet, by definition, the successful resolution of a hostage crisis entails the safe release of the hostages and surrender of the HT to law enforcement authorities. Thus, anything the negotiating team can do to make this easier for the HT will work in favor of saving lives. Trying to manipulate or intimidate an HT into capitulating may have the opposite effect because few people want to give up as a sign of weakness. Rather, a successful resolution will usually involve convincing the HT to come out on his own with as much dignity preserved as possible.

On the strength of practical experience, a basic protocol, or surrender ritual, has evolved to guide negotiators in their efforts to safely resolve a crisis. As with all such general guidelines, each negotiating team must adapt this system to their particular situation and type of HT. To begin with, any plan must be understood, agreed to, and followed by all members of the negotiating and tactical teams. Work out how the HT will come out, how the arrest will be made, and what will happen next. Remember, the team’s initial version of the plan is not the last word; the plan may go back and forth between the negotiator and the HT until a mutually agreeable sequence is established.

When dealing with the HT, avoid the use of words like “surrender,” “give up,” or other terms that connote weakness and loss of face. Use whatever euphemisms seem appropriate: “coming out” is a preferred term because it implies a proactive decision by the subject himself to resolve the crisis. To begin the discussion of coming out, emphasize to the HT what he has to gain by this action at the present time. Be realistic but optimistic. Minimize any damage done so far. Emphasize what bad things have not happened and the subject’s role in preventing further harm:

“William, we understand you felt you had no choice but to shoot that guard when he went for his gun – it was a split-second decision, right? But I want to thank you for keeping rest of those people in the bank safe while we talked this out. That’s going to count for a lot if we can end this now without anyone else getting hurt.”

Find out what assurances are needed by the HT and if the team can accommodate them. Be sensitive to personal and cultural issues involving pride and respect. Discuss various coming-out scenarios and identify a mutually acceptable plan. As in any kind of negotiation, the more input the subject has, the more he feels that the plan is his own as well as yours, the more likely he is to comply – what business negotiators call buy-in. In planning for a successful resolution, let the subject set the pace; if he is agreeing to come out at all, this is not the time to rush things.

Once the final plan is put together, now the task becomes to make sure everybody understands what they’re supposed to do. First, clarify the plan with the negotiating and tactical teams. Then carefully explain to the HT what will happen and what to expect. Ask him to repeat it back to you. Make it clear to him that this rehearsal is not because you distrust him or think he’s stupid, but for his own safety and to make sure everybody follows the agreement he and you have worked out. For example:

Okay, here’s what we agreed on. You’re going to take off your jacket so everyone can see you in the tee-shirt, see that you’re not hiding anything. Don’t carry anything out or have anything in your hands or pockets. Open the front door slowly with your left hand and keep your right hand on your head. When you step out onto the front porch, slowly put your right hand on your head, too. Then drop slowly to your knees and keep your hands on your head. Remember, the guiding word is slow, slow, slow – no sudden moves. When you’re on the ground, you’ll see the SWAT guys approach you. They’ll probably have their weapons drawn, and one of them will have a large black shield, so don’t move; it’s just their normal procedure. If they order you to lie down and put your hands behind your back, do it. Do whatever they tell you. They’re going to restrain you. They may seem a little rough, but they’re not trying to hurt you, that’s just their procedure. After they’re sure you’re secure, they’ll either walk you or carry you to the holding area, and one of our team will meet you there. We want to make sure this goes smoothly like we planned, so tell it back to me like I just explained it.”

While following standard procedures for control and restraint, the tactical team should avoid any unnecessary verbal or physical roughness during the arrest. In keeping with the strict division of negotiating and tactical roles, the negotiator should not be the arresting officer. During and after the arrest, the negotiator should maintain engagement, rapport, and communication with the HT. If possible – and after any necessary on-scene first aid has been applied and the subject has been read his legal rights – a brief informational debriefing with the HT should occur in a secure place close to the scene. This is to gather any information that might be forgotten or discarded later on and also gives the negotiator the opportunity to praise the subject for his contribution to successfully resolving this crisis.

Why? Remember the point about “repeat customers” in the criminal justice system. You don’t want the subject to think the whole negotiation was just some kind of trick to get him to give up, because this may have repercussions for future communications and interactions with the same or different subjects, whether they involve hostage-taking or other incidents. In a very real sense, the negotiation is never really over, even during the arrest and informational debriefing, and throughout the trial and incarceration process. You want your team and your department to maintain the reputation of being tough, but fair and honorable throughout all your interactions with the community. Always be looking ahead to the next incident.

To learn more about this topic

  • Miller L. (2005). Hostage negotiation: Psychological principles and practices. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, 7, 277-298.Miller, L. (2007). Negotiating with mentally disordered hostage takers: Guiding principles and practical strategies. Journal of Police Crisis Negotiations, 7, 63-83. Reprints available from the author: send request and mailing address to
  • Miller L. (2006). Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention for Law Enforcement. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas. Learn more about this book at

Additional references

  • Greenstone JL. (2005). The Elements of Police Hostage and Crisis Negotiations: Critical Incidents and How to Respond to Them. New York: Haworth Press.
  • Lanceley FJ. (2003). On-Scene Guide for Crisis Negotiators (rev. ed.). Boca Raton: CRC Press.
  • McMains MJ, Mullins WC. (2006). Crisis Negotiations: Managing Critical Incidents and Situations in Law Enforcement and Corrections (rev. ed.).Cincinnati, OH: Anderson.
  • Slatkin AA. (2005). Communication in Crisis and Hostage Negotiations. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.
  • Strentz T. (2006). Psychological Aspects of Crisis Negotiation. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice.

This article published on May 22, 2007, has been updated.

Laurence Miller, PhD is a clinical and forensic psychologist and law enforcement educator and trainer based in Boca Raton, Florida. Dr. Miller is the police psychologist for the West Palm Beach Police Department, mental health consultant for Troop L of the Florida Highway Patrol, a forensic psychological examiner for the Palm Beach County Court, and a consulting psychologist with several regional and national law enforcement agencies.

Dr. Miller is an instructor at the Criminal Justice Institute of Palm Beach County and at Florida Atlantic University, and conducts continuing education and training seminars around the country. He is the author of numerous professional and popular print and online publications about the brain, behavior, health, law enforcement, criminal justice and organizational psychology. He has published “Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention for Law Enforcement” and “Mental Toughness Training for Law Enforcement.” Contact Dr. Miller at 561/392-8881 or online at