NYPD Hostage Negotiators On How To Persuade People: 4 New Secrets


I’m pretty sure I just heard a gunshot. And that means she’s dead.

Hold on, I guess I better back up and explain…

A 911 call came in. A domestic dispute turned into a hostage situation. The perpetrator has a gun on his wife and child.

ESU (Emergency Services Unit, basically, the SWAT team) arrived, as did 4 NYPD hostage negotiators. And me.

We stacked up outside the door to the apartment. But things were not going well. Shouting between the husband and wife was preventing Liz, the lead negotiator, from making much headway. She repeated her question:

“Is Erin okay?”

The perpetrator screamed back, “You’re taking her side because you’re a woman!”

Chris, one of the other negotiators hands her a post-it note: “Should we swap in a male negotiator?” Liz considered it, then replied to the perpetrator:

“But I’m talking to you, Grant, not her.”

This seemed to calm him down. Chris nodded and crumbled up the post-it note.

But then we heard the gunshot. And in half a second I went from, “Oh my god, this is so cool” to “Oh my god, someone just died.”

The negotiators needed a new plan, Grant needed a good lawyer and I needed a change of underwear.

But luckily, this was all just a simulation.

We’re on the second floor of the NYPD Police Academy in Flushing, Queens but it might as well be a Hollywood backlot.

There’s a full size fake convenience store here, complete with boxes of Oreos and snacks. The lobby of a bank. Squad cars. Even trees. Professional actors are brought in to play the parts of hostage takers and hostages.

The NYPD believes “how we practice is how we play” and they take training very seriously.

The NYPD Hostage Negotiation Team (HNT) invited me to come out for a few days and see how they do things.

New York City is the birthplace of hostage negotiation. The program was started over 40 years ago and was the first law enforcement hostage negotiation team in the world. In 2012 they responded to more than 400 incidents.

But the truth is, we’re all negotiators. Whether it’s dealing with angry family members, trying to get assistance at work or asking for a better deal on a rental car, we all negotiate every day.

So what can we learn from New York’s Finest about persuasion, influence and handling tough conversations? A lot.

Here are 4 techniques NYPD’s elite HNT uses that can help you get what you need…


1) Know Their Hooks and Hot Buttons

The crux of NYPD hostage negotiation is empathy. The focus isn’t bargaining. It’s building a connection with the other person so they trust you and want to work with you.

In any negotiation, who do we give the most concessions to? People we like. And research by Robert Cialdini has confirmed this.

Hooks and hot buttons can help build rapport quickly because rather than turning the conversation into a squabble over demands, they deal with the emotions of the other side in order to create a more positive mood.

Hooks” are the things that someone enjoys or likes talking about.

Hot buttons” are things that make them angry, upset or depressed.

By steering the discussion toward hooks and away from hot buttons you can make sure you’re not unnecessarily antagonizing the other side and, instead, are soothing them.

What’s the best way to find out someone’s hooks and hot buttons? By listening.

The motto of the HNT is “Talk To Me.” NYPD negotiators are taught to spend 80% of their time listening and only 20% talking.

All hostage negotiators use active listening techniques not only to build a relationship but also to get information.

Gary Noesner, former head of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit, explains the value of listening in his book Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator:

The core of the new curriculum consisted of specific active listening skills first developed by the counseling profession. In brief, this entails creating positive relationships with people by demonstrating an understanding of what they’re going through and how they feel about it. By applying this approach, the negotiator can demonstrate empathy and show a sincere desire to better understand what the individual is experiencing. We know that people want to be shown respect, and they want to be understood. Listening is the cheapest, yet most effective concession we can make. The positive relationship achieved through this interaction then sets the stage for the negotiator to exert a positive influence over others’ behavior, steering them away from violence. The skills boil down to restatement of contact and reflection of the captor’s feelings. Increased use of these techniques would have dramatic results.

So make a mental note of someone’s hooks and hot buttons when they talk. As the NYPD HNT likes to say:

The more information we have about a subject the more power we have.

Paying attention to what makes someone happy and what makes someone angry is key to getting them on your side.

(To learn the FBI’s hostage negotiation techniques, click here.)

So you’re listening for their hooks and hot buttons, but past that, how should you steer the conversation?


2) Focus On The Future

In a second scenario at the police academy, an actor pretended to be a suicidal EDP (emotionally disturbed person). Holding onto a railing, he was ready to jump to his “death.”

One of the principles the HNT uses with suicidal individuals can also help you build trust in any negotiation.

They “focus on the future.”

Suicidal people are always talking about the past, what went wrong in their lives. Getting them to think about the future and employing “hooks” that make them feel positive can result in them safely coming down.

Most people who end up as the perpetrators of a crisis incident didn’t plan for a showdown with the police. So it’s HNT’s job to provide them with a plan for how to resolve things safely for everyone.

In our own disputes we’re often too focused on proving we’re right and they’re wrong. And just like in a hostage situation, the person causing us problems probably didn’t think through a way to amicably end things.

By focusing the conversation on the future, and providing them with a way to fix things, you can turn a shouting match into a more calm, rational discussion. Instead of arguing about what they did or didn’t do, turn your attention to what both of you need to do next.

By emphasizing the future, and that there will be a continuing relationship between you and the other side, you can help insure that they will treat you well.

In his book The Truth About Trust: How It Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning, and More, professor David DeSteno explains the importance of emphasizing a continuing relationship and a future focus:

Every individual is out to maximize his own resources, and that means always trying to discern two things: whether a potential partner can be trusted and whether he or she is likely to be encountered again. Answers to those two questions, far beyond anything else, will determine what any of us is motivated to do in the moment.

As Adam Dolnik explains in his book Negotiating Hostage Crises with the New Terrorists this strategy is even effective with the most dangerous of people: terrorists. By emphasizing that they can continue their political struggles better by staying alive, terrorists have been talked into surrendering.

(To learn FBI Behavioral Unit techniques for getting people to like you, click here.)

So you know what to talk about to build trust. But what’s the best way to get that information across?


3) Your Behavior Is Contagious

They get angry and so you get angry. They shout and so you shout. And nobody gets anywhere.

One of the key principles HNT emphasizes is that your behavior is contagious.

And that can be as simple as keeping a calm but assertive tone of voice, even when the other person is screaming at you.

Former Lead International Hostage Negotiator for the FBI, Chris Voss, recommends what he calls the “Late Night FM DJ Voice.” Calm and soothing.

And to do that right, you need to keep a handle on your emotions.

From Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator:

The very first thing I talk about when training new negotiators is the critical importance of self-control. If we cannot control our own emotions, how can we expect to influence the emotions of another party?

This is why to be a member of HNT, detectives have to have a minimum of 12 years with the NYPD. You need maturity to be able to keep calm when lives are at stake.

The NYPD’s Harvey Schlossberg describes a principle called “dynamic inactivity.” What’s that? Sometimes you just need to shut up and do nothing.

Silence can help de-escalate a situation. Giving the other side the last word can give them that feeling of control that we all need to calm down.

(To learn how to use hostage negotiation principles to deal with your kids, click here.)

You know what to say and how to say it. What’s the final key to making sure that people stick to their word?


4) Slow It Down

Another key principle HNT emphasizes is “slow it down.” Rushing things leads to pressure and that only intensifies emotional decision making, as opposed to rational decision making.

From Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator:

…time can be a tool that allows anger to dissipate and better options to enter into the mind of the subject. We never put a deadline on ourselves. Time limits force a decision, yes, but it may be the wrong decision. The whole point of skilled negotiation is to provide the time and encouragement for subjects to make the right decision. The difference of a few hours can be, literally, a matter of life or death.

Often, when a deal is about to close, we feel the urge to rush things. Quick, before they change their mind!  But this is totally wrong. We want to slow down even more and make sure both sides are on the same page.

The two most dangerous times during a hostage negotiation are the beginning and the ending. That there’s stress at the beginning isn’t surprising; perpetrators are not thrilled the police have arrived.

But almost equally dangerous is the final moments. HNT calls it the “surrender ritual.”

The suspect has agreed to come out and put his gun down. He’s going to be on edge. The tactical team is going to be on edge. Everyone is on edge. The last thing anyone wants is surprises. So you slow it down and review everything.

You give him clear instructions. You may tell him to empty his pockets before coming out. What happens if his phone buzzes when he’s exiting and the SWAT guys see him reaching into his pocket…? Bad news.

So how does this apply to you? Closing a deal is great, but how do you make sure they follow through? An agreement on paper is no good if they don’t comply. So slow it down and make sure you’re both on the same page.

Make sure everyone is happy and nobody feels pressured or coerced. That’s what creates agreements that last.

(To learn how to be more resilient — from a Navy SEAL platoon commander — click here.)

Okay, we’ve learned a lot from the experts at NYPD HNT. Let’s round it up and learn how to make sure we don’t get cheated in a negotiation…


Sum Up

Here’s what you can learn about persuasion from expert NYPD hostage negotiators:

  • Know their hooks and hot buttons: Why say something that upsets them when you’re trying to build a connection? Note and emphasize the things they like and avoid the subjects that get them riled up.
  • Focus on the future: Suicidal people need to hear about the good times ahead. And people are more likely to play fair in a deal if they think they’re going to have to deal with you again.
  • Your behavior is contagious: If you can’t control your own emotions, how do you expect to be able to soothe theirs? Stay calm and employ that late night DJ voice. Use “dynamic inactivity” — shut up.
  • Slow it down: Rushing to finish can backfire. Time defuses emotions. Clarify and review.

The NYPD HNT never stops trying to improve. They’re now teaching the basics of communication to all new recruits with an initiative called “Smart Policing.”

Officers don’t pull their guns that often but they talk with people every day. Things get accomplished better and more safely with voluntary compliance.

And the best part is we can learn from this, too. Anger and threats rarely produce optimal results. We all want to be heard and respected. And often that’s the most important part of any negotiation.

In my next weekly email I’ll be including more tips from the NYPD HNT, including the secret to making sure you don’t get cheated in a deal. Sign up here to make sure you don’t miss it.

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Related posts:

How To Get People To Like You: 7 Ways From An FBI Behavior Expert

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