'I'm an FBI Trained Former Hostage Negotiator'

The first time I was the primary negotiator—the guy who is actually on the phone—was a Sunday morning in 2008. I remember it was early on a Sunday morning and we were not getting a lot of negotiators from our eight person team responding to say that they were able to come to this situation. It was described as a man holding a woman hostage, maybe armed with a gun, and the police thought the man may have been restraining the woman. The local police department had reached out to our regional SWAT team and asked us to assist them.

It turned out that I was one of the first negotiators on the scene, and often that's the individual who ends up speaking with the person in crisis. I just remember being so overwhelmed by how stressful it was. I had to step back from it for a moment and think, "If I don't get this right, the consequences here are well beyond anything else I've faced in my life."

I began in law enforcement working as a police officer in the Chicago area, which is the foundation needed for hostage negotiation. When I was in college, I just remember being fascinated by the wide variety of people I met. Perhaps it came from having a slightly boring childhood and not having many diverse experiences when I was much younger. I wanted to understand people—my undergraduate study was behavioral science and I went on to achieve a Master's degree in psychology. I felt that hostage negotiation was a really good field to apply my interest and education in a way that might be helpful to other people.

It's quite an honor to be selected for Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) hostage negotiation training and I was probably selected to do it a little before I had earned it; I was perhaps a little too young and had only been a police officer for five years. But with the FBI you go through extensive educational and practical training. The people in my class at Northwestern University in Chicago in 2007 were very experienced and skilled. I just remember thinking I had a lot to learn before I was going to be any good at this.

I think one of the biggest misconceptions about negotiators is that they are very good at talking with people. Of course, they are very good at that, but I think the bigger component is that they are terrific listeners—they're good at drawing out what's not being said and how to thoughtfully get into areas that are being avoided. The very top negotiators are listening to the words reading body language and studying expressions —especially in 2020 when we're doing more negotiations face-to-face digitally.

During my initial training we would sit back-to-back while the whole class would watch, the situation forced us to focus on listening. It's a great way to manufacture the pressure that you have when you actually conduct a negotiation.

Another big part of the training is to understand the various skills of active listening, which isn't a secret, it's articulated in many books. Because as soon as you're talking to someone and they feel that you're reading off a script or going through a checklist, that communication becomes very fake. We all want to connect with someone who is genuine and really cares about us. And the great negotiators are the ones who are really able to listen and connect with someone and have that person in crisis feel the negotiator is a likeable, genuine person who cares.

We're very lucky that we don't see a lot of purposeful hostage taking in the U.S. The majority of the work we do as police negotiators is actually crisis negotiation; dealing with a single individual who is in crisis and may be threatening themselves with a weapon or threatening others with a weapon. They could be armed and barricaded inside a home, room or business.

Fortunately, that first negotiation I led in 2008 turned out to be OK, we had a conversation and very quickly it seemed that the situation was over; he came out and everything was OK. The lesson I learned was that we process information differently under stress. It was when I really understood and felt such respect for the job because the consequences of getting it wrong truly are life or death.

The situations that don't work out are really the ones that stick with you. We had one case where we spoke to a man for nearly a day, but he did ultimately injure himself. Fortunately he survived. You can't simulate those experiences in training, so afterwards I look back and reflect on what I could have done better or differently. Ultimately, that person in crisis is in control of making that decision, but you do remember those types of calls.

We once had a domestic hostage taking situation where a man had been stalking his ex-girlfriend to the point where she had to move out of her home and find safety somewhere else, but yet he was able to track her down and find her. When the police got there, that man shot and significantly injured a police officer at that scene. In that particular case our team was called to negotiate with someone who is holding his girlfriend hostage and has already shot a police officer. So, we knew the level of danger was very high. And we knew there was a high level of emotion with a lot of the officers involved because this was a friend and co-worker of theirs who has just been shot and who was now fighting for his life.

That was a great example of how, even given the situation, we went to work and did our best to verbally resolve this incident and give this person every opportunity to surrender peacefully. I think that after watching police movies, people expect that a negotiator is going to come in and tell the person: "You're going to have to do this right now!" But we listen and allow the person in crisis some freedom to make choices that will impact their life and their safety.

So, we didn't send the police in to storm the house and cause him harm or put the hostage in an unsafe situation. Even in a situation like this when many people could say that this person gets whatever he gets, we have to try and resolve it peacefully. The U.S. has laws and rules that will allow for someone else to make the determination of what should happen with this individual.

As negotiators, our job is to resolve this situation safely. It's not our job to decide what should happen to this person. It's not our job to determine whether this person should live or die. We are directed by law. Unless there is an imminent or immediate reason to use deadly force on someone, if we have an ability to have a discussion and a negotiation instead, we always try to do that.

hostage negotiator, police, FBI, negotiator
Scott Tillema is an FBI trained former hostage negotiator. He now speaks across the U.S. and trains other negotiators. William Heche

There are a lot of people out there in a lot of pain and it seems that empathy is a skill or a feeling that I believe we are losing in our society. It's so important for me as a negotiator to realize in an interaction that the person I'm talking to is experiencing pain, loss, grief or fear. I think that if all of us could have a better appreciation for realizing we are not necessarily the happy lives we put on social media, that all of us are likely struggling with a piece of our life somewhere, we would be such a kinder, gentler society.

One of the big elements of being an effective negotiator is that you need to have no preconceived notion about that person. As soon as we think that we know the situation and we have beliefs about a situation, it becomes dangerous for us, because we might be wrong.

When I teach negotiation to police officers, one of the visuals I use is a photo that I took of a sunset over a small lake near my house. The water is absolutely still, so you can see the reflection off the lake perfectly. I take that photo and I turn it upside down. I give them a glance, tell them to look for a couple of seconds and then I take it away. I have them describe the photo, and everyone describes the sunset, still water and a reflection. Then we go back and I tell them that the image I showed them was obviously wrong.

Every time I do that exercise, almost the entire room doesn't see that the image they have initially seen is obviously incorrect. What I'm trying to teach is that if we don't come in with a completely open mind to say: "I think I know what's going on, I'm starting to develop my strategy, but I might be wrong and I might need more information". The really great negotiators can suspend judgement and be very curious and have an open mind and compassion for the people we deal with.

But it is dangerous work and my wife certainly worried about me and my safety, just as she does every day I have worked as a police officer. In my younger years I have been in situations that were not entirely safe, but in the negotiation context where I'm working with a SWAT team, I'm going to be physically safe. I'm probably going to be a bit removed from the situation and I think that creating safety for that negotiator really allows for them to do their best work. All the people that do this really do it in a selfless way, they are putting other people's safety before their own. Now that I'm a little bit older with three kids at home, that's where my priority is. I'm not an active negotiator at this current moment, my focus now is on teaching the next generation of negotiators.

I'm proud and excited about teaching negotiators and passing on my knowledge and experience to the next generation. One of the big pieces of being a negotiator is that it's not about just me. Rarely do we have a situation where we have one negotiator saying: "I did that". Because you don't do anything without the team. Every time that we reach a safe resolution as a team I'm excited.

I now train around the country and very recently there was a hostage negotiation with some colleagues of mine in Texas that went on for a very long time. I had previously presented to some of the negotiators from that particular team and I was so excited when they reached a peaceful resolution.

It's satisfying to think I may have contributed in some small way to their journey to negotiation excellence.

I have felt for a while that it is my mission and purpose in life to train police officers in the field of negotiation; it's truly where my passion lies.

Scott Tillema is an active duty law enforcement officer and nationally recognized leader in the field of crisis and hostage negotiations. Scott has developed a model for crisis negotiation, which he now also uses for training in sales, communication, influence, and leadership. Find out more at ScottTillema.com.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.

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