Disarming People with Words: Strategies of Interactional Communication That Crisis (Hostage) Negotiators Share with Systemic Clinicians

By Charlés, Laurie L. | Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, January 2007 | Go to article overview

Disarming People with Words: Strategies of Interactional Communication That Crisis (Hostage) Negotiators Share with Systemic Clinicians


Charlés, Laurie L., Journal of Marital and Family Therapy


This qualitative study examined the interactional communication strategies used by law enforcement officers during a hostage-taking incident at a high school. The research involved analysis of the negotiation conversation between police crisis (hostage) negotiators and a hostage taker who entered his former high school to take revenge on a teacher. A condensed version of the talk was micro-analyzed with the actual negotiators from the incident, using ethnographic and Interpersonal Process Recall interviewing methods. Results illustrated that the negotiators used interactional communication strategies valued by systemic family therapists to reach a peaceful conclusion to the incident.

I am interested in life-threatening conversations. However, it is not life-threatening circumstances that I find compelling, nor is it merely conversation that I find intriguing. What captures my imagination is when both processes occur simultaneously, in a meaningful way. I am curious about the substantive conversations that take place between people in the midst of a crisis. How is it possible to elicit change, through dialogue, during a life-threatening situation?

My interest in such dialogue stems from my background as a systemic marriage and family therapist. By using the term systemic, I refer to the idea of making sense of behavior within the context in which it occurs. I believe that considering the context of behavior is particularly important when intervening in life-threatening situations. Ignoring the interactional context of threatening behavior risks the likelihood of increasing it (Bobele, 1987).

As a systemically trained therapist, I strive for the flexibility to establish meaningful conversations in unlikely, intense, unpredictable circumstances. I am trained to manage the intense dialogue that occurs between family members in a session. Similarly, I am flexible at developing productive therapeutic relationships, oftentimes with people who do not want to talk to me. Yet, my work always takes place in the context of a therapy session. In this study, I took my interest outside of the field and beyond the therapy room.

In this article, I will illustrate how a team of seven crisis negotiators, law enforcement officers specially trained in crisis intervention, established a dialogue with a hostage taker at a high school in the United States. The analysis of the negotiation of the Jefferson incident revealed negotiators' use of interactional communication strategies that bear a striking resemblance to systemic notions of therapeutic interaction. These strategies include (a) effectively utilizing team process, (b) joining, (c) making sense of behavior in context, (d) utilizing information from the larger system, (e) achieving conversational flexibility, (f) attending to process, (g) taking a "go slow" approach, and (h) using the language of the hostage taker. In combination, the negotiators' efforts promoted a constructive dialogue that was pivotal to the negotiation success, resulting in the hostage taker's voluntary surrender.

CRISIS (HOSTAGE) NEGOTIATION

Police officers are often the first professionals who respond to and become involved in a variety of conflicts between people (Bolz, 1981; Everstine, Bodin, & Everstine, 1977) in the midst of psychological or emotional crises (Fuselier, 1988). When these crises become life-threatening, as in the case of a hostage incident, police have two options. They can end the incident with force, in an assault/rescue attempt (Fuselier, 1981a; Goldaber. 1979; Heyman, 1993), or they can try to end it peacefully, through conversation.

If police choose the latter option, they enlist crisis negotiators-law enforcement officers trained in crisis intervention. Crisis negotiation is a law enforcement endeavor to resolve a potentially violent situation through conversation. A crisis negotiation takes place between a team of crisis negotiators and someone who is barricaded from police, such as a hostage taker. …

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