Hostage negotiations: to negotiate for what objective?

By | 16 décembre 2015

Adrian BORBELY, IESEG School of Management

After the tragic terror attacks that shook Paris on November 13, 2015, claiming the lives of 130 people, I felt the need to put on paper a negotiation vision of what happened at Bataclan, getting ready for the question our students may ask when returning to school the following week: should we negotiate with terrorists, hostage takers and Evil in general? Actually, this is a question my future colleagues at IESEG asked me when we first met.

My answer is generally “yes, we should negotiate with terrorists”, more specifically well-trained professionals should. These are dangerous, very high stakes negotiations, with both parties holding each other at gun point. The real question is what objective we should pursue. I think the objective is dual: finding an agreement that preserves our interests (preserving human lives) or destroying the enemy’s ability to do harm. Prioritizing these objectives requires a careful diagnosis of the dangerousness of the situation and the terrorists’ psychological state. Timing is off essence, of course: for both sides, this is a power game, and time serves to prepare one’s alternative: the terrorists getting closer to their objective, and the police preparing the assault.

On that Friday night, the police had to go in rapidly. They attempted negotiation but quickly realized no common ground was possible, and time was playing against the civilians present. What does it mean, when translated into negotiation theory?

  1. When interests are diametrically opposed, aggressive moves may be called for and need to be expected. Perpetrators want more casualties, police wants fewer. No other interests are at play, since the hostage takers do not care about their own lives. With no zone of possible agreement in sight, one needs to be ready to go with their best alternative.
  2. Negotiation takes time. This time may be useful to establish communication, learn about one another, build trust and identify an exit strategy that works for both parties. But as time may also serve the perpetrators to get closer to their objective, negotiation may bear high costs.
  3. To negotiate, people need to rely on a common base of shared values. When the opponent just aims for sheer destruction, functions like an apocalyptic knight that aims to plant death, based on hatred and nonsense, annihilation may be the only option. No matter how good a negotiator is, (s)he may want to keep a finger on his/her best alternative.
  4. With dangerous terrorists, establishing trust often aims, for both sides, to better deceive. Police may negotiate for the sole objective to catch terrorists off guard and take them out. This requires the upper hand on the intelligence scale, something we often presume to have (and sometimes we are wrong).
  5. Finally, negotiating requires rational behavior. No, we cannot negotiate with people with such an erratic behavior that no coherent process (from introduction to deal implementation) may take place.

In these situations, like in few others, no negotiation may be better than failed negotiations.

Disclaimer: The views, opinions and positions expressed within these guest posts/articles are those of the author (s) alone and do not represent those of IÉSEG School of Management /ICON. ICON welcomes all feedback and comment on articles posted on this blog: icon@ieseg.fr.

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