How Hostage Negotiation Works

By: Ed Grabianowski


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.