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Business negotiation: learn from a hostage negotiator

Richard Mullender has honed his business negotiation skills over many years, both in the London Metropolitan Police and as a hostage negotiator. Since retiring, he has adapted techniques from the field and applied them to the corporate world.

At Caspian Media’s recent event for entrepreneurial Finance Directors, we asked Richard to share his business negotiation experience with us.

1. How do you become a hostage negotiator?

Most hostage negotiators come through the police. Purely because you represent the Government and it’s the police force that deals with suicide interventions. In London you get about 150 suicide interventions a year, which are dealt with by the hostage unit.  

2. Given that the police force is a large organisation, how do you end up being considered for hostage negotiation?

Each police force will have a certain number of people who will be trained as hostage negotiators – and that’s just a running number. You have to show an interest in the first place and then you get assessed. In London hostage negotiators tend to be inspectors and outside of London they’re usually sergeants.

3. Can you give us some examples of the kind of training involved?

You attend an assessment centre. You get selected. You then do a two-week course. At the end of that course, to all extent and purposes, you’re a hostage negotiator. 

4. Are you given ‘mock’ situations to deal with?

Even if you’re being assessed in a role play scenario, you’re up against another negotiator who will try to get you upset. And you’ll get called every possible name you’ll ever be called. If there’s something about you they can draw attention to, they will draw attention to it.

And they will push it and push it and push it to see how you react. It’s interesting as people do get annoyed and they don’t know what to say next. But that’s not good because if you’re under pressure you’ve got to say something.

5. Are there any character traits that help you in your role?

It sounds ridiculous, I know, but you’ve got to be a nice person. When you assess that person, you see how they are under pressure. What’s going to happen when someone is screaming abuse at them? Or someone has a knife to someone else’s throat?

6. What procedures are in place to help you deal with the impact of hostage negotiation?

There is always counselling if you want it. It’s normally voluntary. If someone dies, the negotiator tends to be given counselling anyway.

There are no great negotiators because great negotiators don’t make mistakes. Good negotiators make mistakes and learn how to get themselves out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves.

The hostage negotiator family look after each other, very much. If you anything goes wrong, they’re always on the phone to you, checking you’re OK. There’s a huge understanding. There’s no question about it – it has a real impact.

I have a couple of close friends who have said: ‘I don’t want to negotiate again’.

7. If you were to run a company, what would you take from your business negotiation experience?

It’s all the same. If I want to be a good leader, I have to understand the team. You have to treat every team member as an individual, so there’s no point in saying ‘My way or the highway’.

I have to work you out – in the same way I would work out a hostage taker or someone threatening to jump off a bridge. (Not to the same level of depth, but to a certain degree).  Once I know how you like to work, I’m going to give you the job in the way I know you like to do it. This  means that you work hard for me because you’re enjoying yourself. If you’re working hard, you’re making me money. Business is about making money.

8. Is there a danger of negotiation turning into what people see as manipulation?

You could argue that I suppose, but it depends. If I manipulate you into having a good life, is that manipulation or persuasion?

9. What about when you’re in a business negotiation, and both parties are trying to get what they want out of the situation. Do the lines get blurred?

There’s no blurring of the lines.

You’re looking at building a long-term relationship based on trust. That’s how I look at business. The other person must walk away thinking they’ve had a good deal. So, my responsibility is to make you think you’ve had a good deal. And you will have had a good deal, while at the same time I get a good deal myself.

That’s what business is about. If I don’t do that and at any time you think I’ve ‘had you over’, you won’t work with me again. Once you breach trust, trust has gone, then everything has gone.

10. What was the longest hostage situation you have dealt with?

Four weeks in Afghanistan. One in the UK was two weeks. The longest one was Norman Kember [who was taken hostage in Iraq] for five months, but I was not negotiating every day. We were in Afghanistan for four weeks, but with Norman Kember we were called away [before negotiations ended].

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About Richard Mullender
After a 25-year career working in the London Metropolitan Police as a detective investigating serious crimes, Richard Mullender moved into hostage negotiation. He quickly worked his way up to become Lead Trainer at Scotland Yard’s National Crisis and Negotiation Unit. As a hostage negotiator, Richard built his career on elite listening techniques. He now teaches invaluable communication skills to governmental organisations and leading multinationals.

Interview by Hunter Ruthven, Editor of Real Business and Business Advice