Life or death listening - the secrets of a hostage negotiator

Posted on May 29, 2014

My friend and fellow 2014 Clore Social Fellow Eugenie Teasley yesterday organised some listening training based on the experiences of, and delivered by, hostage negotiator Richard ‘Dick’ Mullender.

I knew I’d be arriving late, coming from Cornwall, I also knew this guy was big in CID and worked with the FBI, UN etc. My mind wandered as I went from train to tube at Paddington.  Can you get arrested for being late? Are they watching me?

I arrived, Dick was gracious, the imagination settled, I wasn’t arrested.

This guy pulls no punches, he’ll give you his views, they will probably be at odds with some of yours. Let’s face it though, Dick deals with people about to jump off bridges or get blown up on a regular basis. So for all the great social, business and relational psychology – this dude draws from 30 years of life or death listening. So, I’m listening.

Dick says you got 20 seconds to get your first impression right, you will be judged and you will need to make judgements, then you got 20 minutes to build trust. Not rapport – trust. Then you have the second 20 minutes, and this is the game changer time, whether it is hostage situation or business situation. Dick sees it as pretty much the same (as an aside, Dick won’t like me saying the words ‘pretty much’, to him it is either will or will not, is or is not).

So here’s the thing with listening: you have to have integrity and be truthful (but be nice), you have to be likeable (it’s a real important characteristic), and you have to be capable.

To get trust you have to listen for values. There are some golden questions you can use, but generally avoid questions. Prompts like ‘and’, ‘go-on’, ‘tell me more’ etc are powerful alternatives.

And get used to a physical listening position, which means sitting or leaning forward. Use mirroring, match your energy with theirs but not emotion, so don’t match anger with anger. And use echoing; often the last word they say is really important. However, as a Dad I would say use this sparingly – I tried it on my kids and their response was to ask ‘Dad? Why are you repeating every word I say? It’s a bit weird’.

And finally, summarise, a lot. You hold more power as a listener and it’s good for introductions. I like summaries, they help me to comprehend and digest – a good summary is like asking a great stupid question, everyone is glad you did it.

I’m glad I met Dick yesterday – a great communicator, an energetic pace, some great stories, a few serious challenges to my own thinking and some top new skills to practice.

In conclusion, say less and listen more – it is amazing what people give away. And people love listeners.

Take a look at Gareth's live capture sketch of the training day below.

Image drawn by Gareth Dix capturing the training day

Have your say!

(Max approx. 500 words)

Your name:

Please provide your email address for verification:

NB: Your email address will never be displayed, but your comments will not show until you have verified it by clicking the link within the email that will be sent to the address provided here after you click the 'Post comment' button below.

Gareth Dix

Gareth Dix

Health and well-being pioneer

View all blogs by Gareth Dix

Read full profile

Contact us
0207 812 3770
5th Floor, Kings Place, 90 York Way
London, N19AG

Charity: 1136727
Reg: 7222275
Our site uses cookies. If you continue, we'll assume you are happy for your web browser to receive all cookies from our site. Cookie Policy.

Twitter LinkedIn Youtube