Oostinga, M. S. D. (2017). Crisis negotiation. In B. Baker, R. Minhas, & L. Wilson (Eds.), What you need
to know about psychology and law: Factbook Volume II. European Association of Psychology and Law.
Miriam Oostinga, PhD Candidate
University of Twente, NL
What is crisis negotiation?
Police officers, often the first respondents on the scene, are confronted with crisis situations
such as suicidal individuals, rioters, hostage takers, religious or political fanatics and many
more. Where in the past the only solution to this problem was the use of a specialized
response team, nowadays a more peaceful solution is available known as ‘crisis negotiation’.
Crisis negotiation is the communication between a trained negotiator from the police and a
perpetrator (St-Yves & Michaud, 2012). The ultimate goal of the negotiator is to achieve
behavioral change. That is, they want the perpetrator to stop the situation without risking the
safety of victims. The victim may either be the perpetrator himself, a person taken hostage,
bystander or police officer (Beauregard & Michaud, 2015).
In the literature usually a distinction is made between expressive and instrumental
types of incidents (Hammer & Rogan, 1997; Vecchi, Van Hasselt, & Romano, 2005). In an
expressive situation, the perpetrator is in need of help and wants to draw attention to
him/herself. This type of crisis negotiation includes suicide attempts, barricaded persons, and
domestic disputes. In an instrumental situation, the perpetrator makes demands to achieve a
businesslike transaction. This type of crisis negotiation includes sieges, kidnappings, and
extortions (Giebels & Noelanders, 2004).
Goal of negotiating
To administer behavioral change of the perpetrator, the negotiator focuses on three sub goals:
(i) gaining time, (ii) gathering intelligence, and (iii) influencing the behavior of the perpetrator.
Gaining extra time enables more time to make contact with the perpetrator and build rapport,
the organization has more time to secure operations, and the expectations of the perpetrator
become more realistic. The gathering of intelligence helps to fully understand the situation
and to make more informed decisions. The influencing of behavior is a necessary prerequisite
to soften the transition from a perpetrator’s uncooperative to cooperative behavior (Giebels
& Noelanders, 2004; Vecchi, Hasselt, & Romano, 2005). To be effective in achieving these sub
goals, the negotiator needs to make sense of the overall situation.
Sensemaking is a process to understand the motivation of the other party (Weick, Sutcliffe, &
Obstfeld, 2005). Each negotiation is different, as how a conversation evolves depends on the
type of situation (expressive or instrumental) and personal characteristics of the perpetrator
(e.g., cultural origin). By listening, the negotiator can make sense of the other party’s
motivation and determine what is important and what is not. Research shows that this could
be extracted from how the perpetrator addresses certain topics (Taylor, 2002). That is, the
words used indicate whether the focus is on instrumental issues, relationships or the
individual. Once this motivation is established, a negotiator could try to talk on the same level
of motivation, as this makes their communication more in sync. For example, research from
Giebels and Taylor (2009) shows that when addressing a perpetrator from a low-context
country (individualistic, e.g., the United Kingdom), persuasive arguments appear to be
particularly effective, as these individuals prefer more direct messages. In contrast, the use of
threats may be ineffective when talking to a perpetrator from a high-context country
(collectivistic, e.g., China), as they prefer more indirect messages. A more recent study from
Giebels, Oostinga, Taylor, and Curtis (in press) shows that formal language and messages,
which emphasize laws and regulations, appear to be effective when addressing a perpetrator
from a high-uncertainty avoidant country (e.g., Germany), as these individuals are less tolerant
of unknown or uncertain situations. However, when using this approach with perpetrators
originating from a low uncertainty avoidant country (e.g., the Netherlands) this is less
A potential pitfall of focusing on how a perpetrator should be approached, is overlooking the
hostage (when present) and their psychological well-being. During the negotiation, the
hostage may, for example, develop excessive stress, feelings of sadness, or hopelessness.
Although focusing on how to get the hostages out alive by addressing the perpetrator is
important, psychological processes during the negotiation should not be underestimated, not
least because these can contribute to a Post-Traumatic Stress-Disorder (PTSD) afterwards
(Crocq & Pierson, 2012). Even more so, research (e.g. Giebels, Noelanders, & Vervaeke, 2005)
suggests that negotiators can play a critical role in estimating and promoting the psychological
wellbeing of hostages during the negotiation. For example, negotiators can let hostages know
that they really matter, focus on their own professional appearance to create trust, and by
having contact, they show the hostages that there is someone out there working on their
release. The extent to which hostages need these affirmations is, again, dependent on the
situation and the person. It is therefore important for the negotiator to include the hostages’
needs in their sensemaking of the situation.
More recent efforts in the crisis negotiation field focus on situations where something goes
wrong in sensemaking: the negotiator talks on the wrong communicative frame or makes an
error in the communication (cf., Oostinga, Giebels, & Taylor, 2017). So far, it is unknown what
the best response is after something is said in error.
Crisis negotiations are police-civilian interactions in which the focus is on making the
perpetrator stop the situation by gaining time, gathering intelligence and influencing the
behavior. Recent research focuses on how a negotiator can make sense of the motivations of
the perpetrator to be able to fine-tune the communication to their needs. When doing this,
the psychological well-being of possible hostages should not be forgotten, as addressing their
needs during the negotiation may promote their well-being on the long run.
- The ultimate goal of a crisis negotiation is to achieve behavioral change.
- Within the interaction, the negotiator focuses on gaining time, gathering intelligence
and influencing the behavior of the perpetrator.
- Making sense of the type of incident (either expressive or instrumental) and personal
characteristics of the perpetrator (e.g., culture) is key to fine-tuning crisis
- The hostages (if present) should not be overlooked and can also be reached during the
crisis negotiation itself to estimate and promote their psychological well-being.
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