You can't wing it in a negotiation © 123RF
You can't wing it in a negotiation © 123RF

Four negotiation tips from a hostage negotiator

18 April 2018

Sue Williams is used to tough negotiations.

As a Scotland Yard detective, she was the most senior ranking officer in charge of the Kidnap and the Hostage Crisis Negotiation Units, and the strategic negotiation advisor in the UK government response to kidnap and the overseas detention of British subjects.

Speaking at ProcureCon Indirect in Copenhagen this week, Williams shared her thoughts on the similarities between hostage negotiation and business negotiations. Here are some of her key lessons for procurement professionals.

1. Preparation is everything

Williams said the amount of preparation that goes into a hostage negotiation is “huge”. “You really have to prepare for any negotiation,” she said. “You can't wing it and you can't go in blind. Preparation is crucial. Have a plan and strategy before you begin anything that leads to negotiation. Look at your bottom line, and look at the next best scenario. Create lots of different options and think ‘what if, what if, what if”.” She said she would spend days preparing for a relatively short phone call, and advised professionals to do the same.

2. Listening, not talking

When negotiating, strive to be “interested, not interesting”, Williams advised. “It’s not about you,” she added. It’s critical to develop your ‘active listening skills’. “This is the difference between hearing and listening,” she said. This soft skill could make all the difference. “Listening reassures the other party that you are there for them and taking them seriously,” she explained. “Listening is the most active thing you can do and the cheapest concession you can make.” Asking lots of open-ended questions shows you are listening, she added, as well as demonstrating the critical attribute of empathy.

3. Build a rapport

One goal in any negotiation should be to get the other party to like you, said Williams. “Get in first and try to be liked. Find a subject you can connect on.” Sincerity is key here. “It only works if you are sincere; if you’re not, it’s obvious. Think about your tone of voice and body language, and make sure you are in a positive mindset.” If culturally appropriate, use the first name of the other party. “We’ve been responding to those names since we were babies, so [using them] helps people to like you, and we need people to like us in order to do business with us,” Williams said. However, she warned professionals to limit and be in control of their emotions at all times during a negotiation.

4. Identify the decision maker

Williams’ personal mantra is: “Change what you can control; influence what you cannot.” In a negotiation, that means knowing what is controllable, and so identifying who the decision maker actually is. “You need to find out you’re not wasting your time and that you are getting through to the person who makes the decision,” she advised. Hostage negotiators will use a proof of life questionnaire: what’s your version of that?

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