How Hostage Negotiation Works

A kidnapped businessman held hostage by a man with a gun
Hostage situations need an expert negotiator so they do not escalate quickly. PeopleImages / Getty Images

A hostage situation is a law-enforcement worst-case scenario, because it places innocent civilians directly in harm's way. Armed intervention becomes very risky, since the hostages themselves can be harmed either by stray bullets or by the hostage-takers. That makes the negotiation the most important aspect of any hostage crisis. A skilled negotiator must find out what the hostage-taker wants, who he or she is and what it will take to achieve a peaceful outcome, all while ensuring the safety of the hostages and other bystanders.

Ideally, a hostage situation ends with everyone walking away (albeit with some of them in handcuffs). In this article, we'll find out what happens on the scene of a hostage negotiation, how a negotiator gets the job done and what it takes to become a professional hostage negotiator. We will also take a look at the psychology of hostage-takers and hostages.


The Hostage Situation

Still photo from the documentary "One Day in September" showing one of the hostage-takers at the 1972 Munich Olympics
Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Although hostage situations can vary greatly based on the motivations of the hostage-taker and the exact circumstances surrounding the incident, there are some basic facts that apply to all hostage situations.

  • The hostage-taker wants to obtain something. This can be as simple as money, personal safety or safe passage to another country, or it can involve complicated political goals.
  • The target of the hostage-taker is not the hostage; it is some third party (a person, a company or a government) that can provide whatever it is the hostage-taker wants.
  • The hostages are bargaining chips. They may have symbolic value (as at the 1972 Munich Olympics, in which the target was the Israeli government and the hostages were Israeli athletes), but the hostages themselves could be anyone.

Hostage situations move through several distinct phases:


  1. Initial Phase - This phase is violent and brief and lasts as long as it takes for the hostage-takers to make their assault and subdue the hostages. The end of this phase is often marked by the presentation of the hostage-takers' demands.
  2. Negotiation Phase - At this point, law-enforcement officials are on the scene, and the demands have probably been received. This phase can last hours, days or months and could also be referred to as "the standoff phase." Physically, nothing about the situation changes greatly. The hostages and the hostage-takers stay in the same place. However, a lot is happening during this phase in terms of the relationships developing between everyone involved. The negotiator's job boils down to manipulating those relationships in a way that results in a peaceful ending.
  3. Termination Phase - This is the brief, sometimes violent final phase. This phase has one of three results: The hostage-takers surrender peacefully and are arrested. Police assault the hostage-takers and kill or arrest them. The hostage-takers' demands are granted, and they escape. The fate of the hostages does not necessarily depend on what happens during the termination phase. Even if the hostage-takers give up, they may have killed hostages during the negotiations. Often, hostages are killed either accidentally by police or intentionally by their captors during an assault. There have even been cases in which the hostage-takers were granted their demands, but they killed a hostage anyway (Aston, pg. 23).

There is also a post-incident stage in which the effects of the incident play themselves out. These effects can include changes in the status of the groups responsible, shifts in the relationships between world governments or increases in security.

Now that we've seen how most hostage situations are similar, we'll take a look at the ways in which some hostage incidents differ from others.



One of the first things a negotiator does when he or she arrives on the scene of a hostage crisis is find out as much as possible about the hostage-taker. The most basic question is: Why did this person take a hostage? There are a few common reasons.

  • The hostage-taker might be emotionally or mentally disturbed. His or her specific reason for taking a hostage may be illogical. He or she may be suicidal. This is the only type of hostage situation in which the hostage is often related to the hostage-taker. This type of hostage situation is unplanned. According to Lt. Gary Schmidt of the Cheektowaga Police Department in Cheektowaga, NY, this is the type of hostage situation the average police officer faces most often. "Most of the time, it's a single person involved in a domestic dispute, barricaded in a home. The hostages are family members in the same building."
  • Some criminals use innocent bystanders as human shields to protect themselves from the police. In most cases, this happens when a criminal is caught, panics and grabs a hostage to help himself escape. In rare cases, hostages are part of a plan used by professional criminals to aid in their escape, but usually, it is unplanned.
  • The most famous hostage situations in history have been the result of carefully planned attacks by terrorists and radical political groups. The hostage-takers intend from the beginning to trade the lives of the hostages for whatever specific goals they want to achieve. These can range from changes in one or more countries' political policies, the release of political prisoners or the repeal of specific laws. Terrorist groups may also have goals that they will achieve regardless of the outcome: destabilizing the target of their attack and attracting attention to their cause.

Kidnapping is a form of hostage crisis, but it doesn't resemble a typical hostage situation in which the hostage-takers are barricaded in a known area. Kidnappers keep their hostage in a secret location, and communication is often one-way -- the kidnappers tell the authorities what to do. As a result, there isn't much negotiating.


Regardless of the hostage-taker's motivation, the basic element of negotiating remains the same. "You work to build a rapport and encourage them to bring about a peaceful conclusion. The same techniques are used whenever someone is in crisis," said Lt. Schmidt.

In the next section, we'll find out what a negotiator does at the scene of a hostage situation.


The Negotiator Arrives on the Scene

At the scene of any hostage crisis, the two most important officials are the commander, who has authority over the entire scene and all the personnel involved, and the negotiator, who communicates directly with the hostage-takers. It is vital that these two positions are not held by the same person (Antokol, pg.134). The negotiator has to keep an objective point of view and remain calm, both of which can be difficult if he or she is simultaneously making command decisions. Also, one of the negotiator's most useful tactics is to cause delays by telling hostage-takers that higher authorities must be consulted before a decision can be made or a concession offered. If the negotiator is the highest authority at the scene, this obviously won't work.

The negotiator's first priority at the beginning of a negotiation is to gather information. A lot of information will come from other officers at the scene who have scouted the area or run background checks on the hostage-takers, but the negotiator can learn a lot from the hostage-takers themselves. The negotiator must find out who the hostage-takers are, why they are holding people hostage, what their demands are and who their leader is, if there is more than one. At the same time, the negotiator is paying close attention to the hostage-taker's responses, mannerisms and general attitude in order to create a rough psychological profile. This can give the negotiator some clues as to how the hostage-taker might respond to certain situations -- a negotiator deals very differently with a depressed, suicidal captor than with a cold, rational pragmatist.


Negotiator Objectives and Tactics

The primary objectives of a negotiator are:

Prolong the situation.

The longer a hostage situation lasts, the more likely that it will end peacefully. Tactics include stalling while an official with more authority is consulted, getting deadlines pushed back, focusing the hostage-takers' attention on details such as what type of airplane they want and asking them open-ended questions rather than yes/no questions.


Ensure the safety of the hostages.

This means convincing the hostage-taker to allow medical treatment or release for sick or injured hostages, negotiating the delivery of food and water and negotiating the release of as many hostages as possible. Getting some of the hostages out of the situation not only ensures their safety, but it also simplifies the situation in the event that an armed assault becomes necessary. In addition, released hostages can provide invaluable information about the locations and habits of the captors and the other hostages.

Keep things calm.

From the initial assault through the first hours of negotiations, hostage-takers can be extremely volatile. They're usually angry about whatever perceived injustice has led them to take hostages, and they are filled with adrenaline following the excitement of their attack. Angry, excited people with machine guns are not good for hostages. The negotiator should never argue with a hostage-taker and never say no to a demand. Instead, the negotiator should use delaying tactics or make a counter-offer. Above all, the negotiator should keep a positive, upbeat attitude, reassuring the hostage-taker that everything will eventually work out peacefully.

Foster the growth of relationships between negotiator and hostage-taker and between hostage-taker and hostages.

The negotiator must seem credible to the captor. That is, the negotiator must act like he or she understands the reasons for the hostage-taker's actions but still come across as strong -- not just eager to please. The negotiator can also encourage activities that require cooperation and interaction between the captors and the hostages, such as sending food and medical supplies in bulk packages that have to be prepared. When the hostage-taker gets to know the hostages and sees them as human beings, it becomes more difficult to execute them. In a 1975 hostage standoff on a train in Holland, a hostage, Robert de Groot, who had been chosen for death, was spared after the terrorists heard him pray for his wife and children. Some of the hostage-takers wept, and two of them agreed to avoid a lethal shot when they pushed him out of the train. He rolled down an embankment unscathed, played dead and escaped a short while later (Barker, pg. 33). When the terrorists selected other hostages for execution, they didn't allow prayer and killed them quickly to avoid the emotional strain.

Next, we'll find out how negotiators balance hostage safety with political reality.


Making a Deal

At the beginning of a hostage crisis, the hostage-takers' demands are often unreasonable. They might ask for huge sums of money or for the release of thousands of fellow terrorists from jails. Of course, the negotiator can't just give them anything they ask for, even if it would mean safety for the hostages. The policies of any nations involved, the ability to actually acquire the items being demanded and the need to consult with the situation commander and high-ranking political officials all limit what a negotiator can offer to the hostage-takers. Plus, if anyone who took hostages immediately had all of his or her demands granted, the world would face one hostage crisis after another.

However, the negotiator can "chip away" at the situation by offering minor concessions, such as food and water, promises of transportation and media coverage. In return, the hostage-takers can trade some of the hostages or some of their weapons or agree to downgrade some of their demands. By continuing this process, the negotiator can gradually weaken the hostage-takers' position.


Most countries have official policies regarding negotiating with terrorists. However, these policies shift with time, and they tend to be flexible depending on the situation. If the hostages are children or important political officials, even the most hard-line non-negotiating government might make an exception. In many cases, secret deals are made that allow the government to accept demands and save the hostages but maintain their public hard-line stance against giving in to terrorists' demands.

Israel, the United States and Russia are all nations that have a reputation for strict non-negotiation policies. However, every policy is open to exceptions. One example is the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847. The Hezbollah hijackers demanded the release of more than 700 Shiites who were in Israeli prisons. After a long ordeal, all the hostages were released (except one American, who was murdered by the hijackers), and Israel released all 766 prisoners.


Not Making a Deal

Outside of the Beslan school gymnasium
Photo courtesy Congressman Tom Tancredo, State of Colorado

Although refusing to negotiate with terrorists is often a politically popular idea (no one wants to "give in" to terrorists), it can be disastrous. Even if the government has no intention of granting the demands, the process of negotiating itself is vital to achieving a peaceful resolution. Two of the most horrific hostage incidents in history ended in tragedy in large part due to Russia's outright refusal to negotiate with Muslim Chechen separatists.

In October 2002, armed terrorists took over a Russian theater, threatening to blow it up if their demands for a Russian withdrawal from the Chechen region weren't met by the deadline. The Russians waited several days before appointing an official government envoy to conduct the negotiations, and then decided to storm the theater using "knockout gas" instead of negotiating further. In the end, 129 hostages died, almost all of them due to the poisonous gas [ref]. Although poor planning and a lack of proper medical care has been blamed for the high death toll, further negotiations may have been able to reduce the number of casualties.


Unfortunately, history repeated itself in 2004, when Chechen separatists invaded the Beslan elementary school with an arsenal of guns and bombs. Again, the Russians resorted to an armed assault with tragic results. The hostage-takers blew up the gymnasium where most of the hostages were being held. More than 300 hostages were killed, more than half of them children.

In contrast, France had a reputation in the 1970s and '80s as a nation that was willing to negotiate and make deals with terrorists. The result was that France became a prime target for terrorists attacks, and terrorist groups that had agreements with the French government regularly broke those agreements.

Next, we'll examine a case study of a hostage negotiation.


Case Study: Princes Gate

In April 1980, members of the Democratic Revolutionary Movement for the Liberation of Arabistan took over an embassy at Princes Gate in London, England. The terrorists took 26 hostages in their quest to liberate the Iranian province of Arabistan.

Negotiators kept the terrorists' leader talking for three days, giving him media coverage of his demands (despite a botched reporting job by the BBC that sent him into a rage) and winning the release of two ill hostages. They earned his trust and got him to relax several deadlines. They also kept him focused on the micromanagement of small details, such as the type of bus he wanted, what kind of food to bring in and other minor matters.


Throughout the standoff, police were working to obtain intelligence about the inside of the building, a complex layout of offices. Information came from released hostages, food deliveries and cameras and microphones hung down chimneys or through walls.

Unfortunately, the terrorists executed one hostage (reportedly because he debated the merits of Islam with them), which forced British forces into action. They combined a carefully planned assault with a distraction provided by the negotiator. This was a breach of standard protocol -- usually, negotiators are not told when there is going to be an attack because it is too difficult for the negotiator to avoid giving anything away through tone of voice or choice of words. In this case, however, keeping the terrorist leader on the phone would keep him away from the windows, giving the troops some extra time to get into the building before the hostage-takers discovered the attack [ref].

The assault was a relative success. The terrorists killed one hostage when they realized they were under attack, and the remaining hostages escaped the building alive. British forces killed five terrorists during the assault, including the leader, and arrested the sixth.

For a complete account of the hostage situation at Princes Gate, see Operation Nimrod: The SAS Assault at Princes Gate.

In the next section, we'll find out how someone becomes a professional hostage negotiator.


Becoming a Hostage Negotiator

Role-playing -- in this case, acting out a hostage situation -- has become a hallmark of law-enforcement recruit selection.
Photo courtesy

The path to becoming a professional hostage negotiator can be a winding one. There are training courses and certifications, but an important aspect of dealing with a crisis is experience. Someone fresh out of college could take every negotiator training course ever offered and still not get a job as a negotiator. The bedrock of a negotiator's career is several years working as a law-enforcement officer (whether with the police department, FBI or other law-enforcement group) or in the military and dealing with crisis situations on a regular basis. "You hone your skills as an officer, because you talk to people all the time. A lot of the people you talk to, while not in an 'official crisis,' are in some kind of crisis situation," said Lt. Schmidt. "You learn a lot just from active listening and interacting with people."

Education and training is important as well, and there are plenty of courses being offered to help police officers, FBI agents, military personnel and others learn how to negotiate in a hostage situation. The Public Agency Training Council (PATC), a private company that offers training courses to law-enforcement agencies, has courses on dealing with emotionally unstable persons, specific tactics for use in negotiations and complete negotiator courses (see PATC: Hostage Courses). The International Association of Hostage Negotiators also sponsors seminars and training courses (see Training Schedule and Information).


A hostage negotiator's training is never complete. The FBI and other agencies offer recurring training seminars. The Cheektowaga Police Department's crisis negotiators have teamed up with other law-enforcement agencies in their region to form an association that meets several times each year to offer critiques, suggestions and support.

To explore one example of the training process for a hostage negotiator and find out what type of factors trainees are evaluated on, see the Hostage Negotiation Study Guide 2003 developed jointly by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

For more information on hostage negotiation and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Antokol, Norman & Nudell, Mayer. No One a Neutral: Political Hostage-Taking In the Modern World. Alpha Publications, 1990. 0-939427-78-8.
  • Aston, Clive, C. A Contemporary Crisis: Political Hostage-Taking and the Experience of Western Europe. Greenwood Press, 1982. 0-313-23289-x.
  • Center for Contemporary Conflict: The Moscow Hostage Crisis: An Analysis of Chechen Terrorist Goals.
  • Barker, Ralph. Not Here, but In Another Place. St. Martin's, 1980. 0-312-57961-6.
  • BBC News: 1972: Olympic hostages killed in gun battle.
  • BBC News: 1976: Israelis rescue Entebbe hostages.
  • BBC News: 1977: Dutch children held hostage.
  • Miller, Abraham. Terrorism and Hostage Negotiations. Westview Press, 1980. 0-89158-856-6.
  • Special De Punt Train Hijacking.