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Hostage and Crisis Negotiations with Jack Cambria, Ep #50

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This is a very personal conversation I had with a living legend in the world of hostage and crisis negotiations. This interview challenged me on more levels than I thought it would and it personally feels like the best interview I’ve ever done, but not because of anything I did.

Jack Cambria, a 34-year veteran of the NYPD and crisis negotiation legend, is the crisis negotiation teacher that crisis negotiators go to learn from. He’s the instructor’s instructor.

I was struck with the profound level of wisdom, patience, and knowledge that Jack has. But more than that, I was struck that he almost seems surprised that he’s a legend. And that for me was the mark of a true man of service. He’s dedicated his life to the service of others and to the preservation of life.

It was a great honor to speak to Jack, and I couldn’t think of a better person to have on the show to celebrate the 50th episode of the Negotiations Ninja podcast.

Outline of This Episode

  • [2:50] Learn more about Jack Cambria and his career
  • [4:31] The importance of listening in hostage situations
  • [7:04] The four steps to navigate a hostage situation
  • [11:23] Solving problems like a hostage negotiator
  • [17:03] What makes a good negotiator?
  • [23:25] How to manage the stress of being a negotiator
  • [26:43] A negotiation that didn’t end as planned
  • [32:29] What corporate negotiators can learn from hostage negotiators

The four steps to navigate a hostage situation

Hostage negotiators are often negotiating on the fly. It’s like starting a movie in the middle. The drama is unfolding and you have to figure out what led to the point you’re walking into. An intelligence officer will interview friends, family, acquaintances, neighbors, and bystanders to gather information.

They’ll also check police records. They need to gain a sense of why they’re there before figuring out a strategy. Corporate negotiators already know what the issues are.

The goal is to resolve the incident. Hostage and crisis negotiators usually begin with four steps:

  1. Establish communication and develop rapport
  2. Buy time by helping emotions wind down
  3. Diffuse intense emotions and validate what the individual is saying or feeling
  4. Gather enough information to develop a negotiation strategy

It’s difficult to develop rapport with someone uninterested. But a successful negotiation all hinges on developing rapport, which, in time, leads to trust. People need time to walk through their emotions.

Solving problems like a hostage negotiator

To solve a problem, you must first identify what it is. Then you develop your strategy. But you rely on your perceptions.

A butcher uses knives, cleavers, etc. Everyone perceives the dangers of these tools differently. The mother of a preschooler would perceive them as extremely dangerous in the hands of her child. The butcher acknowledges their danger but is trained in how to use them, so they don’t seem particularly dangerous. The preschooler has no perception of the danger at all.

Different perceptions lead to different assumptions. That’s why active listening is important. What’s at the core of the problem for the individual you’re negotiating with?

The person negotiating has a couple of options to pursue. A strong police presence is a motivator. If the hostage-taker doesn’t want to talk to the negotiator, they’re forced to reckon with the men and women in armor carrying machine guns and rifles. The negotiator is the buffer.

Because of this, more times than not, they’ll speak with the negotiator. That’s how the process begins. You can’t make assumptions and must try to understand the core issue. You must manage emotions and raise that person’s rationality levels so they can make a more informed decision.

You have to help the individual come out to the police so they don’t have to enter a hostile environment and see lives lost. The goal is to preserve life.

What makes a good negotiator?

Everyone has experienced adversity. Everyone has to navigate problems. That means everyone has something in common with a person in crisis. They can put themselves in a different position when they must demonstrate empathy and compassion toward a hostage negotiator. That’s why most candidates are required to have 12 years of experience. Why?

Because at 12 years, the candidate will have a strong foundation in policing, particularly in New York City. They’ll know things they should or shouldn’t say. They develop an intuitive sense. Secondly, it puts them in a certain age category in which they’ve experienced love, loss, success, and failure.

The candidate must also be part of the detective bureau. They know how to ask the right types of questions. They need to be credible, consistent in their approach, have communication skills, and care. They have to do this because they want to. At any given time, Jack had 400+ applications on file to be part of the hostage negotiation team.

What corporate negotiators can learn from hostage negotiators

It all comes down to your approach and your tone of voice. Your tone of voice indicates your attitude and can speak louder than words. A calm and controlled demeanor may be more effective than a brilliant argument. Avoid having an edge of sarcasm or making assumptions. Above all, pay attention to your face. Worry, disgust, anger, etc. are written all over it if you’re not careful.

When Jack was a young officer, he was assigned to the St. Patrick’s Day parade. He was posted on 59th Street and 5th Avenue, one of the main entrances to Central Park. A woman approached him and asked, “Can you tell me where Central Park is?” With sarcasm in his voice, he said “It’s right there.” As she walked away she uttered, “New York’s Finest.” As she said that, he realized what he’d done.

What she heard him say was that she was stupid. She trusted him and he let her down. He wishes he could go back and apologize but also thank her for the powerful life lesson: always treat people with respect.

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