Posted on 12th June 2024 by Chris Makin

Hostage Taking And Mediation – What’s The Difference?

You may be tempted to reverse the question and ask what the similarities are between the two. Surely there can’t be any?  But read on.

I recently attended the advanced mediation training course run by the Association of Northern Mediators up near Malham Tarn, in the rugged but beautiful North Yorkshire.  It’s been run for 23 years, I have attended all but a couple of them, and we get some amazing speakers.

This time we had Phil and Damien, who had recently retired from the Metropolitan Police as negotiators with hostage takers.  What a job!  Remember the Balcolme Street siege?  The Spaghetti House restaurant siege?  How about the Iranian Embassy, where WPC Yvonne Fletcher was murdered?  If you are old enough, you will undoubtedly remember watching the action on live TV where the SAS belayed down from the roof, threw stun grenades through the windows and retook the premises.

Well, this was not a failure in negotiation, since some situations are intractable and violence has to be used, but our guys are the ones who talk to the hostage takers (or those threatening suicide) to defuse the situation, make them appreciate their position is hopeless, and persuade them to surrender whilst releasing the hostages unharmed.  Many of these situations we don’t even hear about.

How is it done?  By active listening.  Let me digress for a moment.

When I was taking advanced driving lessons, I was taught that many skills are remembered through mnemonics.  For example, the things you have to check before driving away are POWER: that’s Petrol, Oil, Water, Electrics and Rubber (tyres).  Similarly, with negotiation, the mnemonic is MORE PIES.  And, remarkably, this is where mediation comes in, because the effectiveness of active listening is identical in hostage-taking as in mediation.  It’s remarkable but true.  So let’s look at active listening in detail.

With hostage-taking, there will usually be a telephone line between the leader of the hostage-takers and the police negotiator, who will have a team working silently to help him.  With mediation, we have had the joint session at the start, and when I see the parties separately in their rooms, when I feel I have their confidence (it may be in the first meeting or a later one) I ask the magic question: “What do you seek to achieve today that you don’t have right now?”  And the reply is usually surprising, and has nothing to do with the formal case.  These, then, are the techniques which the mediator (and the hostage negotiator) must use to find out what the other party really wants:

M = minimal encouragers.  Make short noises (hmmm, ahh, I see, go on) or smile and nod.  I remember giving a couple of interviews for BBC’s File on Four (about rogue landlords and then the British National Party since you ask) and I talk too much and too fast.  The interviewer actually conducted me with her eyebrows, and I did a much better job of it.

O = open questions.  A closed question invites only a yes or no answer; you don’t learn much.  But with an open question, you encourage a full answer: Tell me, then what happened, etc.

R = reflection.  Repeat some of the words they use, to show that you understand, and to encourage them to say more.

E = emotional labelling.  Hear the emotion and express it back.  Closely allied with reflection.  Don’t worry if you express it wrongly; they will correct you and this all helps to build empathy.

P = paraphrasing.  Hear their words and give back the same, but more briefly.  Again, this builds empathy because, whether or not you agree with them (and who would agree with a hostage taker or a party in mediation with a hopeless case?) they will tell you their true needs.

I = I-messages.  “You” is accusatory; “I” allows you to say the same thing in a less provocative way.  For instance, if you suggest the person is lying, don’t say “You are a liar” which is likely to end the conversation, but say “I am confused; you said before X but now I’m hearing you say Y.  How is that?

E = effective pause or silence. When they stop talking, perhaps to think or because they don’t want to say anymore, don’t be tempted to fill that silence with your own words.  Silences are unnatural, so wait silently and they will be tempted to speak, and perhaps to reveal something really valuable.

S = summarising.  Summarise what has been said, at more length than paraphrasing.  Use some of their words; they will see that you have understood what they were trying to tell you.

So this gives you an insight into what goes on in those private rooms in a mediation.  Hostage negotiators bear a huge responsibility in life-or-death situations, and I admit that mediation is seldom a matter of life or death.  But it is hugely important to the parties, so the mediator carries huge responsibilities too.  We are not just having a cosy chat with your clients; we are highly trained (well, most of us are!) and we have tools we can use to help them.

As May LJ said in Egan –v- Motor Services (Bath) Ltd [2007] EWCA Civ 1002:

Mediation is a perfectly proper adjunct to litigation.  The skills are now well developed.  The results are astonishingly good.  

“Try it more often.”

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