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METTA figure

Below, I have applied the METTA acronym to the hostage and crisis negotiation setting offering an introductory look at how nonverbal communication can impact the negotiations while also offering insight to the skills used by these professionals.

Movement. Congruent body movement that is matching the words being spoken helps display genuine empathy while also contributing to developing rapport and building trust. Even when communication signals are limited such as just talking via phone, it still plays an important role. Think about the next time you are on the phone and notice how often you nod your head, use hand gestures, and use paralanguage such as "mmm" to express agreement or understanding.

Environment. The environment is one of the first factors police personnel address when responding to a crisis or hostage situation. Securing the scene is vital to prevent injury and contain the situation by establishing a secure perimeter is the first priority according to crisis and hostage negotiation researcher Lawrence Miller, Ph.D. Securing the scene, beside for safety reasons, also removes distractions during the negotiation process.

Another aspect that is part of "environment" is time. Chronemics is the study of time. In crisis/hostage negotiations, time is important and it is recommended to not rush the process. Retired FBI chief negotiator of the famed Crisis Negotiation Unit, Gary Noesner, emphasizes the importance for a negotiator to not rush things as "buying time usually leads to better decision making by everyone involved." Time is also an important measuring tool which allows negotiators to evaluate their performance by examining the ratio he or she spends listening compared to speaking. Expert crisis/hostage negotiators spend much more time listening than speaking.

Listening, among many important reasons, allows the other person to speak and share their perspective on what has led the particular situation to arise. Additionally, listening can contribute to reducing their actions stemming from their emotions and increase their acting from a cognitive perspective.

Touch. In the crisis/hostage negotiation setting, I refer to touch in regards to "leakage." The Harvard Business School's Amy Cuddy did a brilliant TED Talk showing how acting confidently can increase thoughts of being confident yet her research demonstrates the reverse can be true too. Leakage, or unintentional body movement and actions can contribute to diminishing confidence. Further, certain posture positions, fidgeting and self-touching (think playing with your ring, your hair, or touching the back of your neck) can be a sign of anxiety and stress. Being calm, a necessary trait of crisis/hostage negotiators, can diminish with these actions. A negotiator's awareness of these actions can help them prevent or stop them from doing it. Also, noticing it in others can help the negotiator address it properly through specific actions such as checking in via asking an open-ended question.

Tone. A crisis/hostage negotiator's voice tone is an important tool that can help de-escalate the situation or contribute to the chaos. Retired FBI Special Agent and crisis negotiator, Chuck Regini, states, "Good crisis negotiators must have the ability to remain calm under emotionally demanding situations." While communicating with the person, your voice tone, when used strategically, can display this calmness and can help reduce the tension of the situation. A calm voice tone can also establish trust, rapport, and display genuine empathy. These three skills have consistently been demonstrated in research studies as being used by negotiators to contribute to peaceful resolutions.

Appearance. Being properly dressed for a crisis/hostage situation includes, aside from personnel being armed with the necessary tactile equipment, having distinctive clothing identifying the negotiator(s). Crisis/hostage negotiating is a team sport, and each person has a specific role. Beyond the immediate team, there are other personnel present and the last thing you want is a negotiator being mistaken for someone else and vice versa.


Hostage and Crisis Negotiators: Nonverbal Communication Basics by Jeff Thompson




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Copyright © 2013 Jeff Thompson
Copyright ©   2013  The Negotiator Magazine
The Negotiator Magazine  October 2013