How Hostage Negotiation Works

By: Ed Grabianowski

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.