Few people understand the fraught combination of high-stakes negotiations and guns better than Gary Noesner, the former chief of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit. Over his career, he was the agency’s lead negotiator in trying to resolve dozens of standoffs with armed groups and individuals, often with the lives of hostages on the line. Among his most notable accomplishments: In 1993, he led a team that negotiated the peaceful release of 35 hostages at the Waco, Texas, compound where Branch Davidians leader David Koresh holed up with his followers after a shootout with agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives that left nine people dead.

The strategy was expensive — by one account costing as much as $128,000 a day — and slow. About a month into the standoff, Noesner was replaced and sent on another assignment. Weeks later, he watched a live feed at FBI headquarters as his organization launched a tear gas attack on the compound, which subsequently erupted in flames. In all, 76 people died in the fire — the exact count is in dispute — including Koresh. (In July 2000, a report found that Koresh started the deadly fire, but criticized the government for initially denying that it had used tear gas. For years, critics have condemned the FBI’s over-aggressive tactics, arguing that negotiations should have continued).

Noesner is author of Stalling for Time, which chronicles his 23 years as a crisis negotiator. Here’s what Noesner had to say to Kerry Shaw of The Trace about self-control, how guns made his job more difficult, and why actually listening to people is such an important part of preventing violence.

The most damaging thing for a hostage negotiator is losing self-control. If you can’t control your own emotions, how can you begin to influence someone else’s? If you get angry at what the person has said or done, if you overreact when they don’t follow through on what they said, if you overreact to a verbal attack, that’s self-defeating and self-destructive.

The first task of a negotiator is to bring down the emotions. We use a diagram in training that looks like a child’s teeter-totter. On one side you have “emotions,” and on the other side you have “rational thinking.” When emotions go up, rational thinking goes down.

Let’s say a guy has been fired from a job and he goes back with a gun and holds his employer at gunpoint. He’s angry, he feels unappreciated, misunderstood, mistreated, and he may actually have a valid point in some aspect.

So he holds a gun to his former employer and threatens to kill him. Now, a negotiator can show up and say, “You know, killing your boss is not going to get you your job back.” And most assuredly it won’t. But the guy’s not thinking clearly right now. He’s acting on emotions. Before we can get him to appreciate the logic of that argument, we’ve got to work through the emotional part of it.

Courtesy of Gary Noesner.
Courtesy of Gary Noesner.

Rather than just say, “We can talk about all this later, put your gun down,” you say, “Tell me what happened. I can see you’re upset.” You’re not agreeing with him, you’re just saying: I understand how you feel.

Only when the hostage-taker feels heard and understood can you begin to establish a relationship of trust. Then you can start to talk him out of violence. You can say, “You sound like a good man that’s been through a bad situation and things have not gone the way you wanted them to. But do you really think becoming violent is going to solve the problem? What impact will that have on your family?”

That’s why I titled my book Stalling for Time. It takes time to lower those emotions and create that relationship.

There’s a common misperception in law enforcement that everyone we face has this carefully drawn out agenda and they know exactly how they want a situation to end. But my experience has been quite the opposite: In all but rare cases, the individuals are acting moment-to-moment. They got into a situation based on an emotional outburst, and they simply don’t know how to get out of it.

“In all but rare cases, the individuals are acting moment-to-moment. They got into a situation based on an emotional outburst, and simply don’t know how to get out of it.”

Gary Noesner, Former FBI Hostage Negotiator

Domestic violence situations are the most likely to have a violent outcome. The men usually it’s men are desperate and they’re in emotional turmoil. She’s left him, she’s taken the kids, and she’s never coming back. Some individuals get to the point where they say, “Well, there’s nothing left to lose, I’m going to jail if I surrender, and I’ll never get my kids back now, so I might as well kill everybody and be done with it.”

Certainly, the presence of guns can hinder a negotiator’s ability — you have to negotiate from a distance. So much of communication is based not only on verbal interpretation, but on body language. So if some guy’s holding a gun, the negotiator, as a matter of policy and good common sense, is not going to expose himself or herself to being shot.

Guns raise the whole potential for serious injury or death. You have to be infinitely more cautious. In some cases, you might have to start off using the bullhorn, which isn’t very conducive to demonstrating a calm, empathic voice. Or you may have to speak from behind a barricade position in which you have a SWAT guy sitting there protecting you in his heavy armament. All these things can be impediments to relationship-building.

In these cases, we try to conduct negotiations over the phone. We have a somewhat humorous saying: “No negotiator’s ever been killed over the phone.” That’s the kind of approach we like: We like it to be safer and less stressful for both the guy we’re talking with and ourselves.

As a police officer, you want to convey the right message: We’re not here to make your life worse, but to help you and to get this resolved. Nothing guarantees success all the time, but if you do achieve success, it’s likely going to be through that approach.

I always told people that Waco wasn’t so much that we didn’t know what to do, it was that we, as an organization, had departed from what we had been doing successfully for quite some time: patience and perseverance.

Obviously Waco began in a very horrific shootout between the ATF and the Branch Davidians. There had been loss of life. Those are hard situations to bring back to a non-emotional level.

But I feel as though the first half of the incident, when we secured the safe release of all 35 people who came out, was a significant success.

The key was listening to the Davidians, acknowledging their point of view without agreeing with it, giving them the opportunity to say what was important to them, and treating them with civility. And if left intact, that strategy probably stood a chance of saving many more lives.

After I was replaced at Waco, I flew overseas. The day after I returned, I went into FBI headquarters, and sat in a room similar to what you’d envision with NASA — with cameras and all the top FBI leadership. Then I saw the tear gas go, and saw the fire start.

I don’t know that words can adequately describe my frustration and my anger anger particularly directed at David Koresh for being so willing to throw his followers’ lives away. But I was also angry at the FBI for not having stuck with the strategy that we had been successful with when I was still there. It was probably the worst day of my career, and then I had to jump on a plane and fly to Ohio for a prison riot.

I was depressed for a long time after Waco. I wouldn’t categorize it as clinical depression where you can’t function, but certainly I was down in the dumps.

I’m often asked how to use negotiation skills in daily life. Ultimately, listening is the most powerful tool we have in terms of social influence. Listening is not a passive endeavor. It’s asking follow-up questions, it’s asking open-ended questions, it’s paraphrasing what the person has just told you to demonstrate that you’re hearing what they have to say.

It’s so important to get away from “zero sum” whether it’s in law enforcement, foreign policy, or certainly our current dysfunctional political state. Your gain is not my loss and vice versa. People need to find a way to compromise when it’s possible. And in almost all cases, it is.

[Photo: AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack]