What It Takes to be a Hostage Negotiator

Hostage negotiation has always intrigued me.  The emotional balance and quick thinking of a negotiator to be able to get a criminal to surrender peaceful is incredible.  The book, The Art of Doing, interviewed famed FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner to see what it takes to be a hostage negotiator.  Gary Noesner is the former chief of the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit, and has personally been involved in over 300 hostage incidents and overseas kidnappings, including TWA Flight 847, Pan Am Flight 103, Branch Davidians of Waco, and the DC sniper rampage.  Over his long, successful, and illustrious career, has accrued invaluable advice for those wishing to become hostage negotiators.  According to the famed hostage negotiator, the following character and personality attributes are extremely important to a hostage negotiator.

1. The ability to manage one’s emotion

Managing one’s emotions is the most important of characteristics to possess for an aspiring hostage negotiator.  Learning all the tactics of hostage negotiations can be taught, but the ability to manage one’s emotion is extremely hard to master—especially to the point where one can be put in such a hostile situation and expect not to regress.  The most important part of emotion management is having a highly developed “observing ego.”

The observing ego is a term coined by psychologist Louis Ormont.  The observing ego is a part of the ego that can both recognize and regulate the emotion one feels.  It is an objective (but not reactive) awareness of one’s emotions.  In such high stakes and high stress situations, a powerful observing ego is needed to objectively judge a situation.  The ability to observe and realize one’s emotions, rather than react is a powerful quality to have.  A person with a highly developed observing ego will know when he or she is stressed or scared—but will not act upon or out of that emotion.

2. The ability to gather information, and make (hard) decisions, quickly

With hostage negotiations, it is important to act quickly and be decisive.  There is no time to draw out intricate decision trees and do a long cost-benefit analysis.  Rather, decisions needs to be made on the spot after gathering information in order to secure the hostages and disarm the suspect.  As such, the ability to quickly gather information to then quickly decide what to do is of utmost importance.  In addition, a hostage negotiator has to have total confidence in their decision, even if it doesn’t go according to plan—because there is no time for second-guessing.

The ability to make a decision can sometimes mean deciding that negotiations are over.  Although hostage negotiators have empathetic personalities, a good hostage negotiator has to be willing to decide when it is time to close negotiations and go in with force.

3. A trusting personality

The ability to open a dialogue with the hostage taker is based upon one’s trustworthiness, or at least observed trustworthy.  Hostage takers expect a dangerous confrontation with the police during a standoff—but the sole purpose of the negotiator is to deescalate the situation.  In order to gain trust to deescalate the situation, the hostage negotiator needs to be someone that the hostage taker can talk to.  The negotiator needs to be able to listen without judgement and be somewhat empathetic to the hostage taker.

4. The ability to negotiate under pressure

This one may be a little obvious as the job title explicitly has the word “negotiate” in it.  But one of the golden rules of hostage negotiation is to not give up something for nothing.  A hostage negotiator has to be able to at least give the hostage taker something, but at the same time, be able to get something back of equal or greater value—that would ultimately lead to the end of a standoff.  This most often entails getting a hostage back.  When a hostage taker is irate and in a state of psychological chaos, getting anything back, even the smallest gesture of goodwill, is extremely hard.

5. Properly assess risks

It may not be accurate to say that hostage takers are risk-adverse.  They do take risks—because sometimes risks are necessary in order to save lives.  But the risks they take are extremely calculated.  The ability to take risks, at the right place, and at the right time, is important to being a good hostage negotiator.

6. Know how to work together

Getting hostages to safety is a team effort and requires coordination with other teams of law enforcement.  This includes involving the SWAT team in the negotiation process.  SWAT teams are trained to take the bad guys out, and take swift action.  Hostage negotiators on the other hand are tasked with getting everyone out alive, and be deliberate in their actions.  So when these two opposing forces are involved in the same situation, heads can butt and everyone may not be on the same page.  That is why it is important to coordinate and involve everyone in the hostage negotiation process, and to make sure everyone is on the same page.


As you can probably surmise from the qualities above, emotional and interpersonal intelligence are the most important qualities to become a successful hostage negotiator.  Of course it is also important to be “smart” in the conventional sense, but knowing how to deal with your own emotions and the emotions of others is paramount to success in hostage negotiations.  So if you want to become a hostage negotiator in the future, work on mastering your emotions and the emotions of others.

About the author

Examined Existence Team