He inspired John Turturro’s character in the film Pelham 123, Hostages on the subway. For over thirty years he served in the New York City Police Department, NYPD, and for fourteen years he was commander of the Elite Hostage Negotiation Team, the unit dedicated to SWAT operations, hostage negotiation, and anti-terrorism actions. Jack Cambria, born in Brooklyn to a family of Sicilian origin, award-winning for his achievements, has led missions in extreme situations, such as the collapse of the Twin Towers. He has trained the U.S. Joint Task Force at Guantanamo Naval Base on hostage negotiation and is called upon as a training supervisor by federal and government law enforcement agencies. In his activity as speaker and trainer, he also works in Italy, collaborating with the International School of Negotiation and is author of the book ‘Parliamone’ (‘Let’s talk about it’).
With him, through his experience, we try to understand how and how much, in a world that now struggles to dialogue, it is important to ‘negotiate’.
Let’s align ourselves on the meaning of the words: what does it mean to negotiate?
It means to come to a mutual understanding, to resolve a conflict. In my world, hostage negotiation means getting to a good resolution by going from what the hostage takers want to what we want. The principles of hostage negotiation and corporate and business negotiation are similar: gaining rapport, establishing trust and then closing the deal. Closing the deal on a business side, might be signing a contract, while for the police might be convincing a criminal to turn himself in.
Why did you choose this path?
Prior to me entering the Negotiation Team, which I led for the last 14 years of my career, I was on the other side for 16 years, in SWAT Tactical Teams. In law enforcement, the theory goes that you don’t have to use the stick just because you have it, so when SWAT was called out to hostage locations, I would always try to negotiate out the door so my officers wouldn’t have to come in, we could have gotten hurt.
I had a fair amount of success and when my predecessor in charge of the Negotiation Team, who had seen me at work, retired he asked if he could put my name forward for that position.
I had to think about it because I loved my job in SWAT, that was also a rescue unit, the Emergency Service. Then I agreed and that’s the story. The short version…
Let’s talk about it
The title of your book tells the secret of the good negotiator.
In any kind of negotiation, the 80/20 rule works: the negotiator should listen 80 percent and talk only 20 percent. Before you know how to solve the problem, you have to first identify it, but if you spend your time talking, you won’t be able to. Instead, by letting the other side speak, we can identify the issue and develop a strategy to follow, in order to get to at a good outcome for both parties. In the case of hostages, leaving is also beneficial to the hostage taker: we don’t know what might happen, to either party, when the police walk through the door.
This leads to an understanding of where you are, to better choose a direction.
When I get to a crime scene, it’s often like walking into a movie theater in the middle of a movie. You’re with your family, you’re late, there’s traffic, you eventually find parking, you walk into the theater and the movie has already been going for fifteen minutes, it’s in the middle of the drama and you don’t understand, so you have to try to piece together how you got to that point in the story. In the police, there are people who investigate, the detectives, they try to figure out: they interview, for example, the family members of the person who is at the center of the scene to understand the context, to know how we get there and how we can proceed.
A little bit different from what happens in corporate or business negotiation, where you know in advance what all the issues are, who the other negotiators are, the location, and you might even have some good food on hand.
Given the uniqueness of each situation, is there a common methodology for negotiation?
The answer is ‘yes and no’. Let me explain, we start from a methodology, the basic principles I mentioned before, simplifying: relationship, trust, closing the deal.
We start by building a rapport, getting to know the person and allowing them to get to know us. We start with active listening, we try to talk and the other party tries to trust us. The problem in my world is that the people we talk to don’t trust the police, they are afraid of them, so I have to overcome that cause I can’t just walk away.
I try to establish a verbal contract, my part is ‘I promise you that I will tell the truth about what you ask me’, because the truth is the truth, the other person has to accept what I say, even if they don’t like it. And I must say that no one has ever asked me to lie. At that point, the process of coming to an agreement begins.
You talk about some key elements, including authenticity and empathy.
In this case, I interpret ‘authenticity’ as ‘credibility’: the negotiator must be credible. In my courses within ISN, I usually talk about the three ‘E’s: starting with ethics, which plays a role in credibility.
Are you being frank with your counterpart? Are you trying to make sure he or she feels that and are you moving toward a common outcome?
The second one is about ego: we all have egos, it’s about lowering them, if you want to put yourself at the same level of a person you can’t dominate a conversation.
Then there is the last one, empathy. So, it’s about sustaining your credibility and at the same time understanding your emotions.
To give you an example, I was once confronted by a man who wanted to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, he was 63 years old, no job, money, family or friends. Listening to him I said “I know exactly how you feel” and you know what he replied? “You don’t know exactly, otherwise you would be sitting next to me wanting to jump.”
That wasn’t my purpose, but what he heard from me was arrogance. It was a powerful lesson, I apologized to him and we were eventually able to save him and get him to the hospital. Since then, I’ve been saying “I can only imagine how you can feel,” because that’s all I can do. So, for me, authenticity is the credibility you have to show before you can hope to have a person’s trust.
What is the role of emotions in negotiation?
I teach that, for any negotiator, active listening and empathy are a unique package. How is the other party expressing themselves – are they very emotional? Does she have tears in her eyes when she addresses an issue? Is she talking very fast? -. Active listening and attention to emotions are inseparable to get the full sense of what’s going on, decide on a strategy, and follow through. And I would add another important element: the negotiator’s tone of voice.
Hard to do if you don’t know how to recognize emotions….
Let’s go back to 2001, when I took over the leadership of the Hostage Negotiation Team I realized that there were a lot of applications and a lot of applicants only had 3 or 4 years of police experience.
From my perspective, you need more seniority to be seriously considered for the negotiator position, so I changed the selection criteria and, for a couple of reasons, included the 12-year minimum NYPD experience one.
If you felt it, you can help
The first reason is that with 12 years of police experience in a city like New York City, where 8.5 million people live and 4 more come in every day, candidates would have had a solid foundation in the job and developed an intuitive sense of people’s behavior in a crisis situation. They wouldn’t do something that didn’t work and then think ‘maybe I don’t have to say that anymore’, but they would implement behaviors that had already worked for them.
The second reason?
Also, the 12-year criterion placed candidates in an age category around 35 years old and that would likely have meant having experienced love-related emotions like suffering, or success, and perhaps more importantly, what it means to fail. I think failing is a pathway to success, the bigger the failure, the bigger the lesson you learn.
Do you have a concrete tip for dealing with emotions?
This is hard for me to answer because emotions are always powerful and often difficult to manage. There is a scale that explains how when they are high, rationality is low and when we make a decision in the grip of emotions, often, it is bad. What the negotiator is trying to do is balance emotionality and rationality. I can tell you that emotions, like anger for example, have a duration and they disappear within 90 seconds, the reason they stay with us is the mind, we keep holding that message in our head.
Once, in a class of negotiation in Israel, a woman – about 75 years old – raised her hand and told me ‘you say emotions have a duration, but for some people they don’t’. She was obviously talking about something she had experienced. I replied that I understood… for some people, it can hurt for a long time.
When will a negotiation definitely fail?
In hostage negotiation, and probably in corporate and sales negotiation as well, we don’t assume an end result: it may look like the negotiation is not going well, but you are still negotiating. Hostages may be at gunpoint, and the way I think about it, it’s always better that the hostage takers are there talking to me than shooting someone. It may seem like things are not progressing well, but as long as I get them talking they are not hurting anybody.
Are there winners and losers in a negotiation?
I like to look at negotiation as a win-win proposition, although some might say that this is how you compromise and neither side gets what they want. But no one, at least the loser, would want a win-loose negotiation. So I think win-win is best: nobody gets exactly what they want, but everybody gets something.
And you have to know your bottom line: you want something but you are willing to accept something less. That’s why sometimes no deal is better than a bad deal; I can’t do that in my police work, but in business you may have to leave the negotiation or have to revisit it in some time.
Give time to the process
Is there a negotiation that failed you, that you realized the error of?
On the negotiation team we averaged 45 assignments per month, compared to 8 per year in the rest of the US. In New York City there were often domestic cases, or bank robberies that the police discovered before it got out. A second category included people who barricaded themselves in their homes, criminals who didn’t want to turn themselves in to the police, or people who were emotionally or mentally disturbed.
In the third category were people who attempted suicide, perhaps from a bridge or building. If we could get there in time, we would have an excellent chance to get them reconsider their thinking. But don’t think of it as an immediate relationship; they were angry at us because we were interrupting their plans. As I said, though, the longer we go without violence, the better chance we have of achieving it.
We have experienced some failures, mostly in this very area. Despite our best efforts, that life process or situation was so adverse that they decided they didn’t want to live.
Most suicidal people consider only two options, it’s called ‘constrictive thinking’: live with the emotional trauma and pain, or die and get rid of it.
How do you intervene in these cases?
The negotiator gets to interrupt that process by reminding them that, out there, there are other important things to consider. A 45-year-old woman had just found out that her husband was thinking of leaving her for a younger girl, in an intense state of confusion she had driven to the Golden Bridge and seemed ready to jump. This woman had two children, one 14 and one 12 years old. I reminded her of her daughter, who would soon be entering puberty and would need her mother, and her son who would be burned for life and think that her actions were responsible for this.
Eventually, she started looking me in the eye, thinking about them and not just her pain, we got her back. It is a process in which people must be given time to go through their emotions.
When faced with a long time, how do you respond to the sense of inadequacy or helplessness?
The first 15-45 minutes are usually the most dangerous, because emotions are at their highest and rationality at its lowest. It’s like having a teapot that is boiling on the stove and whistling, what would happen if we put a cork on it to smother the steam? It would eventually explode. Same with people. Allowing them to talk and listen gives you a chance to alleviate some of those emotions, make them fade, and hopefully, you can bring them step by step to positive resolution.
Organizations are also inhabited by conflict. How do you get people to say yes without imposing themselves on the relationship?
When you need someone to do something, in any area, I think the best negotiation is to put them in a position where they think it’s their idea. In business negotiation, both sides have the luxury of researching the details and facts long before they sit down at the negotiating table at which point it’s a back and forth. And if you come up with a question that you don’t have the answer to you can say we’ll revisit and also avail an expert on that topic.
Words that matter
Should willingness to negotiate always be a priority at all levels, individual, collective, global?
That goes into that three ‘E’s: wanting to cooperate and negotiate. Of course, when the other side is fixated on their bottom line they may not want to compromise and you may not be able to negotiate anymore, or you may have to take something off the table, but I think you should always want to negotiate.
Do you believe in the possibility of a world of generative conflict?
We all see how the world is, it’s horrible. It depends on who is in power at any given time and that affects decisions and consequences. If you ask me if I believe in a world where we can live without conflict, I would like to say yes but, unfortunately, I don’t.
How important is it to do negotiation skills training, like you do with ISN for example?
I think using words before tactical force becomes necessary is so important and negotiators who come to the International School of Negotiation want to learn that. Among other things, I also teach communication in crisis escalations, a course designed especially for police officers who are on the street: it’s very difficult because they are chiefs, supervisors sent to do the training. Negotiators, on the other hand, want to be there, want to learn more. I have been working with ISN for years because the people who gravitate around this sector want to be there and I can feel their energy.
One last question. Is there a difference between men’s and women’s attitude to negotiation?
Men go more toward the bottom line, while women – as I’ve noticed and research also says – negotiate more from a position of proximity to emotions: matters of the heart, they want to hear what it’s all about. In an ideal role, the negotiator should melt the two approaches, because there’s learning to be done on both sides.