Communication secrets of a hostage negotiator

There is no difference between manipulation and influence – apart from the spelling. This is just one of the fascinating things I heard tonight at an event featuring a former hostage negotiator trainer at Scotland Yard.

Where do you get your inspiration, training and support to develop yourself professionally?

I know from feedback that readers find my free stuff page useful and I’m approached frequently by IC pros looking for ideas and recommended courses.

Tonight I decided to do something a bit different to further my own development, and fuel my curiosity.

I spent a couple of hours listening to Richard Mullender, a former Lead Trainer at the National Crisis & Hostage Negotiation Unit at Scotland Yard, give a talk on communication skills.

The art of negotiating and influencing is a key skill for internal communication professionals, who use everything at their disposal to do it.

Thanks must go to Padraic Knox @padraic_knox who spotted the event online and tweeted it to me as he thought I’d be interested. How right you were! Padraic works at Vodafone Ireland and wrote a guest post for my blog a few weeks ago.Richard

I joined a room of 25 people of all ages, nationalities and professions at The Hub in Kings Cross, London, to hear Richard speak.

The Hub is a space that champions ‘Social innovation through collaboration‘ and I’ve discovered a whole new series of events through The Art of Connection. They were a friendly bunch too.

Having negotiated with the Taliban, talked gunmen out of houses and more, Richard has experienced listening and communication skills at the sharp end.

He’s not only worked with the British police, but also the United Nations, the Indian Secret Service, the Maltese Secret Service, the Scorpions in South Africa.

Since leaving the force he’s worked with a wide range of companies and organisations in the not-for-profit sector.

IMG_0098-copyTonight’s focus was on listening skills and I found myself mesmerised, shaking my head in disbelief/amazement and fascinated by what I was hearing and the techniques we tried.

I’m not going to capture everything that was discussed as I couldn’t possibly provide the whole context to do it justice. You literally had to be in the room.

However, what I am going to share with you are some thoughts that struck me:

  • There is no difference between manipulation and influence – apart from the spelling
  • You are different versions of yourself based on who you’re talking with. E.g. differences in your language/behaviour when in conversation with your partner, would be different to conversations with your kids, parents, boss etc
  • The Ancient Greeks and Shakespeare offer wise words when it comes to communication. E.g. “And frame my face for all occasions” in Richard III
  • Listen to a person and sell their ideas back to them based on their beliefs
  • The meaning of any message is the response it gets – what matters is how it’s interpreted
  • Questions give things away and change the agenda for both parties
  • Practice the art of active listening
  • Choose your words wisely
  • Trust is everything
  • When sat at a table, a non-confrontational position to have a conversation is the 10 – to- 2 position (think clock face)

I discovered tonight that Richard has a book out Dispelling the Myths and Rediscovering the Lost Art of Listening. I’m going to share an extract as I think it captures the essence of what tonight was about:

When hostage negotiators are working, when they’re talking someone into releasing a hostage or when they’re convincing someone not to commit suicide, they use exceptionally well-developed communication skills. 

Most of us have fairly good communication skills. We get by. It’s like most of us are good drivers – we safely drive from home to the office each day. But we’re not Formula 1 drivers. Hostage negotiators are the Formula 1 drivers of communication.

For communication to be truly effective, it’s important to listen to the other party, or parties.

By listening to them, you discover what is important to them, what drives them and what they care about. Do this and you can build trust. Without trust, there can be no effective communication, and certainly no influence.

There were a number of books mentioned tonight and by people I was sat with, including:

Emotions Revealed: Recognising Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life by Paul Eckman and The Wisdom of Psychopaths by Kevin Dutton.

Thank you to the organisers for an insightful evening and to Richard for a fascinating talk. There are other upcoming courses and talks via The Art of Connection in future.

What are you attending? Heard of a course or event you think other IC pros would be interested in reading about?

If so, do comment below or Tweet me @AllthingsIC and I’ll add it to my comms calendar.

If you’d like to write a guest article, do check out my guidelines and get in touch.

Thanks as ever for stopping by,


Post author: Rachel Miller

First published on the All Things IC blog 17 July 2013.

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  1. Jon Weedon says:

    Yep, I’d have loved that one! As an ex-rozzer, I’ve often said that the communication skills you learn over many years of front-line policing are the perfect grounding for a career in communications (and sales for that matter). The importance of listening carefully as well as picking up on the visual cues and then adjusting your pitch accordingly cannot be overstated if you wish to get your way without having to resort to extreme violence 😉

  2. Thanks for your comment Jon. It looks like Richard is speaking again in other places – he’s definitely worth a listen. Very true! I can see the similarities, Rachel

  3. Jeff says:

    Nice article. One thing I see differently is I often say there is a difference between manipulation and influence (or charisma as I use it).
    Both involved attempting to get someone to do something you want them to do. However with charisma, the person feels ok/good about it afterwards while (and very importantly), manipulation leaves the person not happy or satisfied with the result but rather viewing the situation negatively.

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