Building Trust in a Volatile Situation

The recent "Siege in Sydney" provided me with the chance to consider how the Trust Edge illustrates a workable approach even in the most volatile, life-threatening and unpredictable situations. Police and military forces around the world have developed specific protocols for obtaining the safe release of hostages in an increasingly dangerous world. These protocols were born out of the aftermath of the 1972 Olympic hostage crisis in Munich, which tragically ended with the deaths of 9 hostages and one police officer. Wishing to get better results when similar incidents happened in the future, teams of professional negotiators, law enforcement and military personnel have developed a better way of managing these terrible situations...similar in many ways to the Trust Edge.


The NYPD Hostage Negotiation Team (HNT) responded to over 400 incidents in 2012 alone (1) and conducts regular post-event debriefing to capture additional ideas and competencies to reflect the ever-changing world of crisis management. The NYPD HNT invites only the most experienced detectives to be trained to become a part of their elite team. This team is required to complete 11 days of rigorous training to ensure that every member is capable of utilizing the wide range of skills, equipment, and tactics used in these life or death situations. Thus, being very competent is the first step in becoming a successful hostage negotiator. The public trusts these teams to get the job done.


The motto of the NYPD HNT is "Talk to Me". It reminds the team to listen actively and talk less. This simple tenet of the protocol creates a sense of "compassion" to the hostage taker. Experts take their time to let the hostage-taker express their fears, feelings and even their demands without making judgment. This gives the negotiator the chance to use phrases such as "we" or "us" in order to be viewed as an advocate for the hostage-taker with the police forces being rallied outside the situation. The goal is to have the hostage-taker make the choice to bring the situation to a peaceful end. Without a level of compassion, this is nearly always impossible.

Connection and Clarity

A common strategy is to assign one Primary Negotiator to communicate with the hostage-taker. This allows for a stronger personal connection between the law enforcement officer and the terrorist(s) and also provides a higher degree of clarity to the communication. There is no room for miscommunication so skilled hostage negotiators are extensively trained in the process of active listening (2). Using strategic pauses, verbal cues to encourage extended conversations and reflecting feelings and information gleaned in the conversation are all ways that law enforcement personnel can increase the personal connection with a dangerous stranger while maintaining a high degree of clarity at the same time.


According to Dr. Laurence Miller, a clinical and forensic psychologist and advisor to hostage negotiation teams, committing to the goal of getting everyone out of the situation safely is central to the success of any hostage situation (3). Consistently reminding the hostage-taker you want to protect their safety as well as those of the hostages and law enforcement personnel is a powerful way to keep things calm and productive in the conversation. Successful hostage negotiators never waver from the commitment to help resolve the hostage-taker's situation safely.


While every hostage crisis has its own unique dangers and unique characteristics that demand different approaches in the end, the most successful protocols incorporate the pillars of trust as a starting point for communicating with and convincing dangerous people in life threatening situations to resolve things without bloodshed.

Our prayers go out to all of the brave men and women whose job is to keep innocent hostages, law enforcement personnel and even hostage-takers alive and safe in these crises that happen all too often in our world today.

(1) Thompson, Jeff & McGowan, Hugh (Ph.D.); "Talk to Me": What It Takes to Be an NYPD Hostage Negotiator. August 2014.
(2) Thompson, Jeff; "Active Listening: Techniques of Hostage and Crisis Negotiators. Psychology Today: Beyond Words (Online) Nov. 2013.
(3) Miller, Dr. Laurence; Hostage Negotiations: Psychological Strategies for Resolving Crises. May 2007.