Charlés, Laurie L

This qualitative study examined the interactional communication strategies used by law enforcement officers during a hostage-taking incident at a high school. The research involved analysis of the negotiation conversation between police crisis (hostage) negotiators and a hostage taker who entered his former high school to take revenge on a teacher. A condensed version of the talk was micro-analyzed with the actual negotiators from the incident, using ethnographic and Interpersonal Process Recall interviewing methods. Results illustrated that the negotiators used interactional communication strategies valued by systemic family therapists to reach a peaceful conclusion to the incident.

I am interested in life-threatening conversations. However, it is not life-threatening circumstances that I find compelling, nor is it merely conversation that I find intriguing. What captures my imagination is when both processes occur simultaneously, in a meaningful way. I am curious about the substantive conversations that take place between people in the midst of a crisis. How is it possible to elicit change, through dialogue, during a life-threatening situation?

My interest in such dialogue stems from my background as a systemic marriage and family therapist. By using the term systemic, I refer to the idea of making sense of behavior within the context in which it occurs. I believe that considering the context of behavior is particularly important when intervening in life-threatening situations. Ignoring the interactional context of threatening behavior risks the likelihood of increasing it (Bobele, 1987).

As a systemically trained therapist, I strive for the flexibility to establish meaningful conversations in unlikely, intense, unpredictable circumstances. I am trained to manage the intense dialogue that occurs between family members in a session. Similarly, I am flexible at developing productive therapeutic relationships, oftentimes with people who do not want to talk to me. Yet, my work always takes place in the context of a therapy session. In this study, I took my interest outside of the field and beyond the therapy room.

In this article, I will illustrate how a team of seven crisis negotiators, law enforcement officers specially trained in crisis intervention, established a dialogue with a hostage taker at a high school in the United States. The analysis of the negotiation of the Jefferson incident revealed negotiators’ use of interactional communication strategies that bear a striking resemblance to systemic notions of therapeutic interaction. These strategies include (a) effectively utilizing team process, (b) joining, (c) making sense of behavior in context, (d) utilizing information from the larger system, (e) achieving conversational flexibility, (f) attending to process, (g) taking a “go slow” approach, and (h) using the language of the hostage taker. In combination, the negotiators’ efforts promoted a constructive dialogue that was pivotal to the negotiation success, resulting in the hostage taker’s voluntary surrender.


Police officers are often the first professionals who respond to and become involved in a variety of conflicts between people (Bolz, 1981; Everstine, Bodin, & Everstine, 1977) in the midst of psychological or emotional crises (Fuselier, 1988). When these crises become life-threatening, as in the case of a hostage incident, police have two options. They can end the incident with force, in an assault/rescue attempt (Fuselier, 1981a; Goldaber. 1979; Heyman, 1993), or they can try to end it peacefully, through conversation.

If police choose the latter option, they enlist crisis negotiators-law enforcement officers trained in crisis intervention. Crisis negotiation is a law enforcement endeavor to resolve a potentially violent situation through conversation. A crisis negotiation takes place between a team of crisis negotiators and someone who is barricaded from police, such as a hostage taker.

Interestingly, hostage incidents are not the primary type of critical incident with which crisis negotiators deal (McMains & Mullins, 1996, 2001). Rather, negotiators often face people in the midst of an escalated personal crisis:

The majority of critical incidents to which law enforcement responds involve subjects who are motivated primarily by emotional needs . . . [and] these incidents may involve jilted lovers, disgruntled employees, or students, mood-disordered or psychotic subjects, suicidal individuals, or individuals, who, for whatever reason, believe that they or their beliefs have been threatened or demeaned by society. (Noesner & Webster, 1997, p. 13)

Crisis negotiators use crisis intervention skills to talk to people in these situations. However, they use these skills within the constraints of a law enforcement endeavor. Negotiators practice crisis intervention skills and psychological techniques in a way that is useful to their work (McMains & Mullins, 2001); however, they do not focus on learning the theoretical framework of the psychological concepts they use.

Like family therapists, negotiators take a process-oriented approach to their work. To be effective, they attend to multiple levels of the conversational process. For example, negotiators strive to organize their conversation in a flexible way, develop rapport with someone who does not want to speak to them, and manage the larger system in ways that benefit the communication process. Similarly, negotiators concentrate on language and attend carefully to their own team process during the interaction.


The unusual nature of crisis negotiation and the complicated features of the process make it a challenging focus of research inquiry. Flexible research processes can help capture the complex nature of the communication and meet the standard of rigorous research (Hammer, 1997). In addition, incorporating practitioners into the method of study can further increase the relevance and value of the research. According to Rogan, Hammer, and Van Zandt (1997), there is a need for combined research efforts with negotiators that can “create a more complete picture of the communicative and behavioral dynamics of crisis negotiation” (p. 229).

In order to analyze the hostage negotiation I focused on in this study, I used qualitative methods and took a naturalistic approach to the inquiry (Lincoln & Cuba, 1985). This approach helped me attend to the complexity of the talk in a holistic way, and contributed to an understanding of how the conversation was constructed in situ. The methods I used, which included discourse analysis, ethnography, and Interpersonal Process Recall (IPR), helped me to make sense of the data in a comprehensive way, and synthesize my understanding and representation of the data (Morse, 1994). These methods also promoted my effort to incorporate the perspectives of the actual negotiators who were present. They were in an expert position to describe the events at the scene, discuss aspects of the language, and ascribe meanings to the conversation.

Issues of Trustworthiness

A qualitative researcher strives to achieve trustworthiness by ensuring that the study is accountable (Lincoln & Cuba, 1985). In naturalistic inquiry, the researcher ensures trustworthiness by addressing the study’s confirmability, dependability, credibility, and transferability. Respectively, these four concepts relate to the quantitative research constructs of objectivity, consistency (reliability), “truth value” (validity), and applicability (Lincoln & Cuba, 1985).

Confirmability. According to Lincoln and Guba (1985), the primary way a researcher establishes confirmability is through an audit trail. An audit trail is a way to organize and document the research-in-progress, and it is also “a residue of records stemming from the inquiry” (Lincoln & Guba, 1985. p. 319).

My audit trail includes raw data, such as field notes and interview tapes; data reduction and analysis products, such as write-ups of field notes and preliminary concepts and hunches; data reconstruction and synthesis products, such as summary reports and the initial structuring of data themes, categories, and relationships; process notes, which refer to my thoughts about the method, design, trustworthiness, or notes about the audit trail itself; and materials relating to intentions and dispositions, such as the research proposal and personal notes about my motivations and expectations, including a reflexive journal I maintained throughout the inquiry (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).

The audit trail also includes things I collected-and often consulted-throughout the research process, such as instructional material on crisis negotiation (including an FBI manual and several training videotapes) and a copy of the television movie on the Jefferson incident.

Dependability. To demonstrate the dependability, the researcher illustrates the process of “taking into account both factors of instability and factors of phenomenal or design induced change” (Lincoln & Guba, 1985, p. 299). According to Lincoln and Guba (1985), one comprehensive audit trail can determine the dependability and confirmability simultaneously.

Credibility. The credibility of a study refers to how the researcher shows that the data is representative of the multiple constructions there are about the phenomenon and that those reconstructions (made by the researcher) are “credible to the constructors of the original multiple realities” (Lincoln & Guba, 1985, p. 296).

I increased the credibility of this study through prolonged engagement with the phenomena. I accomplished this by immersing myself in the crisis negotiation literature and by participating in multiple conversations with crisis negotiation practitioners, consultants, and researchers. The familiarity I developed with the field and with the ideas circulating among professional police negotiators helped me build trust and establish credibility with the participants.

My visit to the site of the incident and my multiple interviews with the negotiators involved also helped me attend to the study’s credibility. Additionally, I included peer debriefing in the study, which allowed me to explore “aspects of the inquiry that might otherwise remain only implicit” (Lincoln & Guba, 1985. p. 308), and conducted member checking, “whereby data, analytic categories, interpretations, and conclusions are tested with members of those stake holding groups from which the data were originally collected” (Lincoln & Guba, 1985, p. 310).

I conducted member checks by going back to participants during the research process. I sent them copies of their interviews, for comments and verification, and I spoke often with them on the phone, discussing my efforts at data reconstruction and themes emerging out of the analysis.

Transferability. Transferability has to do with the way the researcher accounts for how he or she reconstructs the data. In order to ensure transferability, the researcher fully addresses both the phenomenon under study, as well as the research process designed to study it (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).

I attended to the study’s transferability through the use of “thick description” of the phenomenon (Geertz, 1973). I worked at developing a thick description of crisis negotiation by my purposeful sampling of the negotiation audiotape, incorporating an expert, conducting fieldwork at the site, interviewing the Jefferson team and utilizing the negotiation discourse in my interview method, and attending to self-of-researcher issues.


The crisis negotiation at Jefferson High School1 was audiotaped by law enforcement at the scene2 and occurred during a complete law enforcement response to the incident. I obtained an audiotape of the Jefferson hostage negotiation from the Crisis Negotiation Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, after reviewing several audiotapes of different crisis negotiation incidents.

I transcribed the entire (4 hr) Jefferson negotiation. I then transcribed five excerpts of this discourse in micro-detail using Potter and Wetherell’s (1987) discourse analysis method. I chose the excerpts with the input of the Jefferson team3 and recorded the excerpts, which totaled 30 min in length, in chronological order. This 30 min tape served as my primary unit of analysis.

After my immersion in the field of hostage negotiation, I conducted ethnographic and IPR interviews with team members that focused on these five excerpts. I conducted ethnographic interviews with participants, so that they could tell me about their experience of the Jefferson negotiation in their own words (Rubin & Rubin, 2005; Taylor & Bogdan, 1984).4 I conducted IPR interviews with participants so that they could comment on specific aspects of the conversation with the hostage taker.

IPR is a unique interview method that has been used as a training tool for counselors, as a research method for studying psychotherapy process (Elliott, 1986; Kagan & Kagan, 1990), and with couples in marital therapy (Gale, Odell, & Nagireddy, 1995). The IPR interview method provides an opportunity to reflect on a conversation by using an actual recording of that conversation. Listening to the taped conversation gives IPR participants a direct and vivid way to explore their experience of it. Participants “play back” their recording, stopping and starting the tape when they choose, to discuss what was happening for them during the original conversation. In IPR interviews, the entire IPR audio playback process is recorded as data.

To conduct interviews with participants, I spent 1 week in the Jefferson community. During my stay in the Jefferson area, I collected 37 hr of audiotaped interviews, in 14 separate meetings with the participants.

My fieldwork interviews with the Jefferson negotiators helped me learn more about the setting of the event, the intricacies of what happened at the scene, and how each of them viewed the negotiation interaction. In particular, the IPR interviews gave participants a way to walk me through their experience of the incident. The negotiators responded differently to the tape and discussed their perspectives of what was happening in their negotiation room at the time. Though the team worked together to end the incident peacefully, each of them acted in different capacities, with unique roles and responsibilities. They had different levels of negotiation experience and contrary perspectives on the process.


Although only one negotiator is primarily involved in conversation with the hostage taker, he or she may also have the assistance of a team, ranging from two to as many as five other negotiators (McMains & Mullins, 1996, 2001). Team members monitor the conversation by writing notes, giving feedback, and generating ideas for the negotiator (Wind, 1995).

The Jefferson negotiation team consisted of seven people from three different law enforcement agencies: the FBI, a county sheriffs office, and a nearby police department (see Table 1). Paul was the primary negotiator. Jane, a 911 dispatcher, was Paul’s negotiation “coach,” that is. she served as his negotiation partner and backup.5 Ellen, a negotiator trainee, accompanied Paul and Jane to the incident as an observer. Patricia and Don, detectives in the county where the incident took place, were among the first officers at the scene. Patricia and Don’s roles on the negotiation team were as intelligence officers and observers. Bob and Richard, two FBI agents from a nearby field office, were both trained, experienced crisis negotiators. They arrived at the incident 2 hr into the negotiation process.

I met with and interviewed the seven negotiators in a variety of locations- in their homes, at their offices, at restaurants, and in cafés. Don and I visited the Jefferson incident memorial, which was near his home. Paul took me to Jefferson High School, where he walked me through the incident, starting from where the hostage taker parked his car and entered the school, continuing to the places he shot each of his victims and the classroom where he held the hostages, and ending in the hallway where he surrendered. Paul showed me the room where the negotiation team had worked, where police officials had set up their command post, and where the snipers from the SWAT team had positioned themselves.

Each team member repeatedly told me how valuable it was that they worked well as a group, discussing their different views in order to facilitate the conversational process. Despite their different backgrounds and lack of experience working together, they generated multiple ideas, creating a cohesive depth of vision about the hostage take and their conversation with him. This depth of vision allowed them to develop a rich understanding of his situation and to shape a conversational approach that would be most beneficial to the process.


The shooting at Jefferson High School occurred in the early afternoon, at 2:10 p.m., and actual conversation with the hostage taker began at 4:20 p.m., lasting until 10:20 p.m. The negotiation that took place in those hours was actually a series of conversations, primarily between the negotiators and a hostage named Alan. However, several important conversations took place between the negotiator and the hostage taker, who initially identified himself as Leo. The substantive conversations in the negotiation were about the following issues: Leo had recently lost his job (because he did not have a diploma) and his girlfriend; he related these losses to flunking school; he blamed his former teacher Mr. Grant for the disappointments caused in his life. Many other conversations occurred around less personal, but not less important, issues, such as ordering pizza and soda for the students, and Leo’s repeated requests to view a television and speak to a reporter.

The last part of the negotiation involved discussion about the prison sentence the hostage taker would face for what he had done. He and Paul made a specific agreement about a sentence, a prison cell, and potential educational opportunities while in prison. The agreement was documented in the form of a letter from the team. Leo accepted the letter and surrendered, appearing not to know that he had killed four people.


Effectively Utilizing Team Process

The Jefferson team’s collaborative effort was a major contribution to the success of the negotiation conversational process. The team created a productive environment for the conversation to flourish. They isolated themselves from other events at the scene so that they could focus on their work. They kept other police officers out of the negotiation room, and they made no effort to find out what was happening outside at the scene unless it was for a specific reason.

The team’s isolation and ability to focus is compelling; they had never worked together before as a group, and many of them met for the first time at the incident. Further, their conversational effort was in marked contrast to the rest of the scene:

Don: Oh Lord, you talk to the guys that were outside the building; it was very loud, very chaotic, very fast paced, I mean buses coming and going and people and noise, and people screaming and shouting and we heard none of that. We were in a bubble. We were in a bubble even more so than the command center because we were in the negotiation room. . . . [I] have no idea what was going on outside. None. I mean, I can imagine. But I didn’t know. I didn’t see it, I didn’t hear it.

While in the negotiation room, the team-listening to the dialogue on headphones-is intently focused on what they hear. During breaks in the conversation, they process what has been said. While listening to the conversation, they are writing notes to Paul and each other, communicating with their faces, with their eyes, and on paper:

Bob: We didn’t, we didn’t talk. Every once in a while we wrote notes. Gave it to him. I think I wrote quite a few that were just real short, you know, like good. Keep this. Nothing, not telling [Paul] what to do, sometimes it’s my recollection that he would write, shall I shall I continue, on that line? And then we would write yes.

Patricia: It was quiet. Nobody was yelling. There was no yelling. People were conversing in normal tones, but you could cut the tension with a knife. It was just so so strong, just so strong. . . . Everybody was worried. We all came together in that room. . . . There was a lot of talking and then the notes. We’d write notes and just make quiet recommendations as to what to do.

Don: You’re brainstorming, brainstorming, brainstorming, brainstorming, where are we going to go, what are we going to say, don’t touch this, let’s try this, no that didn’t work let’s try that you know what does he respond to? Praise. Oh, he responded incredibly well to praise.

Jane: We’d toss ideas around each other, as one of us would hear something, even by facial expression or maybe a little note to the other one, Did you hear that? Or could you make out what that was?

The method the Jefferson team used to promote their process fits well with de Shazer’s (1985) description of how a systemic team works to process the information of a therapy session:

When a group of therapists is behind the mirror, each codes or collects the information directly. . . . Each therapist in the group sees something different and, at least metaphorically, a bonus develops which gives the group more depth or ideas. Importantly, there is no sense in which one therapist’s construction is “right,” while the others’ ideas are “wrong.” Their views are just different; these differences are useful and prompt creativity. (p. 20)

The Jefferson team also displayed great flexibility in that they could calibrate themselves quickly when something was not working well. Negotiators (unlike therapists) do not have the luxury of time so as to accommodate to clients’ changes over several weeks or months. They have to discover what works, and continue in that direction.

Richard: You just wave a flag and try a few things to see what works, keep track of what seems to be working.

Patricia: You don’t keep trying to jam it down their throat. If it doesn’t work you try something else. You know you’ve got to think really fast on your feet and I think that’s one of the things that really helped in this case, is that we had so many people on the team, thinking of things, and suggesting things, and what one person didn’t think of somebody else did.

Overall, the goal of a crisis negotiation team is to provide a supportive atmosphere (Fuselier, 1981b) to the conversational effort. Their collective effort is nicely summarized by Hare (1997): “Many of the highly charged, complex, life-and-death situations negotiators face demand a true collegial team whose multiple negotiators listen to the dialogue, analyze it, and develop strategies to contend with the suspect” (p. 158).


It is possible to establish rapport with people in a variety of ways (Sauber, L’Abate, & Weeks, 1985), in order to enhance the possibility to bring about change (Piercy & Sprenkle, 1986). Such “joining,” or rapport building, typically refers to the ways a clinician develops a relationship with a client. It can be achieved through matching clients’ language, using their personal expressions or metaphors, or discussing anything that shows “nonjudgmental interest in them and help[s] them feel comfortable” (O’Hanlon & Weiner-Davis, 1989, p. 82). While joining is particularly relevant at the beginning of therapy, it is attended to throughout the entire process.

A crisis negotiator has to learn to establish a relationship with hostage takers in spite of police training. According to McMains and Mullins (1996), officers must undergo a paradigm shift in order to become effective crisis negotiators:

The negotiators know they are talking to a person who may kill people. The negotiator is faced with role ambiguity. He is expected to uphold the law, arrest criminals, and protect the public. As a negotiator, he is expected to be able to talk with and become friendly with a criminal. He must set aside his values and beliefs and operate from a different belief structure. (p. 131)

It is important to point out that the joining that negotiators do with hostage takers is always for an exact purpose (to end the incident as soon as possible, preferably nonviolently but with violence if necessary) and that the relationship development is considered finite (negotiators are not held to any promises or statements they make to hostage takers).6 In the Jefferson crisis negotiation, joining was a means to prevent further loss of life and obtain the hostage taker’s surrender.

In the first exemplar, which is the first conversation Paul has with the hostage taker, Paul begins to explain to the hostage taker what is going on at the scene. He wants to develop rapport with him. But first, he asks the hostage taker if he can address him by name. Paul is trying to establish a connection with the hostage taker; however, he is not concerned about knowing the hostage taker’s true identity.

Paul: In this case it doesn’t matter the name. . . . If you can get this guy to give you a name, I don’t care if it’s the right name . . . it’s something to call him. . . . The big issue is to be able to talk to this person, and call him something besides air.

Paul: Okay. I I I’d . . . can I have some sort of a name to call you-so I’m not just talking to

HT: No you don’t need a name

Paul: Well I don’t care if it’s your rea-l name or not

HT: Psst ((tells the students to come up with one, someone yells out “Leo!”))

HT: My name is Leo

Paul: Okay Leo

HT: All right?

Paul: Okay

Negotiators express an interest in understanding the incident from the hostage taker’s perspective. They refrain from making value judgments about the hostage taker’s behavior (McMains & Mullins, 1996) and they do not challenge or reject the hostage taker outright (Donohue, Ramesh, & Borchgrevink, 1991). The stance negotiators take helps them generate ideas that will be acceptable to the hostage taker (McMains & Mullins, 1996). It also increases trust, strengthens the relationship, and allows the hostage taker to ventilate feelings (Donohue et al., 1991). Gaining the hostage taker’s trust is essential to the process and is one of the most significant issues facing the negotiator (Donohue et al., 1991).

Making Sense of Behavior in Context

Rather than focus on the psychological dysfunction or psychiatric diagnosis of a hostage taker, negotiators focus on the contextually relevant information specific to the incident. They are curious about what events precipitated the incident, so as to determine the factors that might contribute to its safe conclusion. In other words, in order to “lead the subject out of crisis, the negotiator must appreciate the factors that created the situation in the first place” (Noesner & Webster, 1997, p. 14).

One of the hallmarks of systemic therapy is the view that all behavior makes sense in context (Bateson, 1972). Gathering contextual information about a client’s situation can promote the clinician’s ability to appreciate the factors surrounding the client’s behavior. Such appreciation is thought to better facilitate therapeutic change. In the Jefferson negotiation, the team worked hard to appreciate the events that precipitated the hostage taker’s shooting at the high school. The contextual information they learned about his life gave them ideas and direction about what was important to him, and was vital to their communication effort.

In the next exemplar, which took place in the first few minutes of the negotiation with the hostage taker, the negotiator offers to help the hostage taker. The hostage taker unexpectedly reveals the relationship he had with the teacher he has just shot. He uses words like pass, flunked, and grade, and associates them with the fact that his “dreams” were knocked down. These words are markers for the team. Paul described his reaction to hearing this revelation:

Paul: It was almost like when he said this, the lights went on, the bells rang, it was like here is the handle. It was handed to me, just as big as could be. And I thought, let’s run. Let’s run big time. When he said that Mr. Grant messed up his life and that Mr. Grant gave him a failing grade, and that ruined all his dreams, it was a hook, a big hook, it was I mean it was something that sometimes you don’t get for several hours into the negotiations.

Paul: I’m here to try to help you

HT: Yeah,

Paul: Okay?

HT: Know Mr. Grant tried to fuckin help me too

Paul: Who’s Mr. Gant?

HT: Mr. Grant

Paul: I’m sorry Grant

HT: Yeah he tried to help me he tried to help me fuckin pass. And he fuckin flunked my ass with one fucking grade. Fucking knocked everything down all my fucking dreams.

Paul: Okay it seems like . . . it’s very apparent to me that this upsets you. And I’d like to I’d like to

HT: -Upset me? it ruined my fuckin life!

For Jane, the hostage taker has just identified a precipitating event. She is beginning to get a sense of his view on the world-the view that led to his behavior. “That was a good indicator of at least some of what may have been bothering him. You could tell by the language that the failing grade made a big effect on his life.” Similarly, Bob realizes that the revelation about the teacher is meaningful.

Bob: [Paul] started off with you know, exactly what he should have started off, to let him talk, to find out why he did it, and that’s what’s going on here. I mean all of a sudden now we know why, . . . his relationship with the teacher that he killed.

The team’s interest in hearing about the HT’s life demonstrates interest in his worldview (Vecchi, 2002), another approach common to systemic work. By appreciating the context of the hostage taker’s life circumstances, and the events that preceded the incident, the team is in a much better position to have a productive conversation with him.

Utilizing Information from the Larger System

The next exchange illustrates how negotiators use the questioning process as a way to introduce more information into the negotiation conversation. It shows how the negotiators involved other people in the hostage taker’s life in the hostage negotiation interaction. This strategy is equivalent to systemic MFTs’ acknowledgment and attention to clients’ larger systems (Imber-Black, 1988). The larger system of a client includes those present in the session, as well as those who are not attending the therapy, but whose relationship is relevant to the client in some way. A systemic therapist must be skilled at involving these other people in the therapy, depending on who they are and what their involvement is with the client.

In the next exemplar, which took place in the middle of the negotiation, Paul reassures the hostage taker that no one is there to shoot him. Then, in a nonsequitur, Paul asks the hostage taker: “Who is Nathan?” It is the first time the name is mentioned. Paul met Nathan during a break in the negotiation, when he passed through the school lobby to get a breath of fresh air outside.

Paul: [Nathan] was with the parents that night. And I don’t know if he was the bro ther in law or good friend or what, but he’s the one that said that Leo broke up with his girlfriend lost his job and was upset and blamed Grant for it.

Laurie: And what made you mention his name or mention him?

Paul: Oh, kind of lookin’ for another hook.

Paul: Yeah no-well, nobody’s out there to do that kind of stuff. Um, (pause) do you know a guy by the name of Nathaniel?

HT: Nathaniel who?

Paul: huh

HT: Nathaniel Taft.

Paul: I’m sorry, Nathan. Nathan.

HT: Yeah

Paul: Okay uh, who’s he?

HT: Oh he’s one of the the, oh you found my letter?

Paul: Huh?

HT: You found my letter?

Paul: Your letter?

The team does not know about the letter before the hostage taker mentions it, and they do not ever see it. However, they focus on it in the next bit of dialogue; they learn that Leo left it in his bedsheets at home and is, according to Don, a “halfway suicide/halfway goodbye letter.” The team makes sure that a uniformed officer goes to Leo’s house to retrieve it.

In addition to the above, Paul told Leo that his drama teacher, Ms. Munroe, had said he was a dependable person. Paul used this description to compliment Leo and plant an idea with him that he could be a dependable person in other situations. Further making use of the larger system, the Jefferson team coordinated their negotiation with the SWAT team. A specific example of this occurred when the team learned Leo could see the SWAT sniper. The team told commanders that the sniper needed to move, not only so that she would be safe, but also so that Leo would feel that they had listened to him.

Achieving Conversational Flexibility

In the next excerpt, Paul is managing the larger system that the HT has to deal with in the incident. The HT will see something that disturbs him. Paul uses the HT’s discomfort as an opportunity to establish himself as a liaison between him and the outside “chaos and confusion.” Increasing the range of his role, from negotiator to manager of the chaos and confusion, Paul also adds to his flexibility and maneuverability (Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974) as the negotiator. He becomes useful to the HT in multiple ways.

Paul: Hey Leo? Leo?

HT: What?

Paul: Listen, if you see something out there that upsets you you tell me and I’ll make sure that they’re not there to upset you. Do you understand that?

HT: I’m serious. I don’t want no fuckin snipers I don’t want no SWAT tactical units, I don’t want no helicopters (breathes in) going above, fucking landing’ em on the top and you pulling down (pause) I don’t want nunna that shit (pause) I know your guys’ tactics, I know how you fuckin work. All right?

Paul: Okay. I understand that. And we and we wanna work with you. So (pause) if you see something that makes you uncomfortable I’m the guy that you talk to and I’m the guy that helps you okay?

If the HT responds to Paul’s invitation, to come to him with any problems, there will be an implicit agreement that a helping relationship exists. The implication is that both Paul and he are in this together; they need each other for the incident to end peacefully. It is this sort of implicit understanding that can pave the way toward ending the incident cooperatively.

Bob: To have somebody like Paul say we want to work with you, he’s just saying, I’m the guy that’s going to get you out, that’s what he’s saying. I’m the guy that’s going to help you. Nobody else can help you but me. Then, he knows that this is his out. If he can, he has Paul, then he can get out.

Systemic clinicians emphasize the significance of a therapist’s conversational flexibility as “therapist maneuverability” (Watzlawick et al., 1974). Fisch, Weakland, and Segal (1982) refer to a therapist’s freedom to maneuver in multiple ways as “therapist positioning” (p. 22). If there is conversational flexibility, it is assumed that there will also likely be a greater variety of behavior and ideas available to the therapist.

Paul established a wide role for himself as the manager of the conversation; he was both a negotiator and a consultant to Leo. By positioning himself as a consultant, he increased his conversational maneuverability as a negotiator. He became more than an attentive listener; he was someone who could help manage things for Leo. This management began as an attempt to deal with the people causing chaos and confusion for the hostage taker (such as SWAT officers). However, it evolved to include others important to Leo (such as Nathan).

A particularly creative example of Paul’s maneuverability can be seen in the team’s handling of Leo’s later request for a news reporter; he wants to share a “message” with others about how he felt mistreated at Jefferson while a student. Jane noted the relevance of this request:

Jane: Talking about wanting the reporter, that was kind of when we were looking at, he wants that kind of, that self-importance. What’s he looking at here? Why does he want a reporter? What’s the message he wants to tell the world? And again that’s something, he’s trying to get a message out. What’s the message and why. so that was that was kind of a clue for us. to see what else he had to say.

The team suggests Leo use a tape recorder, rather than a reporter, as a way to share his “message.” Leo declines; however, Paul then suggested he could tell the message to reporters. Paul positioned himself as a conduit between the hostage taker and the media. By offering the tape recorder, then himself, as a messenger, Paul encouraged Leo to talk more about himself. This introduced new information into the conversation (Boscolo, Cecchin, Hoffman, & Penn, 1987), as Leo began to share with Paul his “message.”

Attending to Process and Nonverbal Communication

In the next exemplar, the negotiators demonstrate an attention to the process of the conversation with the hostage taker. In the exemplar, which occurs early in the talk, the hostage taker gives more information to negotiators about what precipitated his behavior. It appears he wants to talk about what happened. The team, listening in, notices a slight but perceptible difference in both the hostage taker’s speech content and the manner in which he is talking to Paul.

HT: You try to get a fucking job around here without a diploma. How else am I gonna get enough money to fuckin survive on let alone (breathes in) try to go to fucking coooollege. I had everything planned, I had the fucking prom, I had a date, I had everything. And he fuckin’ blew it away

Paul: Okay

Paul: It’s obvious that I can’t change that but I am here to help you today. Is there something that I could do to help you TODAY?

HT: ((Silence))

Paul: Okay Leo (pause) that’s in the past now. What’s in the future is what we can do now.

HT: They expect me to go to fuckin Cedarsville and drive there every fuckin three three nights a week I didn’t have a fuckin caaar.

Paul: Okay

HT: All right? I just fuckin got a car.

Paul: All right. So why can’t we start now Leo? (pause) I mean what’s what’s the reason we can’t start now?

HT: Hold on a second

Paul: Su-re.

After this exchange, several team members start to notice a difference in Leo’s responses to Paul.

Don: You hear [Paul] calm him down? He’s listening to Paul. There comes a point where his breathing slowed way down. Now you know the anxiety and the judgment pendulum is starting to balance. Because his breathing, and he’s breathing real heavy in the phone, it’s like okay okay and he’s hanging on every word you know he’s going uh huh and he starts to acknowledge, yeah, uh-huh, he’s listening, it’s like oh yeah this is good, this is very good.

Bob: [Paul’s] also calming him down. His tone of voice, he’s not trying to bullshit him, he’s not trying to, he’s just, very calm, which calms him down. He doesn’t make any mention about his language, he doesn’t criticize him for anything he says.

Jane, as the secondary negotiator on the team, is attending very closely to the HT’s tone as well as his words. Her comment here indicates the team’s constant attention to both the process and content of the conversation with Leo.

Jane: You want to listen to his tone cause there were times where he is upset, he is agitated, there are times he came down, in his tone, and so you want to listen to the person’s tone as well as to the words they’re saying.

Taking a “Go Slow” Approach

In systemic work, attempting to grasp someone else’s experience too quickly can result in misunderstanding and prevent further understanding from developing (Anderson & Goolishian, 1988). This ability to be patient and “go slow” to reach understanding is fundamental in systemic work (Fisch et al., 1982). It can avoid the potential of misunderstanding, and it demonstrates respectful curiosity. Crisis negotiators take a “go slow” approach in that they take time to listen to and discover the hostage taker’s story (see Noesner, 1999), thus demonstrating an appreciation that experience is complex, and requires more than superficial understanding.

Initially, Paul went much too quickly in trying to convey understanding he did not have. However, once Paul felt confident in his role as negotiator,7 he allowed himself to be much more reflective. Essentially, Paul became curious. He stopped making empty comments, such as “I understand,” and instead asked questions that allowed the HT to talk about his experience.

In the next excerpt, in the middle of the negotiation, the HT unexpectedly asks how much time he will serve for what he has done. It is a noticeable moment for Bob.

Bob: That was Paul’s clue that we could talk about it. All of a sudden we can talk about it. It gives you more hope. “I’m not gonna spend the rest of my life in prison.” I remember all of us at the same time saying he’ll talk to us about it.

Paul: Uhm, well, you know eventually we wanna end this thing. I I think that’s what I’m hearing from you uh, is that correct? We wanna end this thing peaceably you wanna get a message across to-right?

HT: Yeah

Paul: Okay, (breathes out)

HT: Yeah but it’s in the (pause, then speaks faster) I want I want some people to understand some, this shit that, and I don’t want . . . it happening to more people

Paul: Okay would you would you talk to me about that for a little bit so I understand it and and uh if nothing else maybe I could relate some of that information to the press so that they might be more willing to talk to you. Can we talk about that for a little bit?

HT: (breathes in) We can talk for about for maybe about five ten minutes.

Paul: Okay that’s great. Well, l-let’s talk for about five or ten minutes.

Using the Language of the Hostage Taker

By using the client’s words, phrases, or unique descriptions, a therapist acknowledges the client’s experience and demonstrates respect and interest. As mentioned above, this is also an effective rapport-building technique that can increase the likelihood of therapeutic change (Fisch et al., 1982).

Negotiators are typically instructed to refrain from using a hostage taker’s language, particularly when it is inflammatory. Similarly, negotiators refrain from using the words surrender or giving up (Biggs, 1987; Fuselier, 1981b; McMains & Mullins, 1996, 2001; Noesner & Dolan, 1992). However, Paul skillfully utilized and also consciously avoided specific aspects of Leo’s language. When it was inflammatory, Paul changed the HT’s language (e.g., HT: “Don’t fuck with me”; Paul: “No one’s here to screw with you”); when it was productive, Paul repeated Leo’s language, such as when using the phrase “no more disappointments.”

In the next exemplar, very late in the negotiation, the HT asks about what is happening outside the building. Paul reassures him and then elicits a subtle agreement to resolve the “problem” of the incident.

HT: All right how many, how many cops you got out there how many police cars?

Paul: Well there’s a there’s a lot of us

HT: How many?

Paul: I I haven’t counted ’em Leo. I really haven’t

HT: I don’t want I don’t want the SWAT tactical team arou-nd here at all. I’m serious, if I see anybody in black or anybody with a fuckin gun (breathes in) I’m gonna shoot two people. And I-really don’t wannu, but fuck it you know I you only get fed up with so many thi-ngs so much you can only have so many disappointments until you break. All right?

Paul: Okay

Paul: Leo. I don’t want you to have any more disappointments either. And believe me it’s not too late. If you will work with me and you will work work hard with me here we can resolve your problems okay? and we can resolve everybody else’s problems. Isn’t that what you’d like to do?

HT: Yeah.

Paul: Okay. Now.

This excerpt illustrates Paul’s elicitation of the HT’s commitment to end the incident. Paul repeats he doesn’t want the HT to have any more disappointments. When Paul states the hard work he and the HT can do to resolve the problems, he again includes the HT as a participant in the solution. Paul repeatedly uses the word we to signify those participants. The HT does not disagree with the use of we; by the end of the statement, we now includes the hostage taker. Paul’s use of we, and Leo’s acceptance of its use, illustrates a collaborative relationship between them that will result in the peaceful end of the incident.

Summary of the End of the Incident

Paul and Leo have several more brief conversations after the above exchange. Leo wants a letter from the team stating he would get all the things Paul promises: a job in prison, and the opportunity to get his GED. The negotiators understand the significance of this apparently small request. It is a way for the hostage taker to end the incident.

Bob: That’s right, yeah. Finish it so [he’s] kind of on top. You know, and he gets to walk out. You want to do it the easiest way possible for him and you’re, you’re really willing to do anything. Just to get him out. To do it himself. That’s very important.

The team delivers the letter, and Leo has the remaining hostages sign it. One student makes copies of the letter, and Leo gives each a copy prior to releasing them at 10:15 p.m. At 10:25 p.m., per Paul’s instructions, Leo puts his guns and ammunition in the corner of the classroom, takes off his shirt (to alleviate concern about hidden weapons), and walks down the stairs with his hands over his head. A SWAT team immediately intercepts him at the foot of the stairs, handcuffs him, and deposits him in a police cruiser. He is in custody by 10:30 p.m.


In my view, many of the processes that systemic clinicians find valuable appeared to be vital to the work of negotiators in this incident. The techniques the Jefferson team used were also consistent with the body of contemporary crisis negotiation literature, which privileges an interactional rather than psychopathology-based approach to communication. Although the history of the field of crisis negotiation is associated with traditional, insight-oriented therapies, rather than interactional therapies, traditional therapy models are disregarded at the moment a negotiation begins. Psychiatric labeling and diagnoses are considered unhelpful and unnecessary in negotiation with hostage takers.

At the crisis negotiation course at the FBI Academy, instructors do not emphasize insight-oriented therapy skills to train negotiators; instead, they teach an interactional, brief, problem-focused approach to negotiation, which focuses on the use of active listening skills. Crisis negotiators seem to have developed their use of interactional strategies out of necessity, in a search of practical knowledge that worked while in negotiation with hostage takers. The Jefferson incident negotiation reveals an example of this sort of talk.

Interestingly, the history of systemic family therapy illustrates a similar developmental process to the field of crisis negotiation. Both fields have a history of rejecting a psychiatric typology process as the primary way to organize their conversations with people in distress; each field privileges a focus on interactional conversational processes that are not restrained by psychological labeling. Perhaps it is not coincidental then that the conversational processes that the Jefferson negotiators used are parallel to many of the same processes identified, discussed, and practiced by systemic clinicians.

Implications of Using a Systemic Lens to View Crisis Negotiators’ Work

I believe that the conversation the negotiators had with Leo was meaningful in the sense Harlene Anderson (1997) describes, in that it helped him see his situation in a “different light” and gave him “a sense of freedom and hope.” However, the relationship parameters between crisis negotiators and hostage takers are vastly different than those claimed by therapists about their relationships with clients.

From the negotiator’s point of view, a negotiation is successful when it achieves set goals. There is no doubt that the negotiation effort at Jefferson saved lives, including the hostage taker’s. The case was a success because the incident ended peacefully. Surrender was achieved through an intense, purposeful, and well-tailored dialogue. The surrender is the sole intent of the dialogue; that is the only measure of a successful negotiation outcome. Although the dialogue that results is not intended to be therapeutic, it is an irony of crisis negotiation that its conversational shape and contours very much resemble therapeutic conversation. In particular, the brief, problem-focused approach negotiators take looks very much like a systemic therapy approach.

A major distinction between crisis negotiation and therapy conversation is that negotiators’ dialogical efforts are always contextualized by immediate, violent circumstances (and a law enforcement operation) that, according to negotiators, negate the possibility of any potentially therapeutic conversation. Yet, the negotiator may be the first person who the subject feels has heard or understood him. Ironically, the negotiator’s effort, if successful, results in the hostage taker’s arrest and incarceration. (If it is not successful, it results in the hostage taker’s death.) The paradoxical nature of crisis negotiation discourse did not go unnoticed by Ellen, who said to me, “Why didn’t anyone negotiate with Leo before this happened?”

Implications of Systemic Conversation on Negotiators

It is worth noting that in this study, Paul was profoundly affected by his interaction with Leo. Paul told me in detail about how the experience had changed him. He has changed careers (he would like to become a teacher), has tried to contact Leo in prison, and told me he was planning to write a book for school personnel (not negotiators or police) about his experience with Leo.

Paul’s experience reveals another paradoxical aspect of the process, one that is neglected in crisis negotiation literature. If negotiators are successful in their dialogical effort, it is quite possible they will have profound (albeit unsanctioned) relationship effects from the result of their effort. The successful conversation, though considered finite from a crisis negotiator’s point of view, can have genuine, legitimate, and very human consequences for the negotiator involved. A genuine attempt at meaningful conversation may very well result in a meaningful relationship. Crisis negotiators would do well to consider the practical effects of successful negotiation on individual negotiators, and explore these implications for negotiator training and retention.


In conducting this study, I hoped to discover something about how professionals in a field outside of psychotherapy are able to have meaningful conversations in circumstances where it is difficult to have any kind of substantive dialogue. I conducted the inquiry with the purpose of better understanding how this particular type of conversation is manufactured. However, the inquiry also allowed me to address another research curiosity, about how nontherapy professionals do work that requires an attention to and facility with language that systemic therapy requires, yet whose work takes place outside of the therapy office.

In the midst of a life-threatening situation, the negotiators at the Jefferson incident skillfully used conversation to bring a deadly incident to a peaceful conclusion. Their systemic approach to initiate, develop, and sustain a dialogue was successful, despite many factors that could have been detrimental to the process. The systemic approach these negotiators took to their interactions with the hostage taker, and the role they established as patient, interested, and curious listeners, literally disarmed him.

This study illustrated how a team of crisis negotiators utilized many interactional conversational processes familiar to systemic clinicians to bring a peaceful end to a hostage incident. In the midst of intense, life-threatening circumstances, negotiators practice a brief, contextual, linguistic approach that many systemic clinicians can appreciate. This work shows that clinicians trained in the systemic approach can find their work translatable to areas not traditionally thought of as related, and demonstrates that such a translation furthers understanding of systemic ideas across contexts. As Shamai (1994) noted, this is the very nature of what it means to hold a systemic perspective, applicable to the individual and the family, as well as the broader context in which we live.


1 No real names are used in this study.

2 Negotiators use a “throw phone” to contact hostage takers. The phone is a special piece of negotiation equipment (Vecchi, 2002) inside a small, specially fitted case. It is equipped with a tape recorder and multiple headsets.

3 Prior to interviewing the participants, I phoned them and asked them what excerpts of the talk were most significant to the negotiation success. I used their suggestions as well as my own to create this unit of analysis.

4 Spradley (1979) outlined several kinds of useful ethnographic questions, many of which I used during the interviews. Some of these ethnographic questions were grand tour questions (“Can you tell me about your experience as a crisis negotiator in this incident?”); typical day questions (“Can you walk me through a typical negotiation incident?”); guided questions (“Can you tell me what it was like when you arrived at the scene?”); and task-related questions (“Can you draw me a map of what the negotiation room looked like? Who sat where?”).

5 Coach is a term both Paul and Jane used; it is also used in crisis negotiation manuals and literature.

6 Negotiators are discouraged from using deception; however, it is understood (and accepted) in the profession that at times deception may be necessary.

7 Early in the negotiation, the negotiation team made a decision to take Paul off the phone and put on one of the FBI negotiators. Paul and the team felt the FBI agent could do a better job and would appeal to the HT’s interest in law enforcement. However, this turned out to be a mistake; the HT hung up on the agent and asked for “that other guy.” After this incident, the team felt more directed; Paul, especially, became very confident.


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Laurie L. Charlés

University of Massachusetts, Boston

Laurie L. Charles, PhD, MS in Family Therapy Program, University of Massachusetts, Boston.

This study took place while the author was at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Portions of it were presented at the 59th annual AAMFT Conference in Nashville. Tennessee, 2001.

I would like to acknowledge Muriel Singer, PhD. for first capturing for me the idea that crisis negotiators disarm people with words. My sincere acknowledgment also to Douglas Flemons. PhD, for his support and leadership throughout the life of this project. I remain indebted to negotiators at the FBI Academy and the Jefferson incident for their generous and valuable contributions to this research project.

Address correspondence to Laurie L. Charles, Family Therapy Program, Department of Counseling and School Psychology. 100 Morrissey Blvd., Boston, MA 02125-3383; E-mail: laurie.lopez-charles@umb.edu

Copyright Blackwell Publishing Jan 2007

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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