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Negotiations Lessons from the Field, with Gary Noesner, Ep #118

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Many times the hardest negotiation lessons to learn are hard because they are painful. Those learned in real-life failed negotiations can be among the most valuable. The Waco Siege of 1993 stands out as one of the most tragic and mishandled negotiations in American history. Many observations have been made about what happened there, but the FBI hostage negotiators who were on the scene are the ones who know best what went wrong—and why.

Gary Noesner was the lead negotiator at that event He retired from the FBI after 30 years as an investigator, with 23 of those years being in the role of a negotiator. He retired as the Chief of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit, Critical Incident Response Group and was the first person to hold that position. As the lead negotiator at the Waco Siege, Gary shares openly about what contributed to the regrettable and terrible outcome experienced there. The negotiation lessons you’ll receive from this conversation are priceless.

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Outline of This Episode

  • [2:42] Gary’s background: A 30-year career with the FBI, negotiating for 23 years
  • [5:42] The primary reasons the 1993 Waco situation didn’t work out as desired
  • [14:50] The 85-day siege against the Freeman in Montana – a great success
  • [17:36] Why mixed messages occurred in Waco
  • [24:07] Similarities between these hostage negotiations and business negotiations
  • [27:43] Tactics for dealing with frustration in negotiation standoffs
  • [38:17] A tip from Gary: Periodically demonstrate that you understand what they said, including how they feel about it.

Mixed messages will stop any negotiation. That’s what happened at Waco

The Waco situation in 1993 started out as an attempt by the Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms to arrest a religious leader, David Koresh. The charges were gun-related along with some potential child abuse allegations. When the ATF agents arrived, those inside the compound where Koresh resided knew the ATF was coming and opened fire. Because 4 ATF agents were killed, the FBI was called in. That’s when Gary came onto the scene and where his negotiation team began its work. They were able to secure the release of many children but the situation remained tense and did not move along quickly.

Those in charge of the government personnel outside the compound became angry when Koresh failed to keep his word after agreeing to come out in exchange for the FBI airing a recorded broadcast that contained a statement from him. The on-scene commander became angry and impatient and deviated from the negotiation team’s standard protocol of patience and non-escalation. Those aggressive actions sent mixed messages to Koresh and his followers and undercut the work of the negotiators. Mixed signals create trust issues that cannot be easily overcome.

The negotiation lesson to be learned is that in every situation, everyone involved has to be on the same page and committed to working together to see the plan through. Competing strategies will always complicate negotiations, many times making success impossible.

Self-control is the first personal characteristic of any good negotiator

In the Waco standoff, tempers and irritation ruled the day rather than patience and persistence. Gary says that the feeling of the on-site commander was that the negotiators’ approach was molly-coddling those inside the compound rather than holding a firm line with them. The hostile actions that commander took were done without discussion or consideration of the negotiation team’s plan.

A powerful point made by Gary about what happened is that no negotiator can hope to influence the attitudes and reactions of others if they don’t first have firm control of themselves. Self-control is a foundational component for successful negotiation. It manifests in other characteristics vital to the process such as patience, perseverance, creativity, a calm demeanor, and a thoughtful approach. Gary says these are the tools of the trade that enable negotiators to work toward solutions rather than being reactionary and inflammatory.

Teamwork: One of the primary negotiation lessons for business leaders

Just as the on-site commander at the Waco Siege took an independent course of action that disrupted and unraveled the progress that had already been made by the negotiations team, business executives can sometimes be guilty of the same thing. Gary tells about a consult he was doing with a company after he retired from the FBI. He was helping their internal team put together a crisis intervention plan to address a variety of scenarios. The team was proud of the work they had accomplished with Gary’s help but in the end, believed that their CEO would not pay attention to their work. When Gary asked why, the team members said the CEO characteristically did whatever he wanted, irrespective of the advice and opinions of his team.

Sadly, this is more common that you might think. Business executives who deviate from agreed-upon plans destroy credibility and break trust. That results in backwards motion in the negotiation because the counterparty doesn’t know who they should be speaking with or who can be trusted. This greatly reduces the likelihood of a successful negotiation. So work with your team, respect their expertise and skill, and stick to your agreed-upon plan.

The key communication attributes of a stellar negotiator

Communication is about much more than the simple transmission of facts. Even the most non-emotive person operates according to the dictates of their feelings, and those behind-the-scenes emotions need to be respected and understood. Likability, genuineness, sincerity, and responsiveness are among the ways to tap into those emotions.

Gary points out that you’ve got to first create a positive relationship with the counterparty before moving to the heart of a situation to get the deal done. Pointing to the new movie “A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood,” Gary points out how children’s educator and television personality Fred Rogers was a master at expressing genuine interest in people. His example serves as one of the heart-level components of good communication and therefore, successful negotiations.

This episode is an outstanding opportunity to learn negotiation lessons from a master negotiator who is one of the few people who received a promotion after the Waco debacle. His record of service and experience testify to the power of his example.

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