How FBI hostage negotiation strategies can help your department

Try the Behavioral Change Stairway Model to improve on-scene communication


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Motor vehicle collision, structure fire, high-angle rescue, EMS assist: The one thing they have in common is that firefighters will always have to manage the scene. To accomplish this, they’ll often need the help, or at least the cooperation, of other people on scene, and those people may not be eager to assist. In fact, sometimes, the people you need help from the most may be downright hostile.

The FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit developed a five-step method, known as the Behavioral Change Stairway Model, to de-escalate crisis situations and encourage the “hostiles” to become more helpful. Each step must be carefully followed in order to be successful. This method can be easily adapted by firefighters, officers and chiefs for crisis communications.

1.  Employ active listening

To manage a scene, firefighters often need the help, or at least the cooperation, of other people on scene, and those people may not be eager to assist. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
To manage a scene, firefighters often need the help, or at least the cooperation, of other people on scene, and those people may not be eager to assist. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

Listen to what the other person has to say and let them know that you’re doing so. While this seems simple, it can be difficult to truly listen to someone else, rather than just staying quiet while you wait for your turn to talk. No one listens until they are first sure that they are being heard. This is especially true if you’re in conflict with the other person and are trying to bring them around to what you want them to do.

When you want or need someone to do something, it can be a challenge to listen to what they want instead of telling them what you want. Simple cues to let the other person know you’re listening include:

  • Don’t interrupt, disagree or make your request while they are talking.
  • Acknowledge what they are saying with simple phrases like “I see” and “uh-huh.”
  • Repeat back the gist of what they’ve told you to show that you understand their point of view.

This will not only help them realize that you are listening to them, making them more likely to listen in return, but it will also help you follow through with the next steps.

2. Display empathy

Once you have heard what the other person has to say, the next step is try to understand where they are coming from. Empathy does not mean that you agree with the other person or condone that person’s actions. It does mean that you understand their perspective.

3. Build a rapport

With an understanding of the other person’s state of mind and objectives, you can speak to them in ways that they will respond to. People, especially people in crisis, will respond most effectively to others who are “speaking their language.”

4. Exert your influence

Don’t think of this as finally getting to tell the other person what to do. Influence means that you help them achieve, or at least move toward, their objective in a way that their mindset understands.

While empathizing with their position and speaking their language, look at realistic solutions to the situation, including the negative possibilities of what they are suggesting or trying to do.

5. Initiate behavioral change

If you’ve done well with the first four steps, the conclusion of behavioral change is a matter of proposing a solution that makes sense to the other person and is acceptable to you. By first listening to what they are trying to say, empathizing with their position and establishing a rapport, you are influencing the other person toward realistic solutions so that you can achieve the desired behavioral change.

The road to success

It can take a good deal of practice and a long time to get these steps right, but when negotiating crisis communications, a long road to success is better than a quick turn to a bad end.

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