Insight and Great Stories from Hostage Negotiator Sue Williams – ProcureCon Indirect Highlights

If you saw Sue Williams in the street, you couldn't possibly know what an important role she plays in society. She appears to be a nice but very normal English lady, with a faint London accent. However, as we found out during her keynote at ProcureCon Indirect last week, her work and experiences are totally out of the ordinary!

She is a professional hostage negotiator, having worked for the UK Metropolitan Police for many years, ultimately leading the Hostage Crisis Unit at New Scotland Yard. She has worked around the world and now operates as an independent, working mainly for NGOs and charities who themselves operate in dangerous parts of the world. She also lectures at institutions in several countries, including the Saïd business school at Oxford.

We wondered whether there was really enough work for a full-time “kidnap consultant”, but as she explained, it isn’t just hostage situations where her skills are utilised. She is really a crisis negotiator in a more general sense, so suicide interventions, which require listening, not problem solving, have been part of her work, along with domestic barricade situations, crimes gone wrong (bank lock-ins), or persuading criminals who have been located to turn themselves in.

Cyber extortion, with negotiation online, is a growing need, but the “ultimate negotiation” is with suicide bombers. There is a different strategy there, as the aim is not to solve a problem but simply to keep them talking, and buy time. Political kidnaps are the longest events -  the longest she has seen was 5 years.

Her training spanned several countries, and different states and police services try to harmonise their approach because citizens from different countries are often kidnapped together.  But some governments will pay ransoms, some will work hard to gain release but won’t pay and “some don’t care!” Most kidnap cases used to be kept confidential – but that is now impossible with social media, which has added new dynamics to the situations.

Williams now works mainly with international charities and NGOs in the aid sector. Those kidnapped are often locally employed people, so that doesn’t get so much publicity in the western media, but these events go on all the time. In these cases, there are often issues that can be negotiated – it isn’t just money.

Negotiation is a “safe” choice in terms of responding, and buys time. The Stockholm Syndrome is real, and just as hostages start to sympathise with their captors, the kidnappers can come to “like” their prisoners more over time, hence the “no rush” approach of negotiators. But that can’t work in a “toxic negotiation”, and it is always easier to work with people you like. So she will strive to build rapport with the kidnappers.

Negotiation can also lower expectations on ransom payment, but in many situations, a ransom just can’t be paid. But even here, negotiation displays a willingness to listen which can help the situation. This was all fascinating, and Williams then moved on to describe some key principles in her work that read across well into business negotiations.

“Change what you can control, influence what I cannot”, was one mantra that has wider appeal, and as she said, “what we can accept as professional negotiators is that it is not about right or wrong, it is not a battle” – relevant of course, as too many buyers (and sellers) probably do see negotiation as a battle!

You can’t go into situations with prejudice. Have an open mind – but understand the big picture, and don’t make moral judgement. (While we don’t perhaps come across that moral issue as often in our work, the open mind comment is spot on.)

That also comes back to listening, as well as “curiosity and discovery - aim to get beneath the issues”. Listening means being interested – this is “not about you” so develop active listening skills. Listening reassures the other party that you are interested, and costs nothing, but you’re showing that you are there for them. Use open questions - who, what, where, when, why …

(Part 2 tomorrow…)

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