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From Dictionary of Forensic Psychology

A hostage incident involves one or more people holding another person or persons against their will for the purpose of forcing the fulfilment of substantive demands on a third party. Typically, hostage-takers make direct or implied threats to harm the hostages if their demands are not met. These demands include things the hostage-takers cannot obtain for themselves, such as money, escape or political or social change. Bargaining techniques can be used in most hostage incidents because the authorities have something the hostage-takers want (e.g. money, transport, alcohol, the power to enforce an action, etc.).

Hostage-takers demonstrate goal-oriented, purposeful behaviour in that the hostages are used as leverage to force people to fulfil the hostage-takers’ demands. While the hostages remain at risk, the hostage-takers’ primary goal is not to hurt them: the hostage-takers’ realize that, by keeping the hostages alive, they may achieve their goal and that, if they harm them, they will change the incident dynamics and increase the likelihood that the authorities will use force to resolve the incident.

Hostage negotiation strategies include stalling for time, lowering the hostage-takers’ expectations and reversing the hostage-takers’ sense of empowerment and control. Negotiators buy time using delaying tactics and by initiating give-and-take bargaining. This is done to contain the incident and to demonstrate to the hostage-takers that force will be used if necessary.

Hostage-takers initially feel in control and empowered but, as time passes, the negotiation team builds trust and rapport with the hostage-takers and convinces them that they will not accomplish their objective and that they should surrender peacefully. Successful negotiation takes time, and negotiatiors must use active listening skills in order to communicate effectively with the hostage-takers, to defuse the conflict and to work to establishing a level of rapport that allows the negotiators and hostage-takers to explore problem-solving options and to progress towards a non-violent resolution.

Related entries

Serious incidents in prisons.

Key texts and sources
  • Lanceley, F. J. (2003) On Scene Guide for Crisis Negotiations (2nd edn). Washington, DC: CRC Press.
  • Martin Fisher
    © The editors and contributors 2008

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