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What Do Successful Business Leaders And Hostage Negotiators Have In Common?

What Do Successful Business Leaders And Hostage Negotiators Have In Common?

High Emotional Intelligence.

A couple of years ago, I was one of two speakers at a leadership summit for real estate professionals in the United States. I was speaking about Emotionally Intelligent Leadership and the other speaker was a Detective and Former FBI Hostage Negotiator. I sat in the back of the room listening intently as the Detective spoke about the process of negotiating in very high stakes situations.

The Detective shared with us the five-step Behavioural Change Stairway Model that was developed by the FBI’s hostage negotiation unit.

There are five steps for effective hostage negotiation:

  1. Active Listening: Demonstrate that you’re listening.

  2. Empathy: Where are they coming from and how do they feel?

  3. Rapport: Empathy is what you feel. Rapport is when they feel it back. Trust begins.

  4. Influence: Discuss problem-solving and action steps with them.

  5. Behavioural Change: They act.

As the Detective explained this five-step process for hostage negotiators, I silently compared it to the competencies and behaviours of emotionally intelligent leaders. I was struck by how remarkably similar our messages were.

Trust and Rapport

Hostage Negotiators: The most important thing a negotiator must do to be successful with a hostage-taker is build trust and rapport. That seems logical when we are discussing it on paper, but in a real high-emotion hostage situation, there might be strong urges to flex muscle or coerce an outcome – often leading to disastrous consequences. The negotiator understands that gaining the individual’s trust is critical and is carefully built by active listening and empathetically allowing the individual feel heard and understood.

Emotionally Intelligent Leaders: The most important skill that an emotionally intelligent leader must demonstrate to be successful is to build trust and rapport. A leader high in emotional intelligence is able to create a trusting psychologically safe environment and be present and open to hearing what others feel, observe, and need, without judgement.


Hostage Negotiators: Sometimes there is a temptation to skip the first three steps of the Behavioural Change Stairway Model and move right into influence, especially if time is a concern. This is ineffective. You cannot force influence. Instead of pretending that emotions do not belong in negotiations, hostage negotiators have designed an approach that takes emotions fully into account and uses them to influence situations.

Emotionally Intelligent Leaders: Many business leaders also fall into the trap of thinking that the harder they push from the top down, the more influence they are likely to have. Many leaders prefer to skip the first three steps and go right into wielding power to incite action. However, fear-based compliance creates mistrust. Emotionally intelligent leaders understand that it is their job to create an environment of psychological safety. A great leader will take the time to listen and learn about their people and understand their values, what drives them, what is meaningful to them, and how they can best feel supported.


“We are inadvertently in love with the Influence of Power. We need to be in love with the Power of Influence.”

- Michael Grinder


Whether you are in a high-stakes rescue operation or leading a business or team, these five steps for effective negotiation will provide a roadmap for understanding the power of influence.

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