Hostage Negotiator’s Lesson in Listening

‘In a volatile situation where someone’s life is on the line, there can be no shortcuts.’

Wall Street Journal – Masada Siegel 1.1.2019

Is listening a lost art? On TV news and talk shows, everyone seems to be interrupting one another. Likewise in the political arena. Listening is especially rare on social media, where people are eager to talk and loath to hear other points of view.

So recently I challenged myself to talk less and instead to actively listen, ask more questions, and think about the responses. In particular, everywhere I went I asked people if they feel listened to and if they listen to others.

At a media conference, one lady told me sometimes she gets nervous around new people, so she thinks about what she will say as she listens so that she can be part of the conversation. Another said that she wished people would listen and not respond with a solution, because sometimes she’s only looking for a sounding board.

One evening at a restaurant, I struck up a conversation with a couple and asked their opinion. They both said they weren’t good listeners and frequently interrupt people because they want to participate in conversations. “I talk a lot because I’m insecure and want people to like me,” the husband acknowledged. “Ironically, I’m reading lots of leadership books, which all say if you want people to like you, you need to be a better listener.”

Glenn Cohen, who recently retired as chief psychologist and hostage negotiator for the Israel Defense Forces, told me that listening can mean life or death in his line of work. There are five steps to negotiating a hostage’s release, he said; the first one is listening to the terrorist.

“The biggest mistake to make is to jump to the last step, which is behavioral change,” he said. “In a volatile situation where someone’s life is on the line, there can be no shortcuts. You must listen, as the hostage taker is all charged up, emotionally and physically.

“He has his goal, so you must hear him out and understand what he wants to accomplish,” Mr. Cohen said. “As a negotiator, you are looking for a win-win situation, and a hostage taker needs an opportunity to vent and let off steam, as their adrenaline is pumping and as they are in the moment. Unless they unload their demands, they don’t have the capacity to hear and consider behavior change.”

Listening is an influential skill. The more you give others space to talk, the better you understand them and the more willing they are to listen themselves.

Ms. Siegel is a freelance journalist who covers international affairs, business and travel.

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