Find Mediators Near You:

Terry Waite: A Study In Authenticity

Terry Waite, is a hostage negotiator of international fame who knows both sides; after gaining the release of hostages in Libya, he himself was held hostage by a militant group in the Middle East for five years. The personal resolve and bearing that saw him through both situations offer important lessons worthy of note by all negotiators. His experiences poignantly demonstrate the nature and kind of authenticity required to be effective in managing the most difficult conflicts. In 1983 he negotiated the release of British hostages held by the Libyan leader, Colonel Omar Ghadafi. As he spoke, the contrast between the popular understanding of the notion of authenticity and a more sophisticated understanding becomes clear.

The conventional wisdom about the Colonel was that he was quite simply a “madman”—the principal ‘evildoer’ of his time. If trust, as it is often stated, is a pre-requisite for negotiation, then Ghadafi was a poor prospect based on available information. Waite, of course, had little alternative except to negotiate with this ‘Prince of Darkness’ since Ghadafi was the only one who had the authority to order the hostages release.

After making contact through circuitous sources, Waite described the circumstances of an introductory meeting with Ghadafi that could not have inspired less confidence. Just getting to the meeting was daunting. Without benefit of car, entourage, or protection of any kind, getting there required a walk through a sports stadium across the playing field, where the bodies of those executed or tortured the night before by Ghadafi’ loyalists, were laid out from one side to the other.

Waite has had no formal training in negotiation. If he had, he might well have found himself even more daunted by the task that lay ahead. He had no guide available other than his own gut instinct for what was required and determination borne of the importance of his task. As he freely admits, he may have been successful simply because he was too stupid to know he could fail. What he lacked in in theory, he more than made up for with a steeled resolve to maintain his focus on the release of hostages.

Waite abided by cultural tradition and presented Ghadafi with a gift—a book on Islam. Under the circumstances, given the gravity of the situation, that act almost seems silly, but was anything but. It served to alter the atmosphere of the discussions and set the stage. Waite knew he could not just ‘cut to the chase’ and any chance he might have of success required awareness and attention to ritual. A delighted Ghadafi was thus offered the opportunity to talk about Middle East History—-more importantly, to indirectly talk about the situation at hand. Waite had to bide his time; while there might come a time to confront, now was the time to honor Koranic traditions.

Waite observes that the negotiations were successful for three basic reasons. First, he was able to establish face to face contact that offered the opportunity to connect —to see and proverbially feel out Ghadafi—and be seen personally. Second, the off-point discussions allowed for the discovery of the root of the problem; the private reasons for taking the hostages underlying the publicly posturing. Third, even a ‘madman’ must have a way to ‘save face’, and Waite knew no agreement would work without leaving Ghadafi’s dignity intact. The reasons are basic enough and all center on the incremental building of a measure of trust between the two. Waite’s authenticity is the source of energy for developing that trust. At base, it is not about strategies or techniques—-neither is it necessarily about genuine empathy or caring for the other person. The authenticity displayed appeared to be about commitment to working a deal that would hold. The turning point in Waite’s estimation, was when Ghadafi garnered sufficient assurance that he was not being played for a fool and that Waite had no other purpose or agenda other than the release of the hostages, and offered a means by which the Colonel could save face.

Waite was then in the employ of the Anglican Church of England and describes his work as being anchored in a religious foundation and operated out of a personal moral commitment. He categorically refused to be part of any illegal schemes and would not consider any money exchange or ransom for the hostages release. Ironically, though, while many practicing mediators might draw moral lines around negotiating with someone of Ghadafi’s scoundrel ilk, Waite had no qualms. Not only did he see no inconsistency between his personal beliefs and his negotiator role, but his moral center obliged negotiation. That formed the core element of his authenticity—the negotiation was not made into a spiritual experience but was done out of a deep commitment to principle. Waite gives no hint of wearing his religion or beliefs on his sleeve. He understood that the negotiation was not about him or Ghadafi but about the release of the hostages. Waite strategically empathized with Ghadafi, for no other reason other than getting the deal done.

As a relevant, but poignantly ironic side note on the subject of trust, Waite commented that in subsequent years Ghadafi contacted him to be an intermediary in discussions with both the American and British governments on other topics. Waite refused; not because he did not feel he could trust Ghadafi, but because he had serious question about the intentions and ‘good faith’ of the Americans and British to follow through and be good to their word on any deal he might negotiate. He was concerned about his ability to be an honest broker. The supposed ‘madman’ Ghadafi, it turns out, was not his greatest worry.

For Terry Waite, the negotiations with Ghadafi, had little to do with liking or respecting the man he sat across from. The Colonel’s perspective was important, not to forge intimacy and recognition, but tactically to establish sufficient rapport. For that purpose, only the validity of Ghadafi’s perspective, not the rightness of his position, needed to be considered. Negotiators and mediators sometimes hamper themselves by allowing their own ideas about social justice to contaminate the discussion. Waite could not have been effective under the conventional notions of authenticity which dictate being consistent, open, honest and straightforward in all contexts and with all parties, regardless of the circumstances. For Waite to be authentic in the conventional sense might require that he not negotiate at all or to directly confront Ghadafi’s brutality. He could be too honest and the chances of effecting a hostage release would be greatly diminished.

Waite practiced a sophisticated form of authenticity. While the foundational principles of his approach to negotiation and behavior were unquestionably moral, he had no compunction about releasing himself from any artificial requirement to speak the ‘truth’. His focus was resolutely set on bringing those parts of himself to bear on accomplishing the end of releasing the hostages. If that meant bringing Ghadafi a gift—an act that intimates friendship and respect— that need not be seen as a betrayal of principle, but as a strategic act that reflects his authentic commitment to the result. Yet, his authenticity is unquestioned.

Notes: Terry Waite, Presentation/Interview, Pepperdine University School of Law, The Straus Institute For Conflict Resolution, Masters’ Forum, Malibu, California, March 15, 2002


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


Keys to a Successful Personal Injury Mediation

JAMS ADR Blog by Chris PooleMediating personal injury disputes is an art, not a science. At the core of a personal injury claim is an injured – or deceased –...

By Alex Polsky

Fully Integrated Multi-Disciplinary Practice Is Good For Lawyers

First published by the New Jersey Law Journal, July 31, 2000Introduction The New Jersey Supreme Court, which defines and regulates legal practice in our state, has repeatedly determined (including through...

By Hanan Isaacs

Mediation Follow Up: What, Why and How

From the Mediation Matters Blog of Steve Mehta.Last night I gave a seminar called 112 Ways to Succeed in Your Mediation Practice. The program was a huge success. The program...

By Steve Mehta