How Hostage Negotiation Works

By: Ed Grabianowski

The Hostage Situation

Still photo from the documentary "One Day in September" showing one of the hostage-takers at the 1972 Munich Olympics
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.