Gary Noesner retired from the FBI almost two decades ago, after a 30-year career as an investigator, instructor, and negotiator. During his time there, Noesner had spent quite some time reasoning with what we would consider unreasonable people.

But when you think about it, we do too. Only not professionally. Flat earthers, homophobes, and anti-maskers; these guys are all around us. However, if we engage with them — yes, cousin Martin, I’m talking about you — our conversations get really heated really fast. And since we don’t have the communication skills that Noesner has, they usually end in swear words and rude gestures when they don’t have to.

Taking a look into the practices of a hostage negotiator could really help us to understand these people. Talk with them. Who knows, maybe even get them to reevaluate their thoughts and feelings. Let’s do that.

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“I retired in 2003 as the Chief of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit, Critical Incident Response Group,” Noesner told Bored Panda. “I was in charge of Operations, Instruction, and Research in all matters relating to crisis (hostage) negotiations for the FBI’s 350 field negotiators.”

The man had a full-time staff of 10 Supervisory Special Agent Hostage Negotiators who worked under him and when the bureau had a major crisis incident anywhere in the USA or overseas, they would deploy to run the negotiations. “We also provided both telephonic and physical assistance when asked for thousands of police agencies throughout the USA when they requested our input or help.”

Noesner has appeared in numerous television documentaries about hostage negotiation, terrorism, and kidnapping

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He has also written a book about his career, entitled Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator

Image credits: Gary Noesner

Noesner said there are many mistakes we can make when dealing with senseless individuals. “Arguing with the person, being overly confrontational, being insulting or demeaning, making fun of them, minimizing their concerns, failing to listen to their perspective, being rude or inattentive, being demanding and authoritative, and engaging in threats, to name a few.”

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Beating them over the head with facts and logic won’t help too. “We have learned that people want to be listened to, to be heard and understood. They want to be respected and treated honestly. They need to have an opportunity to express their concerns, problems, and points of view.” The negotiator needs to listen and acknowledge their point of view, which can be done without either agreeing or disagreeing with them.

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“A negotiator uses Active Listening Skills to restate content (describe the issue or problem at hand driving them to act out) and reflect feelings (describing in your words how you think they feel based on what they are going through),” Noesner explained.

“This approach demonstrates to them that you are listening and understanding them. Successful negotiations are achieved by establishing a relationship of trust. The negotiator needs to demonstrate a genuine interest in helping the person in crisis resolve the incident peacefully, and not project the usual authoritative police demeanor. A caring tone and empathic approach work best.”

Image credits: Gary Noesner

It makes perfect sense. We probably all know how difficult it is to speak to someone who is angry, who feels they’re not heard or understood.

On the other hand, it’ really hard to argue with someone who is interacting with you sincerely, as if they genuinely care and choose a very non-confrontational way to listen to you.

Image credits: Gary Noesner

Noesner said there are a number of ways, or indicators, to help track whether or not negotiations are succeeding. “Obviously an increase in violent language, threats to hostages, or acts of violence would denote things are not going well.”

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“Conversely, a perpetrator becoming more conversant, willing to disclose personal information, voicing concern for his survival, and other indicators would denote progress is being made,” he said. “While we never give up on negotiations, we may get to the point of determining that the individual in question is highly likely to kill a hostage and/or himself. In such cases, the negotiator’s role then transitions into supporting tactical intervention, possibly setting up the perpetrator for tactical action. Around 90% of incidents are resolved peacefully through negotiations, a highly successful model.”

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You can’t influence someone else’s behavior by simply telling them what to do. It takes effort; you have to create a respectful and trusting relationship first. But if you take your time to understand their perspective, stay calm and do it in a non-aggressive manner, you might get to them.

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