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Navigating Conflict at Scale with Gary Noesner, Ep #337

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Gary Noesner ended his 30-year tenure with the FBI as the Chief Hostage Negotiator. He managed 350 FBI negotiators around the country and 10 supervisory negotiators. He responded operationally, provided instruction to agencies, and researched crisis and conflict resolution.

Gary dealt with hijackings, right-wing militia standoffs, prison riots, the Waco siege, and much more. He worked on a lot of high-profile cases. Gary dealt with numerous large-scale conflicts throughout his career. So in this episode of Negotiations Ninja, we delve into how to navigate conflict at scale.

Outline of This Episode

  • [2:27] Learn more about Gary and his background in the FBI
  • [6:02] How to deal with individual conflict and conflict at scale
  • [11:39] How Gary would handle a prison riot
  • [15:13] Why finding a reasonable leader is key
  • [24:25] Patience must be deployed in many negotiations
  • [26:28] Why Gary believes almost all conflict is resolvable

How to deal with individual conflict and conflict at scale

If you’re walking into a situation where conflict has escalated, and threats have been made, how do you deal with that? When you’re dealing with an individual, you need to find out what their motivation is. What is important to them? What need isn’t being fulfilled? You need to focus on and address that.

When you’re dealing with a prison riot, you may be dealing with dozens of inmates who could be angry about any number of things. How do you determine the issues to address that will satisfy the needs they have? Obviously, you can’t negotiate with a riot. So in those challenges, you have to help them identify a leader to negotiate with.

How do you handle a riot situation?

You have to bring in sufficient personnel to get a lid on the situation. Once the situation is contained and can’t spread, you have to open dialogue.

If someone is yelling, angry, and making threats, you have to strap in and hold on and simply avoid escalating the situation. You absorb what they have to say until you can talk with someone reasonable. It takes time to get to reasonable conversations. Let the other side vent, and eventually, they’ll converse more reasonably.

Gary has been involved in four separate prison riots that lasted 8–10 days. Interestingly, the inmates usually agreed to what was offered to them on days 8–10. But what was usually offered to them was the same thing they were offered on day one. They simply weren’t ready.

In emotionally charged situations, people need to vent first. They need to express their anger and frustration. Until they do, they won’t be receptive to a reasonable solution.

Why finding a reasonable leader is key

Gary was involved in a prison riot-turned-hostage negotiation where three different factions were holding hostages. Their first task was to find a reasonable person in each group and help them get organized.

Then they had to set up an opportunity to sit down with them. When they found someone they perceived as reasonable, Gary would make some concessions with that person that they wouldn’t otherwise make.

For example, the followers would see that nothing would get accomplished with the angry instigator in charge. But when the reasonable person was involved, concessions were made, and things got done, it promoted that person to a leadership position. They improved their influence within the group.

Once that leadership is established, they ask that person to sit down with their group and find out what’s important to them. What are they trying to accomplish by holding someone, hostage?

The leader can bring their demands to the negotiator to determine what might be done to address those needs. Ultimately, the prisoners came back with reasonable requests that the authorities could address.

Why does Gary believe almost all conflict is resolvable? What does he suggest you do if you find yourself in a tough negotiation? Listen to the whole episode to learn more about navigating at scale!

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