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Negotiating With Terrorists

Feb 16

The topic of “negotiating with terrorists” is one that has received much attention, of late, in law enforcement negotiating circles.  It is the subject of much debate and often the focus of articles and conference presentations.  The negotiation I am about to describe is not in response to a hostage taking, a hijacking, or a kidnapping.  The context could be characterized as a negotiation with a resistant, oppositional, and unrealistic other party.  This interaction is not the type of intervention familiar to most police negotiators (It is not crisis intervention).  This is an exercise in bargaining with individuals who share the thinking of the principle targets or are their representatives.

Problem solving negotiation can be reasonably straight forward when the parties involved, all understand the process.  But, what do you do when you are attempting to negotiate with an intractable other?  What do you do with someone who is unrealistic?  What do you do with someone who threatens the unthinkable, unless you give in?  What do you do with someone who won’t listen?  What do you do with someone who says “take it or leave it”?  What do you do with someone who tries to make you feel guilty?  You would like to engage the other party in exploring each other’s interests and searching for common ground that could be used as a platform for agreement.  However, when this is not possible whether the other party is a terrorist kidnapper or not, there is a specific process that can be employed to circumvent the resistance.

The process is a counterintuitive strategy based upon an understanding of the paradox of power.  When confronted with opposition typically law enforcement will employ a linear approach.  That is, they will attempt to reason first and failing success will cease talking and employ force to reach their objective.  This approach is rarely successful when dealing with difficult others.  Witness the “tit for tat” that only in the last few days resulted in ISIS decapitating 21 Coptic Christians.  Paradoxically, the harder we make it for someone to say no, the harder we make if for him to say yes.  People are unlikely to come to agreement under threat as they don’t like to lose, moreover, they don’t like to look like they are losing.  The linear process dissatisfies the deep seated universal need for autonomy; for freedom from coercion; for the freedom to choose.

One way around this paradox of power is to employ a more parallel approach where we make it easy for the subject to say yes and difficult for him to ay no; all at the same time.  What follows is a brief outline of this method of negotiating with (who seem to be intractable) terrorists.  It is based upon two very sound philosophical principles:  1) The war isn’t over until both sides say it is, and 2) Every fanatic has a doubt.

Self Control

Maintaining self control is critical.  The principle of “social proof” informs us that people in ambiguous situations are more likely to look to others to determine how to conduct themselves; and to accept that what they observe is appropriate behaviour.  Uncertainty is inherent in the individual who has not “been there before”.  We all have so little practice dealing with such “high risk” and “high pressure” situations in our lives, none of us, terrorist and negotiator alike, have developed (fully) those mechanisms necessary to direct our efforts to cope (Saporta & Van der Kolk, 1992).  As a result, on both sides, these high pressure situations seem incomprehensible and overwhelming; rest assured, the terrorists are looking at the police response for social evidence (as to how to proceed in those circumstances).

This interaction provides the negotiators with an opportunity to influence the subjects through the modelling of appropriate behaviour.  These appropriate behaviours include the definition of the “walk away” position; that is, the combination of “price”, “terms”, and “deliverables” that represent the least the negotiating team will accept.  Without this position, the negotiators have no negotiating map.

The negotiating team must “keep eyes on the prize”; in this way they are more likely to focus on what they want and not on getting mad or getting even.  It is also incumbent upon the negotiators to keep the other side focused on what they want.

When negotiating with high risk subjects it is acceptable to “name the game” being played by them.  It has long been thought that to call a spirit by its’ name increases the chance of disarming that spirit.  For example, when the terrorist subjects “stone wall” (i.e. lock themselves into an extreme position) by stating a “take it or leave it” ultimatum or setting a rigid deadline.  The negotiators could indicate they heard it but proceed to ignore it.  They could reframe it as an aspiration.  Or in the appropriate context, the negotiators could take the stone wall seriously, but test it.  For example, they could find some credible but “uncontrollable” event, such as a bank holiday.  Once a deadline is passed, the terrorist subjects have been knocked off their “game plan”.

Negotiators in high risk negotiations are best to be continually aware of “psychological reactance” (i.e. triggering an increased desire in the subjects for something forbidden or in short supply).  They must walk a fine line between “no” and the phantom “maybe”.

Defuse and Disarm

In order to deal with the (terrorist) subject’s chronic stone walling the negotiating team must persevere in the establishment of a working relationship.  This done by “responding” to the subjects rather than assuming an oppositional posture (e.g. look now at the misguided way the West has “reacted” to ISIS, best illustrated by Barak Obama and the US coalition).  “Reacting” to ISIS and taking an oppositional stance only provides something for them to push against.  The authorities, in these seemingly intractable situations, would show great strength (and skill) in their continual search for agreement.

At the skill level this strategy is embodied in a non-confrontational business-like approach.  It is composed of a variety of non-provocative communication techniques; including, “I” and “we” messages of inclusion vs. “you” messages of exclusion, “yes and….” messages of inclusion vs. “yes but…” messages of exclusion.  In general, this method of communicating attempts to provide nothing for the (terrorist) subjects to push against.  All differences are viewed with optimism.

Change the Game

Just recently ISIS indicated a desire to compete, at the position level, when they demanded the return of a failed suicide bomber in exchange for two Japanese journalists.  The Japanese government immediately “took the bait” and entered into a high stakes competition with the insurgents; which, after several days they lost.  The Jordanians then “took the bait”, began to bomb ISIS, then lost with the above noted beheadings.  Paraphrasing Gandhi, this will go on until all parties are toothless and blind.

The first step in changing the name of the game would require that the authorities “reframe” the ISIS positional statements (i.e. “you give us X, or we will do Y”) with a problem solving focus.  The authorities would be asking problem solving questions in an attempt to unearth the insurgents’ interests.  The authorities increase their chances of success by not focusing on competing positions (e.g. President Obama’s, “…if they keep this up, we’ll squash ‘em”) and instead putting mutual satisfaction in the spotlight.  In most cases the subjects are so focused on outcome they fail to recognize that the authorities have changed the game, and have gone to the interest level.

At the level of specific communication techniques, this step is characterized by attempts to get into other options without challenging the insurgents’ (rigid) position; perhaps by asking an abundance of “why” questions; for example “why not”, or “what if”.  The bulk of the authorities’ speaking turns would be composed of talk about interests rather than positions; about “why” people want certain things, rather than what they want.

Make it Easy to Say Yes

There are several major reasons that cause the parties in a negotiation to hesitate on agreeing with each other.  There are as many techniques focused on dismantling this resistance as there are that fuel the reactance; they include:

Involve the subjects in the process by:

  • Asking for their ideas
  • Doing more asking than telling
  • Making use of the idea by building on it (e.g. “building on what you said…”, or, “I got this from something you said earlier….”
  • Asking for feedback (e.g. “how does this fail to satisfy?,” “How would you improve on this…?  How can we make this better for you without making it worse for us?”
  • Offering choices, as it’s easier to select from A, B, And C than to come up with D.

Attempting to satisfy unmet needs:

  • Avoid blaming the other side’s nature or beliefs e.g. “…there’s just no way to satisfy a terrorist”
  • Be on the hunt for basic human needs (e.g. recognition, identity, effective participation, fair play etc.)
  • Don’t assume a “fixed pie” – introduce performance clauses – if possible low cost to insurgents, but with high benefits for you.

Help the other side to save face:

  • Point (if possible) to changed circumstances that might relieve pressure on insurgents
  • Is there a third party (respected by the subjects) who would offer an endorsement of the insurgents’ non-violent approach?
  • Are the authorities able to set an objective standard of fairness (through societal expectations or limits)?

Go slow!  Don’t push toward the finish line:

  • The journey to the finish is taken one step at a time
  • Ensure that no one agrees until last detail is complete

Make it Difficult to Say No

In difficult negotiations there is always a hesitancy to agree, on the subject’s part, with the authorities; this should be expected, and come as no surprise.  Now is the time for the authorities to use their power as an educator (not as a hammer!).  Here is the authorities’ opportunity to contrast the benefits of agreement with the costs of disagreement.

The Process:

  • Discuss (don’t threaten) the consequences of disagreement (e.g. “How do you think this is all going to end?”)
  • Ask reality testing questions, rather than giving in to the natural tendency to threaten (e.g. “What’ll you be forced to do if we don’t solve this issue today; what do you think we’ll be forced to do if you do that?”)
  • Use (concerned) warnings rather than “hammer-like” threats (e.g. “Look, I don’t think either one of us will be happy if we walk away from this with no agreement”)
  • If the opportunity arises, demonstrate your walk away position and be prepared to defuse an emotional response. (e.g. “I apologize for my part, however it appears that we are not able to reach a constructive outcome.  I’m ready to solve this when you are.  You know how to get ahold of us.  Until then I guess we’ll have to put in the hands of those who follow a different agenda.  (The door has been left open for the other side to resume the negotiation, or for a respected third party to bring the two sides back together again).

Make use of mutually regarded third parties:

  • Is there a non-mainstream Muslim cleric that is respected by both sides and will denounce the threatened violence?
  • Are there other members of the insurgents’ constituency who hold a less militant position?  (e.g. family, friends, co-workers, co-believers, politicians)

Continue to pursue agreement:

  • Always leave the other side a way out (i.e. if the other side feels trapped they will react and fight to the death to save face – leave an opening for them by continually emphasizing mutual satisfaction, not victory
  • The insurgents can exercise autonomy by having options to choose from (e.g. an alcoholic is more likely to enter treatment, if at the very least he/she has the option of which treatment centre will be used).
  • Continue to negotiate even when it seems unnecessary.  Even if the authorities are in the position to celebrate victory, grasping victory is not recommended as it will impose a humiliating outcome on the (terrorist) insurgents.  This is likely to trigger bloody resistance.  As Benjamin Disraeli once said, “Next to knowing when to seize an advantage, the next most important thing is knowing when to forgo an advantage”.

Hammer out an enduring agreement:

  • An agreement designed to facilitate both sides’ abiding by it, and protecting both if one doesn’t, should be the objective
  • The agreement should minimize risks for both sides – i.e. if either side breaks the deal, the other is absolved of its’ obligation to the agreement
  • The preceding offers a final resort, the first resort has to be built in also i.e. a dispute resolution process e.g. a 30 day period for the two principals and if that fails a mediator is called in
  • A process designed to preserve (and build upon) the state of the relationship after a difficult problem solving process e.g. gracious words and meaningful symbolic gestures can go a long way at this point, perhaps an Islamic celebration and a signing ceremony.

So in the conclusion of this brief overview of a method of negotiating with recalcitrant adversaries, it is my wish that you can see these situations are not as hopeless as framed by the politicians involved.  Never forget Lincoln’s response to the Unionist who scolded him for speaking kindly of the Rebel troops.  His response to her criticism, now regarded as classic, was “Why madam! Do I not destroy my enemies, when I make them my friends?”

Dr. Mike Webster, R. Psych.

One Comment
  1. Cannot agree with this one Doctor, ISIS is a creation of two hostile Governments, Russian and Syria, This is a simple power play to keep to narcistic power hungry dictators in power. Putin being the price winner. I was in Cuba for 4 weeks and watched Russian diplomats hand Canadians tickets on Direct flight to Russia then Syria. Having coffee with an old GRU agent we just sat back and watched. People don’t care, this is about money and keeping Putin in power. You cannot negotiate with dictators that know if they loose power they die. Hitler all over again.


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