3 Ways Crisis Negotiation Skills Can Help Mediators Deal With Parties (Part 3)

by Therese Tiffany Ang

This blog post is the final of a three-part series focused on how crisis negotiation skills can be applied in the practice of mediation. For ease of reference and the convenience of readers, the links to Parts 1 and 2 are listed below:

In this entry, I would like to explore the influence techniques crisis negotiators use to disarm and redirect their parties in a relationship affirming way. By applying these techniques in mediation, mediators can help to transform conflict into collaboration, and options that previously seemed impossible can mutually be explored.

I end off the series by highlighting the importance of finding the “Black Swan” in any situation one faces. What are “Black Swans”? Don’t worry, this is something you will find out below.

Influence Techniques

The shift from being emotional or difficult to being collaborative must come from within the party himself. In trying to facilitate such a transition, influence techniques present a good indirect way of inducing change.

(1) Reinforcing movement towards resolution

The first influence technique is that of reinforcing any movement in the direction of a successful agreement – for example, a party’s cooperative behavior or a resolution of any ambivalence or opposition to an option. This subtly nudges parties to display more collaborative qualities.

There are a few ways in which one can reinforce movements towards resolution:

(a) Cheerleading/Comments of appreciation:

One way is to give clear comments of appreciation to parties for doing specific actions. For instance, in crisis negotiations, negotiators thank parties for lowering their weapons. Applying this to mediation, a mediator can thank a party for agreeing to explore an option suggested by the other side. As behaviour that is acknowledged tends to increase, doing so makes it more likely that the party thanked will start exhibiting more cooperative behaviour.

(b) Nominalising actions into qualities:

Nominalising the actions of a party into permanent qualities entails a strategic manipulation of language where the mediator changes the verb describing the action into an adjective describing an inherent character trait within the party himself.

For example, where an emotional party has calmed down significantly during the course of the mediation, the mediator can say, “I appreciate how thoughtful and deliberative a person you are. You are a calm person who really thinks things through.” This suggests that the rational behaviour is a characteristic of the person that can be expected throughout the mediation.

(2) Calibrated questions

Interest-based problem solving involves coaxing, not overcoming; collaboration, not defeating. Mutual agreements are more likely to be reached if parties are involved in the problem-solving process and come up with the solutions themselves.

In crisis negotiations, negotiators achieve this by using calibrated questions to involve their parties: “How can I help to make this better for us?”, or “How am I supposed to do that?”. In adapting such questions to the mediation context where the focus is on how the parties can help each other meet each other’s interests, one possible question mediators can ask could be: “What can [Party B] do to help you achieve [Party A’s interest]?”.

Through asking these questions, the mediator implicitly asks the party for help, triggering goodwill and reducing defensiveness. More importantly, this gives that party an illusion of control, prompting him to use his mental and emotional resources to think about the possible challenges and obstacles his counterparty might be facing and coming up with possible options that might overcome them. In this sense, the mediator helps to subconsciously educate the party on what the problem between he and his counterparty might be, without creating more conflict.


Finding the “Black Swan”

Before, crisis negotiators assumed that hostage-takers would not kill hostages on deadlines because they were needed alive as bargaining chips, until William Griffin became the first actor in US history to prove this wrong.1 Today, many believe that even the most idealistic actors have underlying interests that can be negotiated with, but ISIS has encouraged its terrorists to take hostages not for the sake of negotiating any demands, but for the sole purpose of killing them.2

Every negotiation and mediation is a new experience, with new realities. We must let what we know guide us, but not blind us to other possible outcomes. In every dispute, there are likely to be pieces of information that, if discovered, would change everything. Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator, refers to these pieces of information as “Black Swans”. For instance, in Griffin’s case, Griffin had no orthodox demands typical of most hostage-takers, and his note to the police included a line saying, “… after the police take my life …”.3 Because these facts were not uncovered, the negotiators failed to see this novel situation for what it was: that for the first time, they were facing a hostage-taker who did not need his hostages alive to negotiate for things like money or transport. They were facing a hostage-taker who wanted to be killed.

“Black Swans” certainly also exist in mediation. To uncover them, mediators must always challenge their assumptions, put them out on the table, and listen to the response of the party in question. For example, when a party refuses to agree to a solution that appears to be in his interests, one may assume that he is merely being irrational or difficult to please. But it may actually be that that party is simply ill-informed, constrained by promises already made, or has hidden interests (emotional, substantive or otherwise) that have not been addressed. A mediator must not let his assumptions shut him off to these possibilities. Rather, one must always strive to uncover the “Black Swans” hidden from plain sight in order to ensure effective facilitation of the problem-solving process.


Most mediations will likely never be conducted in life-threatening crisis situations. But by incorporating the skills explored in this series into one’s skillset, mediators can become better at connecting with and managing the emotions of parties in a way that positively influences them into behaving more collaboratively.

I hope that this series has provided a useful introduction for the exploration of crisis negotiation skills and that readers might take the time to practice the skills learnt. Have fun, and good luck!

Therese is a graduate student from the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Law. During her time as an undergraduate, she studied both Mediation and Negotiation as elective modules and trained youth in peer mediation at the Peacemakers Conference.

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Peacemakers offers the services of internationally accredited mediators with extensive experience in resolving local and international conflicts. If you are involved in a dispute, let us know your requirements via email at mediate@peacemakers.sg, and we will recommend you the mediators that best meet your needs.

  1. Griffin’s only interest was in getting the police to kill him – he wanted to die, and his hostages were not needed alive for that. See Chris Voss & Tahl Raz, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended On It (Random House, 2016) at p153.
  2. MEMRI, “Issue 9 of ISIS’ ‘Rumiyah’ Magazine Promotes New Angle To Taking Westerners Hostages – Solely for Execution and Giving ISIS Publicity” (5 May 2017) online: MEMRI <https://www.memri.org/jttm/issue-9-isiss-rumiyah-magazine-promotes-new-angle-%E2%80%8E-taking-westerners-hostages-%E2%80%93-solely>.
  3. See Voss at p213.

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