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Learning From Failed Negotiations With Terrorists, with Cal Chrustie, Ep #120

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Terrorists are one of the most violent and unpredictable groups in the world, and nobody can speak to the devastating consequences of failed negotiations with them better than Cal Chrustie. Likewise, there’s no one better to teach us how to make the most out of those failures.

Cal served for 34 years with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and has also served as a Negotiations Mediator for the United Nations in the former country of Yugoslavia. He’s been involved in some of the highest stakes negotiation scenarios you can imagine. On this episode, he shares the most valuable lessons he learned from the most painful failed negotiation he’s ever experienced – one involving a terrorist group and the execution of hostages.

Outline of This Episode

  • [2:12] Getting to know Cal Chrustie, negotiator extraordinaire
  • [4:01] The worst negotiation experience Cal has ever had
  • [15:39] How to better assess the readiness of negotiation partners
  • [23:55] The importance and power of a debrief
  • [28:49] A negotiation Cal was engaged in that turned out super well
  • [41:15] The importance of taking risks appropriately

The terrorist negotiation that resulted in the execution of hostages

Cal was once part of a negotiation team involving a foreign international kidnapping case. The kidnappers were a well-known, violent terrorist group. Cal and his team did the work of analyzing and preparing for their negotiations work – and continued to do so throughout the process. From start to finish, the negotiations went on for approximately a year.

Their research showed that what the terrorist group was demanding (a large ransom) was in fact what they were truly after. But a dramatic change in motivation from within the terrorist group – which we discuss in detail during this conversation – changed the dynamic and some of the hostages were executed. Nobody saw it coming and they couldn’t control it.

Cal says that the pain of losing those hostages and the constant reevaluation of what his team did and didn’t do is something he still deals with today. But he wants you to learn from this, so listen and get the most you can from this vulnerable conversation.

Where to begin when assessing failed negotiations

We all have 20/20 vision when looking back at the issues involved in a failed negotiation, and it’s for that very reason we must look back to determine what went right and what went wrong. If you don’t know why a negotiation failed, you won’t know what to improve going forward and how to avoid the same kind of failure in the future.

The first major lesson Cal learned centers around a concept known as “locus of control.” It’s the proper assessment of the things within the situation that are in your control VS what things are not in your control due to external forces/actions. Cal believes his team started out at a handicap because due to various limitations, they overestimated what was within their control. 

Regardless of the hurdles you face in your next negotiation, you need to assess your situation accurately. You need to be clear about what you can control and what you can’t. It’s not an exact science, to be sure, but it is one of the many things vital to avoiding failed negotiations.

In a failed negotiation assessment, ask yourself: “Did you adequately see the needs & wants of the other party?”

In the hostage crisis Cal faced, the organizational structure within the terrorist organization itself was changing as the negotiation was happening. He and his team were unable to detect the shift, and it changed everything. The demands of the terrorists took on a new flavor, moving toward a political goal rather than a financial one – an outcome Cal and his team had not adequately prepared to negotiate toward. Cal says that in all negotiation scenarios, but especially ones that are high-stakes or that involve conflict, there are often dual purposes at stake from the outset, and that could have been the case in this scenario. Sometimes these dual-purposes are openly disclosed. Other times, they are not.

This is an issue you must assess when you debrief a failed negotiation. Did you see the real goals of the other party? Did you understand those desires adequately? Did you address those concerns sufficiently in the negotiation? Asking these questions honestly can help you find potential blind spots in your approach that can be corrected going forward.

When it comes to failure, keep in mind that you are like an actor in a movie

Nobody likes to concede defeat or admit to failure, especially when it’s a life-or-death situation or big-money deal. But you can’t win every negotiation and sometimes it’s not anybody’s fault when you fail.

Cal provides a helpful word picture to consider. As a negotiator, you are like an actor in a movie. The part you play is no doubt important, but it’s not the only important role. Many others are involved, many others contribute to the success or failure – producers, executive producers, set designers, makeup artists, etc.

Translating that to a business context, the C-suite, the marketing department, the Administrative staff, and other people are involved in the success or failure of every negotiation. Although you as the negotiator play a significant role in the outcome and you must accept a degree of appropriate responsibility for that outcome, you are not the only one to blame for a failed negotiation.

You will not find better lessons from the inevitable failures that can sometimes be the outcome of high-stakes negotiations than you will on this episode, so make the time to listen and learn.

Resources & People Mentioned

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