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For Mediators and Arbitrators – In This Corner: Behavioral Change Stairway Model

“What is destroyed most in high tension situations is trust, and without trust, things will break down very quickly. When they do, they are replaced by increased anxiety and confusion, destroying the participants’ ability to make good, long-term decisions. It is the negotiator’s presence that keeps the trust intact.” – Michael Tsur, International High-Risk Negotiator

IN THIS CORNER | November 2013
Guest blog by Lynne Kinnucan, Co-Chair ACR Crisis Negotiation Section

An essential part of being a good negotiator, yet the perhaps the part hardest to define, is the quality of “presence”, that attitude of being entirely focused, quietly patient, and flexible enough to be creative in one’s responses to quickly shifting situations.

It is the opposite of rushing in to fix a situation. One negotiator learned this on the job when he began the process by trying to solve the issue right away. He stopped when the subject yelled, “What are you *talking* about?!”

An analysis by the team showed that the negotiator had some great ideas, alright: he just wasn’t in tune with the person. The subject was still in the attunement stage — so named by Dr. Mitchell Hammer, author of “Saving Lives” — while the negotiator had jumped immediately to problem-solving. He failed to connect with the subject; rather than being fully present with him, he jumped in full of his own ideas.

“You have to get into their head and wander around there with them,” says retired FBI negotiator Greg Vecchi. You need to be their best friend, the one who “gets it”. Or, as author Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “Only connect.”

How do you get this to happen? How do you attain this quality of presence?

There are tools to set the stage for it: how to develop a theme: how to use delaying tactics; how to influence surrender – all and more are critical structures, essential to the success of the negotiation. But the fundamental tool is the Behavioral Change Stairway, that series of five steps that take the negotiator from listening to influencing behavior. It is worth noting that the first three steps of the stairway are devoted not to problem-solving, but to connecting with the subject.

Why is this open-mindedness, this curiosity, this flexibility so important?
Things can change within a nano-second, says Michael Tsur, an international high-risk negotiator, so a negotiator must be able to keep his emotional and mental balance. Or as Mark Gerzon puts it, “The whole idea of presence is that key information is made available only in ‘this’ moment. It is the living moment that controls the solution.” The negotiator must alert enough to spot this and flexible enough to go with the sudden twists and turns, to be able to respond creatively as they happen.

No matter what field of negotiation you are involved in, the attunement and sincerity of the negotiator are primary. The Quaker writer Douglas Steere referred to this when he wrote that the speaker knows at once if the listener is not truly present. If the listener is half-listening, inwardly wondering if so-and-so is going to call, if that car payment went through….the speaker senses it at once and the real communication, the kind that makes for transformation, is lost.

So how do we get that quality of being present and bring it into a crisis negotiation? Here are some thoughts from such experts as Mark Gerzon, Michael Tsur, Kathy Lubar and Belle Linda Halpern.

Listen to yourself first. Manage your own emotions first.

Are we caught up in the argument instead of attending to what’s going on around us? Are we feeling tense but are not aware of it or the effect it is having on the subject? One crisis negotiator’s voice began to rise as he was negotiating; his pace of speaking quickened and his tone became increasingly loud. The commanding officer, sensing that the negotiator was now emotionally entangled with the subject, quickly replaced him with another negotiator.

Practice listening, as one author put it, as though you were an anthropologist. Stay relaxed and curious. Stay in a state of alert attentiveness. Listen closely not only for content (what’s important to him) but for nuances such as quickening or slowing of speech, sudden silence, or a change in his demands.

Keep your emotions and mental state flexible and steady so that you handle the unexpected with the optimum response.

Focus with 100% of your being.

Be open to what is happening right now –things can change in a moment, and crucial information can be given in that new instant.

Respond to the needs of that moment.

Be able to notice if a current strategy or behavior is not working.

Be creative enough to invent a new strategy in the moment.

Be honest enough to admit it if you don’t have a new approach yet.

In the end, it is about the ability of one’s presence to engender trust. As Tsur says: “What is destroyed most in high tension situations is trust, and without trust, things will break down very quickly. When they do, they are replaced by increased anxiety and confusion, destroying the participants’ ability to make good, long-term decisions. It is the negotiator’s presence that keeps the trust intact.”

Or, as Jack Cambria, Commanding Officer of the NYPD HostageNegotiation Team, puts it: “You have to care, and that person has to know that you care.”


Jeff Thompson

Jeff Thompson, Ph.D., is a professor at Lipscomb University, researcher, mediator, and trainer. He is also involved in crisis and hostage negotiation as well as a law enforcement detective. His research includes law enforcement crisis and hostage negotiation in terrorist incidents. He received his doctorate from Griffith University Law School… MORE >


Lynne Kinnucan

After serving for seven years as writer for former Governor Richard F. Celeste, Lynne trained as a mediator, working in the United States and Canada.  In Canada she pioneered mediation coaching program for males with a history of violence during her tenure as representative of the Queen’s Court in London,… MORE >

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