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Active Listening Techniques of Hostage & Crisis Negotiators

Techniques to help prevent and settle conflicts.

Active listening is arguably one of the most important set of skills a person must successfully employ while interacting with someone when there is something you are trying to achieve. This can include negotiating a contract, salary, sale or purchase of a house, or it can involve trying to resolve a dispute amongst friends or co-workers.

Research has consistently demonstrated active listening as being critical for communication and conflict resolution experts to successfully and peacefully resolve conflicts and disputes. This includes mediators and hostage and crisis negotiators. As you can imagine, their work entails a wide variety of situations ranging from noise disputes between neighbors to million dollar contract disputes and hostage incidents where lives are at risk.

Aside of containing by both verbal and nonverbal elements, it is not necessarily clear what exactly active listening is and what it consists of. This post sets out to clear the mystery and detail the individual parts that make up the “whole” of active listening while first explaining the value of active listening.

Active listening is both informative and affective based. Active listening allows you to gain valuable information from the speaker (it lets you know the “why” behind their positions or “wants”) and it develops rapport and builds trust (more on this below). Active listening entails just that, listening more than talking.

What is active listening?

Active listening, according to the MIT Sloan Communication Program, is defined as a general approach to listening that helps you gain more information, improve your understanding of other points of view, and work cooperatively with others. MIT further explains the person who is actively listening looks and sounds interested, adapts the speaker’s point of view, and clarifies the speaker’s thoughts and feelings.

According to a learning guide at the University of Adelaide, benefits of active listening include that it encourages the speaker to keep talking, indicates you are following the conversation, sets a comfortable tone, and signals to the speaker that you are attentive and interested in what they have to say. Each of these contributes to building trust with the person and developing rapport.

Retired FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner and Mike Webster describe active listening as being a “powerful tool” for hostage negotiators “to stimulate positive change in others.” The New York City Police Department’s Hostage Negotiation Team (NYPD HNT) also emphasizes the importance of a negotiator utilizing active listening skills during a crisis and hostage incident.

Mediators have described active listening as being one of the top methods to built rapport with the people they are helping that are involved in a dispute. Research has further demonstrated that rapport as well as building trust and displaying professionalism skills used by effective mediators. Building trust and developing rapport are closely linked while professionalism is as well. Professionalism is described as possessing the appropriate skills and using them based on the context of the situation.

Therefore, active listening when used properly and effectively, displays professionalism, develops rapport, and builds trust. This transcends the world of mediators and hostage negotiators. While reviewing the skills below, one can easily see how when employed in your professional and social setting, it can contribute to you being a more effective communicator.

Below are the eight techniques of active listening that are taught by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Crisis Negotiation Unit (FBI CNU) to their special agents and other law enforcement officials from around the world.

Emotion Labeling: It is important for the emotions of the person speaking to be acknowledged. Identifying the person’s emotions validates what they are feeling instead of minimizing it. During a negotiation, people can act with their emotions and not from a more cognitive perspective. By labeling and acknowledging their emotions, it helps restore the balance.

Paraphrasing: This includes repeating what the person said in a much shorter format that is in your own words while also making sure to not minimize what the person has experienced.

Reflecting/Mirroring: When the person is finished speaking, reflecting and mirroring is a much shorter option compared to paraphrasing as it includes repeating the last words the person said. If the person concluded by saying, “…and this really made me angry,” you would say, “It really made you angry.”

Some trainers even say it should be limited to strictly repeating no more than three or four of the last words spoken by a person. It might seem silly or even odd to do this but try it—you will see it helps validate with the speaker that you are listening and understanding.

Effective Pauses/Silence: Research has shown a major difference between expert hostage and crisis negotiators with non-experts is that experts listen much more than they speak. Part of listening includes utilizing silence and pausing before taking your turn to speak. Also described as dynamic inactivity, silence allows the other person to continue speaking while combining it with pausing prior to speaking helps calm a situation. Again, remember, calming the situation is critical as it helps move the person from acting out of their emotions to a mindset that is more cognitive-based.

“I” Messages: This is used to counteract statements made by the person that are not conducive towards working collaboratively. The active listener states, “I feel___ when you ___ because ___.” This provides a “timeout” or reality check to other person letting them know you are trying to work together and they, from your perspective, are not. It is important to be mindful when using this as to not do it in a way (be aware of your tone) that is aggressive and creates an argument.

Open-ended Questions: Asking open-ended questions solicits the person to speak longer and thus it can help diffuse the tension as well as provide you valuable information and insight into their perspective of the situation.

Minimal Encouragers: What seems like simple verbal actions such as “mmm,” “OK,” and “I see,” and nonverbal gestures like head nodding further establish the building of rapport with the person by you subtly inviting the person to continue speaking.

Summarize: Summarizing is an extended version of paraphrasing. It is wrapping up everything the person said including the elements important to the person as well as acknowledging the person’s emotions. Summarizing validates for the person that they have been heard and understood. This is critical to do as it can bring a sense of relief to the person and reduce their actions being dictated by their emotions.

Summarizing is also a valuable tool for a negotiator to use when he or she is unsure what to do or say next. Summarizing what the person has said has multiple benefits in this situation. First, it buys you time and as already stated slowing the process down is an important element to contribute to a peaceful resolution.

Second, summarizing can further contribute to the negotiator building rapport and developing trust. Rapport and trust then allows the negotiator to eventually move towards influencing the person to reappraise their situation and consider alternatives to a resolution and suggestions from the negotiator.


Ostensibly one might think the above skills are common sense and easy to utilize yet further discernment reveals the realization that it is not just using active listening skills but rather using them correctly. Specifically, acting with empathy is what makes active listening genuine compared to feigning each of the skills.

If you do not believe in each skill and do not care about what the other person is saying or feeling, it will show in your attempts at active listening so instead of building rapport and trust, your actions will diminish it.

Ultimately active listening helps build rapport and trust which then can allow a negotiation move to the next steps of jointly exploring options that can lead to an agreement. Active listening has helped hostage and crisis negotiators peacefully end volatile incidents, it has helped mediators assist people in what seemed to be intractable disputes, so give it a try—it can help you in your next conflict or dispute too.

Read about hostage/crisis negotiation and nonverbal communication here.

I am currently researching hostage and crisis negotiation as a Research Fellow at Columbia University Law School.

Follow me on Twitter @NonverbalPhD where I frequently tweet comments, pictures, and videos on nonverbal communication.