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Hostage Negotiations


Disciplines > Negotiation > Negotiation Styles > Hostage Negotiations

 About hostage situations | First arrival | Assessing the situation | Getting close | Developing the scene | Releasing the hostages | See also


A hostage negotiation happens when a criminal or deranged person uses innocent people as bargaining chips.

About hostage situations

This can happen in a range of circumstances, including:

  • A desperate mother who barricades herself in with her own child.
  • A bank robber who is disturbed on the job.
  • Terrorists who take foreign nationals.


  • There may be one or more hostages of any age
  • The situation may be planned or ad hoc.
  • There may be one or more hostage-takers, who are usually armed.

In the more extreme hostage situation, the hostage-taker has several choices:

  1. Kill hostages or release them.
  2. Kill themselves by their own hand or in a shoot-out.
  3. Negotiate a way out (often desired, seldom possible).
  4. Give themselves up.

Fortunately for most of us, we never meet these situations. Fortunately for those who become hostages, there are professionals whose job it is to get them safely released.

First arrival

Police will on a hostage scene before a negotiator and may be trained to use the ICER concept.


Isolate the hostage zone, creating an outer perimeter and keeping keep onlookers beyond the police safety line.


Limit the mobility of the hostage taker to the smallest area possible (the inner perimeter) and prevent them from observing police activity.


Evaluate the original information provided, which may be from the hostage taker or a representative, or perhaps a member of the public.

Without causing any escalation, gather as much additional information as possible, including the number of hostage takers and hostages, their appearance, weapons and so on.

Assess the threat and estimate the resources that may be needed to handle the situation.


Report all available information gathered, including on the hostage takers and hostages,  events, weapons, zones, routes and so on, informing other officers and the chain of command.

Assessing the situation

Preventing early harm

The first job of the hostage negotiator is to assure safety. When they arrive on the scene, there may be armed police, high emotion and general confusion in which hostages may get hurt.

Their immediate task is to get a swift briefing from the officer in charge and to ensure that any actions by the police do not lead to hostages being harmed. The police (or whatever authority is in charge) may have a high interest in capturing the hostage-taker, whilst the negotiator is only interested in the safety of the hostages.

Getting organized

The next step is to organize communications with the hostage-takers. Hostage-takers usually want this, to make their demands known. If the negotiation looks like it could take some time (which may be days or more), then a permanent position must be found.

There may also be covert monitoring, for example with window lasers and hidden cameras. Everything that provides information is used, including relatives, friends and other sources.

Finding information

The negotiator will want to find as much information about the situation as possible, including:

  • The numbers and names of the hostage-takers.
  • What they are demanding and what they really want.
  • Their emotional state and how close they are to harming hostages.
  • The numbers and general health of hostages.

Some of this information may be available from the authorities. Other will be gained from the hostage-takers. In the early conversation with them, which is very much about listening, the negotiators may find out much of this. Some other information may take a while to extract.

The hostage-takers will want to make their demands known, but may be very cagey with other information as they fear deception and attack.

The police will also want all information, including the location of everyone in the situation, in case an armed assault is required.

Getting close

A critical process used in many hostage negotiations is to get close to them, to build bonds and gain their trust.

Creating normality

Whilst there may be chaos and panic on all sides, the negotiator first seeks to create calm. They talk in a calm voice and do a great deal of listening. In particular, they seek to establish a sense of normality amongst the emotion, a space in which the hostage-takers can talk with the negotiator as reasonable people, much as you would talk with any normal person on the phone.

The negotiator is always there and always ready to talk. They will listen to everything and will create an even keel on which reasonable negotiation can be conducted.

Creating humanity

Within the normality, the negotiator listens uncritically to the hostage-taker, accepting them as they are and creating a sense of humanity. From that humanity, they then can extend to discussing the hostages, how they are bearing up and whether they are unwell.

Developing authority

The negotiator may also seek to position themself as an authority figure. This can start by being authoritative on behalf of the hostage-taker, for example in getting them communications and food. This may later turn to being authoritative with the hostage-taker, which can be a tricky and dangerous activity as the hostage-taker wants to be in charge. Authoritative work may thus be done in particular circumstances. If the negotiators can establish this relationship, they may be able to direct the hostage-taker's actions more effectively.

Developing the scene

Once a relationship is established, the negotiator can seek to move the situation forward.

Small steps

Progress may be in small steps, as trust and relationships continue to be built. Food and medicine may be given. Conversation with a hostage may be requested. Everyday chat creates normality.

Depending on the urgency of the situation, the negotiator may seek to speed up or slow down the talking. If hostages are hurt, then speed may be needed. If the hostage-takers are requiring transport or other things that would lead to more problems, then it may be more prudent to insert delays, such as saying you are 'looking into it'.

Managing stress

Stress and tension will continue throughout the negotiation in some way. The negotiator may deliberately manage this, reducing stress to create hostage safety, but also possibly increasing stress to wear down the hostage-taker.

Exploring solutions

Talks will eventually get around to what can be done to resolve the situation. The negotiator may ask the hostage-taker for their thoughts and may offer possibilities themselves. Of course the safe release of the hostages is always an important element.

The goal of the hostage taker may be simply to escape and may be for publicity or other gain. If this is not acceptable to the authorities, for example release of a captured terrorist leader, then other alternatives must be found.

Releasing the hostages

Wearing them down

Sometimes, just talk, talk, talk is enough to wear down the hostage-takers and for them to give themselves up. High emotions do not last for ever and are followed by exhaustion. The ideal negotiation ends with the hostage-taker agreeing to let everyone go.

Releasing the weak

Depending on the number of people taken hostage, a release of children, old people and those with medical conditions may be negotiated. It allows the hostage-takers to show that they are not 'bad' people after all and also rids them of the problems of illness and wailing children.

Concessions for people

People may also be exchanged for various concessions, from food to publicity. When something is given to the hostage-takers, especially if it is on their list of demands, then a concession may be requested in return, with the ultimate concession of hostage release.

The final assault

It is a very delicate balance for the negotiator when no clear exchange can be found and the hostage-takers look like they are going to kill hostages. Whilst they are seeking to create exchange, the negotiator must also find the point at which they pull the plugs and let the armed forces take over. Even though some hostages may be killed, force may ultimately be the best solution to minimize total harm.

See also

Trust, Stress

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