Modern day crisis negotiation is a very different field today than it was over four decades ago, when two catastrophic events made lasting impressions on the world stage in general and on the application of crisis negotiation in particular. These events – the September 1971 deadly riot at the Attica Correctional Facility in Western New York and the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games in Germany – are widely credited for the evolution and development of crisis negotiation over recent years (Vecchi, Van Hasselt & Romano, 2005). Crisis negotiation can be defined as a collection of approaches that are used in settings where one or more persons are involved in a crisis situation exhibiting irrational decision-making (Ireland, 2010, p. 361). The goal is to improve the situation by allowing more time so that strong emotions can decrease and rational decision-making can also increase. Though it initially came about as a hostage negotiation, crisis negotiation is now used in both hostage and non-hostage situations.
The wake-up call for improved crisis negotiation techniques came in September 1971 at the four-day deadly Attica Correctional Facility riot in Western New York. On September 9, 1971, more than 1,000 angry inmates, upset and unhappy for months with the inhumane living conditions inside Attica, rebelled and took control of the prison taking 42 staff as their hostages. When negotiations between the inmates and prison officials broke down over the next three days, the state’s Governor ordered police action on September 13, 1971 that resulted in the catastrophic death of 39 men, 10 of them hostages and 29 of them prisoners (Welch, 1974).
The second defining event that changed the application of crisis negotiation was the deadly massacre at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. In the early morning hours of September 5, 1972, eight members of the Palestinian armed militant group Black September forced their way into the living quarters of the Israeli Olympic contingent and a sixteen-hour standoff ensued that resulted in the tragic death of eleven Israeli athletes and a German police officer, while nine of the hostages were able to escape (Welch, 1974).
Both of these incidents had a pivotal role in changing the application of crisis negotiation because they were examples of what not to do: dealing with situation in a disorganized, violent and chaotic manner which led to injuries and loss of human lives that could have been avoided (Ireland, 2010, p. 362). There were considerable aftershocks as well, especially in the case of the Attica prison riot where the state of New York agreed to pay $12 million in 2000 to the inmates and families of slain inmates and other $12 million in 2004 to the families of slain employees to settle the lawsuits filed.
These disastrous effects of the approach that comprised of refusing to get involved in negotiations and instead preferring to manage crisis situations through brute force led to many changes. Today, application of crisis negotiation employs much more formalized and structured procedures. This involves using strategies to develop a relationship between the negotiator and the individual who is in crisis, as well as creating a climate where compromise and problem solving are considered worthy goals of negotiation.
One key aspect in which the application of crisis negotiation has changed over the years is the decreasing importance of focusing on the psychological traits and emotional state of an individual in crisis alone. Modern day applications of crisis negotiation rely more heavily on a dynamic interaction between the crisis negotiator and an individual in crisis so that an appropriate relationship between the two parties is developed (Ireland, 2010, p. 363). The behavioural influence stairway model, a recent approach in crisis negotiation, makes extensive use of this technique and has been used successfully to resolve a diverse range of highly volatile crisis situations. The model comprises of four distinct stages of the relationship building process – active listening, empathy, rapport and influence, leading to the behaviour change – with the person in crisis coursing between these stages in either direction (Ireland, 2010, p. 363).
A recent review summarizes the changes in crisis negotiation and its application today by highlighting the most important parts of any modern day crisis negotiation process. According to this review, three components make up successful contemporary approaches to crisis negotiation: inclusion of crisis management and intervention in crisis negotiation, following a clearly defined series of successive steps, and the use of role-play procedures to train for crisis negotiation skills (Vecchi, Van Hasselt & Romano, 2005, p. 548).
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The historical events of Attica prison riot in 1971 and the massacre at Munich Olympic Games in 1972 paved the way for improvements and developments in the field of crisis negotiation. Both incidents proved that negotiation skills and experience were lacking, that decision-making by authorities was impulsive and wrong, and that hostages died when they should not have been killed. Crisis negotiation applications today make use of a diverse range of strategies to counter the myriad of problems that crisis situations can revolve around.
It is now widely recognized that absence of a coherent crisis negotiation strategy can lead to disastrous circumstances. It is extremely important to have a clearly defined series of successive steps that should be followed to ensure successful negotiation. Gone are the days when the focus of such interventions was on using blunt force rather than the negotiation process to achieve the objective of intervention.