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What Hostage Negotiations Taught Me About Navigating Conflict:

Updated: Jun 2, 2022

Constructive conversations cannot take place in destructive environments.

This article was originally published in The Startup on

As a former Hostage Negotiator and Special Victims Unit Detective, I spent a great deal of my time in law enforcement navigating critical conversations with people. While no two negotiations, interviews, or interrogations were the same, my approach to finding consensus despite the contention remained fairly consistent:

At the end of the day, my job required me to either help suspects find the courage to give up or to help victims and witnesses find the courage to speak up.

I’ll make no concessions about it. Effectively communicating with people is difficult. That effective communication becomes even more difficult when we are in conflict with others, when tensions are high, reputation is in jeopardy, time is of the essence, when the wellbeing of others is at risk or when there is a high measure of consequence on the back end of failed communication.

After leaving law enforcement for ministry, I observed that many of my colleagues lacked the courage to speak up and have difficult conversations within their teams. In fact, if they were honest with themselves, most would say that they would rather ignore conflict and pray that it would simply go away rather than dealing with it head-on.

Studies have clearly shown that conflict can negatively impact morale, company culture, and productivity, costing organizations billions each year. Despite this reality, many leaders fail to step up to the conflict plate and instead allow problems to fester and tensions to grow. As the conflict dominos begin to fall between people and teams, relationships deteriorate, morale declines, productivity wanes, revenue decreases, and ultimately, the organization suffers.

If you regularly find yourself engaged in (or avoiding for that matter) contentious conversations with limited success, but you desire to improve your communication posture, the following tips may help to give you a tactical advantage over the conflict and tension.

#1 Speak to the elephants. One of the most powerful weapons I had at my disposal during interrogation was the ability to prime conversations by calling out unspoken negative thoughts before the person or people I was talking to had a chance to hide behind them. I refer to this as speaking to the elephants.

During any conversation, there are unspoken thoughts occurring in the back of your mind and in the minds of your audience. When conflict and tension are present, these thoughts can deter us from engaging in productive conversations, and when left unaddressed, they can cause people to withdraw or lash out as a measure of self-preservation.

As an example, during interrogations, I knew that suspects were often thinking, “I don’t want to go to prison.” If their identity was at stake, they might have been thinking, “I don’t want anyone to think I’m a monster. I’m not a monster.” These unspoken thoughts might be rooted in a fear of consequences or a fear of judgment, and those thoughts would undoubtedly be louder in the back of the suspect’s mind than my voice was in the room. It caused them to shut down and avoid talking to me.

Similarly, during victim-led interviews, I know that survivors were often thinking, “I don’t want to relive this.” Witnesses would likewise mull over conversations out of fear of retaliation or an unwillingness to get involved in something messy.

Knowing this, I developed a habit of starting every conversation by pointing out the unspoken negative thoughts that were stirring around in the minds of my audience. As a leader, this is where you must begin your critical conversations because the fear of consequence, judgment, and failure is just as present inside of a business conference room as it is inside of an interrogation room. Call out the obvious concerns and fears that everyone is afraid to say out loud and put it all out on the table. Relieve your team of the stress and tension of carrying that fear and get out from underneath it. Normalize their thoughts by helping them to identify and take control of their emotions so that their emotions don’t take control of them.

#2 Embrace the tension, but not the conflict. Highly effective teams should intentionally excerpt pressure upon themselves in order to improve performance (Northouse, 2019). On the surface, there is no question that conflict can be leveraged as a tool to bring about positive change and innovation within an organization. However, the organization’s culture and environment have to be healthy enough to support the conflict. In most instances, however, the environment is not that healthy.

Leaders must understand that constructive conversations cannot take place inside of destructive environments.

During critical negotiations, I never embraced conflict because it was nearly impossible to facilitate constructive conversations in unstable environments. Instead, my task was to insulate people who were in crisis from the chaos around them. This is necessary because whenever people enter into a hostile environment, either they change it or it changes them.

Consider the analogy of a thermostat and a thermometer. A person who behaves like a thermometer goes into a hot or cold environment and is immediately affected by that environment. If it’s calm, they will become calm. If it’s tense, they will become tense. On the other hand, a person who behaves like a thermostat can go into a hot or cold environment and immediately change the temperature and tone of that space. What’s more, their behavior can cause all of the other people around them to change as well.

Leaders have to function as a thermostat which means they have to be able to evaluate their environment and the people in it in order to determine if constructive conversations can occur. If the environment is unstable, they have to consider how they can improve it before they will be able to positively work toward resolving conflict between people.

#3 Separate people from problems. Sometimes people have problems. Other times, people are the problem. You should always remember that the problems you are trying to solve and the people who have those problems are separate issues to manage.

Leaders must understand that there is a difference between problem people and people with problems.

Some years ago, I interrogated a young father for nearly 3 hours before he admitted to his part in taking the life of his two-year-old son. During our conversation, we spent a great deal of time talking about video games, career aspirations, family struggles, and life in general. His admission — taking responsibility for the problem he had caused — came well after I helped him to feel like a regular person with a problem instead of forcing him to feel like a problem person.

For his part, he simply didn’t want to be labeled or treated like a child-killer. He wanted to be seen as a good father who did a bad thing. I helped him to see that, and that gave him the courage and confidence to speak up and face his consequences.

People have asked, “How could you sit across the table from murderers and child predators and not want to beat the living …” well, you get my point. The truth is, you don’t have to like the people who you are in conflict with, and they don’t have to like you. But you had better learn to be likable. Likewise, you don’t have to build a meaningful relationship with them, but you had better learn to be relational.

Even when people have willfully negated their own self-respect, they should always be extended an offer of redemption.

In business, there is a different kind of human cost to conflict. Even when we are able to effectively leverage conflict as a tool to solve complex problems, we rarely solve the people tied to those problems.

As a result of failing to bury the hatchet with people, you may form lasting negative opinions about them. Sure, you can learn to work with them, but you may be internally warring against them. Over time, you might tell yourself that they are hard to work with and you may give up on improving relationships with them. They, in turn, will be given no opportunity to redeem themselves because they will have been labeled as “problem people to avoid at all costs.” Finding a resolution after this point is extremely difficult.

One way to avoid this is to separate people from their problems and solve the person first. Challenge your preconceived notions and assumptions about them by asking questions and getting to know them. Seek new perspectives from them that challenge your perceptions about them. Discovering common ground is a good way to build rapport. That, in turn, opens the door to collaboration and consensus.

#4 Focus only on what you can control. As a negotiator, I had to assume that everyone desired to find a resolution and was willing to be reasonable during the process. There were times, however, when I had to make the tough decision to end a negotiation or interview before a resolution could be found. On these rare occasions, I discovered that some people couldn’t be separated from their problems because they were the problem.

What if the conflict and tension you are feeling is a result of working with a High-Conflict Person (HCP)? Simply put, you may not be able to do anything for them. As a leader, you can influence and inspire people, and maybe even motivate and encourage them to change, but you cannot control them and you cannot control all outcomes. In some instances, problem people may need to removed from a team altogether.

During the last negotiation of my law enforcement career, I found myself negotiating with a barricaded gunman. Throughout the standoff, he would sporadically shoot at me and other members of the SWAT team, his bullets flying through walls and striking neighboring homes, all while I was actively communicating with him. At best, my words distracted and slowed down the suspect, but they didn’t deter him.

Despite my best efforts, he refused to take a seat at the proverbial table to talk with me and was ultimately shot by one of our snipers. As soon as the shot was fired, I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. I blamed myself, thinking that if I had done something different, I might have been able to avoid that outcome.

During a debrief of the incident, I spoke with our team’s commander. “Sorry,” I remember saying. “I tried my best.” “It was out of your control,” he replied. “You gave him every opportunity. He should have listened to you.”

He was right. I couldn’t control the suspect or the outcome, but I did control what I could to the best of my ability. The best part of this story? The suspect survived. And that’s the final point that I’d like you to consider. Nobody died. But, what if I never tried to negotiate at all? What if I decided that it wasn’t worth the risk or what if I made up my mind and assumed that he wouldn’t listen? What if I hadn’t distracted him long enough for the sniper to disable him? Would he have killed an innocent or an officer? Would the outcome have been worse had I not intervened at all?

If you ever find yourself hesitating to step into tension or conflict, ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen if I try?” Follow that up with, “What’s the worst that could happen if I don’t?”

Fortunately, the chances of you navigating a life or death conversation is extremely unlikely. Still, there may be some pretty scary implications for failing to navigate a critical conversation successfully. The reality is that you’re not always going to be successful at navigating conflict and some of your conversations are going to be messy. Just remember this: Failing to do anything at all is almost always worse than trying and failing.

Many leaders struggle with conflict and avoid it at all costs, but I want to hear from you. What are your mental or situational barriers to handling conflict? Let me know!

References: Northouse, P. G. (2019). Leadership: Theory and Practice 8th Ed. Western Michigan: Sage Publication.


Ryan Dunlap is a conflict strategist and the founder of Conflictish, a conflict strategy consultancy dedicated to helping leaders navigate all of the 'ish that comes with conflict. From tarnished rapport to hellish attitudes to sluggish performance, Conflictish helps leaders get 'ish done.


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