1: The FBI had been put on notice. The U.S. deputy attorney general wanted answers on why the FBI’s hostage negotiation techniques were not working.  

“After the fatally disastrous sieges of Randy Weaver’s Ruby Ridge farm in Idaho in 1992 and David Koresh‘s Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993,” writes Chris Voss in Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It, it was clear that the FBI’s approach to negotiations was deeply flawed.

In October 1993, Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann issued a report titled “Lessons of Waco: Proposed Changes in Federal Law Enforcement,” which summed up “an expert panel’s diagnosis of federal law enforcement’s inability to handle complex hostage situations,” Chris writes.

The issues had been building for decades.  

Until the early 1970s, “hostage negotiating as a process was limited to sending in troops and trying to shoot the hostages free,” writes Chris. “In law enforcement, our approach was pretty much to talk until we figured out how to take them out with a gun.”  

The go-to? Brute force.

Then, a series of hostage disasters brought attention to the problem. “In 1971, thirty-nine hostages were killed when the police tried to resolve the Attica prison riots in upstate New York with guns,” Chris recounts. “Then at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, eleven Israeli athletes and coaches were killed by their Palestinian captors after a botched rescue attempt by the German police.”

But the incident that brought about the biggest institutional change in American law enforcement occurred on an airport tarmac in Jacksonville, Florida.

In the early 1970s, the U.S. was experiencing a wave of airline hijackings. In one three-day period in 1970, there were five hijackings in a three-day period. A year later, on October 4, 1971, “an unhinged man named George Giffe Jr. hijacked a chartered plane out of Nashville, Tennessee, planning to head to the Bahamas,” Chris writes.

George Giffe would murder two hostages—his estranged wife and the pilot—and then kill himself. 

“But this time the blame didn’t fall on the hijacker,” Chris writes. “Instead, it fell squarely on the FBI. Two hostages had managed to convince Giffe to let them go on the tarmac in Jacksonville, where they’d stopped to refuel. But the agents had gotten impatient and shot out the engine. And that had pushed Giffe to the nuclear option.” 

The pilot’s wife and Giffe’s daughter filed a wrongful death suit alleging FBI negligence.

They won.

In the watershed Downs v. United States decision of 1975, the U.S. Court of Appeals found that “there was a better suited alternative to protecting the hostages’ well-being,” finding that the FBI had turned “what had been a successful ‘waiting game,’ during which two persons safely left the plane, into a ‘shooting match’ that left three persons dead.” 

Going forward, the court ruled that a “reasonable attempt at negotiations must be made prior to a tactical intervention.”

“The Downs hijacking case came to epitomize everything not to do in a crisis situation,” Chris writes, “and inspired the development of today’s theories, training, and techniques for hostage negotiations.”

2: The next change in negotiating strategy happened in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The big leap forward came in 1979, when the Harvard Negotiation Project was founded with a mandate to improve the theory, teaching, and practice of negotiation,” Chris writes, “so that people could more effectively handle everything from peace treaties to business mergers.” 

The book Getting to Yes was published two years later by the cofounders of that project, Roger Fisher and William Ury. This book was a “groundbreaking treatise on negotiations that totally changed the way practioners thought about the field,” Chris writes.

The authors’ premise was that emotion should be removed from the negotiating process through a “more rational, joint problem-solving mindset,” Chris notes.

“Their system was easy to follow and seductive, with four basic tenets,” Chris summarizes. “One, separate the person—the emotion—from the problem; two, don’t get wrapped up in the other side’s position (what they’re asking for) but instead focus on their interests (why they’re asking for it) so that you can find what they really want; three, work cooperatively to generate win-win options; and four, establish mutually agreed-upon standards for evaluating those possible solutions.”

The work was “a brilliant, rational, and profound synthesis of the most advanced game theory and legal thinking of the day,” Chris notes. “For years after that book came out, everybody—including the FBI and the NYPD—focused on a problem-solving approach to bargaining interactions. It just seemed so modern and smart.”

3: Then came disastrous sieges at Ruby Ridge and David Koresh. Something had to change.

It was clear: Most hostage negotiations were not “rational problem-solving situations” as described in Getting to Yes. Chris writes: “I mean, have you ever tried to devise a mutually beneficial win-win solution with a guy who thinks he’s the messiah? It was becoming glaringly obvious that Getting to Yes didn’t work with kidnappers. No matter how many agents read the book with highlighters in hand, it failed to improve how we as hostage negotiators approached deal-making.”

In the wake of these incidents, Fred Lanceley and Gary Noesner, two of the most decorated FBI negotiators, held a hostage negotiation class in Oakland, California. They “asked their group of thirty-five experienced law enforcement officers a simple question: How many had dealt with a classic bargaining situation where problem solving was the best technique?”

No one raised their hand.  

Then they asked: How many of the officers “had negotiated an incident in a dynamic, intense, uncertain environment where the hostage-taker was in emotional crisis and had no clear demands?” Chris writes.

Every hand went up. 

“It was clear,” Chris notes, “if emotionally-driven incidents, not rational bargaining interactions, constituted the bulk of what most police negotiators had to deal with, then our negotiating skills had to laser-focus on the animal, emotional, and irrational.”

More tomorrow.


Reflection: How often have I dealt with a classic bargaining situation where problem-solving was the best technique?

Action: Journal my answer.  

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