Let Him Go! Please?

How hostage negotiations work.

The Maersk Alabama, which was seized by Somali pirates

After Somali pirates hijacked a U.S. cargo ship Wednesday and took its captain hostage, the U.S. Navy called in an FBI negotiator. The Navy recaptured the ship, but the standoff continues. What, exactly, does a hostage negotiator do?

Wear down the captors. Negotiating strategies vary depending on the demands, the time of day, the hostage-taker’s sanity, and a million other factors. (For example, you might want to send in a SWAT team right away if nightfall is approaching or if the person starts randomly killing hostages.) But in general, the negotiator’s job is to run down the clock. That gives the hostage-taker time to calm down, and it gives cops time to figure out the best way to make a “tactical entry.”

First, the negotiator asks what the hostage-taker wants. If it’s something simple, like food or water, he’ll usually just provide it. If it’s more extravagant, like millions of dollars or the release of prisoners, he’ll try and steer the conversation to what he can provide—like food and water. The point is to establish goodwill. In return, the negotiator will ask for small concessions—say, releasing a hostage or two. The negotiator will also tell the hostage-taker that he can provide help—in the form of legal counsel, medical treatment, etc.—once the hostages go free.

Another strategy is to make the hostage-taker realize that his plan is unfeasible. Negotiators do this by peppering the hostage-taker with questions. If the hostage-taker wants a bus, ask what kind of bus. If he wants a plane, ask where he wants to go. If he demands a billion dollars, ask how he would spend it. More often than not, the hostage-taker can’t answer the questions because he doesn’t have a coherent plan. If the captor realizes that what he’s asking for is irrational—and if surrender seems easier—he’s more likely to cave.

The negotiator always plays the role of an intermediary rather than the guy in charge. That’s partly a time-wasting strategy: The negotiator can keep the hostage-taker in suspense whenever he “talks to the chief.” (If the negotiator is the chief, then it’s harder say, “I’ll get back to you on that one.”) Keeping the negotiator in a mediating, rather than leadership, role is also a safety precaution: The negotiator shouldn’t know all the details of an operation—like when the police plan on busting in—because if he does, he might accidentally give them away.

One thing negotiators should not do is lie. It may be tempting to make promises you can’t keep. For example, you could promise a hostage-taker you won’t arrest him if he comes out with his hands up. But if he senses you’re lying, you lose credibility as a negotiator. Another rule: Don’t trade hostages. That gets messy, and suggests one life is more valuable than another. Some police say you shouldn’t use the words no or yes. If you sound too controlling, the theory goes, you might piss off the hostage-taker. Others say you shouldn’t concede anything without getting something in return. But most negotiators play it by ear.

Although it’s more of an art than a science, researchers have created models to predict whether a negotiation will succeed. One such model measures three parameters: Context—was there violence when or before the police arrived? Containment—is the hostage-taker isolated without room to move around? And conversation—is there an ongoing meaningful dialogue? If two of the three parameters are met—i.e., no violence, containment, or meaningful dialogue—then the situation will usually end without injury. Although Hollywood negotiations often end in bloodshed, FBI statistics show that in 80 percent of crisis incidents, the victims are not injured or killed.

Bonus Explainer: How do you become a hostage negotiator? First, become a cop. Most of the 120 members of the New York Police Department’s Hostage Negotiation Team started out walking a beat. The officers who end up as negotiators tend to have good people skills and think quickly on their feet. It’s not a full-time gig—you’re just on call in case a crisis situation comes up. The FBI requires negotiators to take a two-week training course. (The agency currently has 340 negotiators.) There are also outside certification programs, which provide training as well as legal help if the negotiator gets sued.

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Explainer thanks Hugh McGowan and Dominick Misino of the International Association of Hostage Negotiators.