Scripture and hostage negotiation

[notice]A monthly column by Marcel van der Watt, lecturer in the Department of Police Practice at UNISA, former police detective, and current member of the Gauteng Rapid Response Task Team for Human Trafficking.[/notice]

The recent Sydney hostage situation stirred some vivid memories of the intensity, emotions and multi-layered complexities associated with efforts to stabilise such crisis situations. Having worked as a trained hostage negotiator in the South African Police Services, I was invited to discuss the issue of hostage negotiation with Talk Radio 702’s Redi Thlabi. Due to an ethical code to which hostage negotiators adhere to, I informed Talk Radio 702 that I am unable to delve into aspects such as negotiation strategies and operational activities that play out in the background. However, the skill of communication and building rapport with the hostage taker was an aspect that took up a fair amount of the interview time. Subsequent to the radio interview I once again pondered the issue of communication and how it takes centre stage in so many areas of our lives. I reflected on my favourite ‘Hostage Negotiation Scripture’ in the Bible – the essence of which reflects the cornerstone of any hostage negotiator’s strategy to reduce tension and anxiety whilst paving the way towards safe release of hostages:

James 1:19-20 (NIV): 19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.

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I recalled the unimpressed stare of my fellow hostage negotiation training course classmate when I told him “all this stuff is in the Bible”. The comment may have been made in jest, yet my conviction of its truth is something that stays with me till this day.

‘Be quick to listen’
Active listening is a fundamental skill that any negotiator has to master. Being quick to listen, negotiators often have to take in large chunks of information whilst paraphrasing at regular intervals to show that they are in fact listening and regard what is being communicated by the subject (hostage taker) as vitally important. Paraphrasing is not enough. Crisis situations can endure for hours, and even days on end and it often happens that the negotiator has to summarise the essence of what transpired in the last hours of communications. A wide variety of details, ideologies, events and idiosyncrasies may be exchanged – nothing is insignificant. Failing to remember the breed of the subject’s pet dog, the name of a 1987 matric farewell girlfriend or the amount of money lost on the stock exchange could adversely affect the communication progress that has been made, stir agitation and even lead to a breakdown in negotiations.

‘Slow to speak’
Controlling the tongue is an issue to which a large section of James 3 is dedicated. Its resonating message and profound wisdom is of particular significance not only in areas such as marriage and friendships, but also crisis negotiations with a violent subject or suicidal individual. Words should be chosen wisely concomitant with the element of good timing. Tact, which could be regarded as the art of making a point without making an enemy, is another skill the negotiator needs to master. When communicating with the subject the negotiator should avoid so-called problem words or phrases. Reference to ‘hostages’ should be replaced with ‘the people that are with you’ whilst responding with ‘let us talk about another option…’ as a phrase rather than opting for ‘you stupid thug’. Words have power and often present a hermeneutical (interpretation) problem. As Silvia Broome (in The Interpreter played by Nicole Kidman) rightfully stated: “Countries have gone to war because they misinterpreted one another”.

‘Slow to become angry’
Verbal and non-verbal indicators in conjunction with the negotiator’s tone of voice as communication catalyst become critical, especially during an initial or subsequent alarm and crisis phase. The subject is usually hyper sensitive to these indicators and often responds accordingly. These phases are characterised by heightened levels of anxiety, panic and unpredictability. Chaos becomes the order of the day. Hostages respond differently, self-organise in order to ‘survive’ whilst reactive anger (or reasonable fear) becomes a default alternative to even-handed wisdom on the part of the negotiator. ‘Slow to become angry’ is not always easy, yet it may just be the difference between life and death.

My favourite ‘Hostage Negotiation Scripture’ and personal experiences as hostage negotiator confirm that the Word of our Lord truly is living and active. I guess “all this stuff [still] is in the Bible”.

One Comment


    The manner in which the writer described Hostage Negotiation in relation to God’s righteousness as described in the bible is excellent. We have all that is required to perform the tedious task if we only take the time to understand God’s word.