What I learnt about people and leadership from over 10 years as a Hostage Negotiator.

“Failing to engage in conflict is a terrible decision, one that puts our temporary comfort and the avoidance of discomfort ahead of the ultimate goal of our organisation.”

Patrick Lencioni

We as humans are surrounded by conflict and for most of us, in our personal lives and in our working lives as leaders and team members, conflict is something to actively avoid – but conflict is simply a result of life’s problems coming up against our innate protective and competitive motivations that have evolved over thousands of years to help us survive – conflict should not be avoided as it can drive positive outcomes if managed and negotiated properly.

Change2020’s newest Senior Associate, Kieran Plasto has seen the extremes of conflict from his 10 years as a hostage negotiator with the Queensland Police Service, and from this professional period, learnt much about people and leadership. This intense experience has provided some truly remarkable insights into human nature and given him a unique ability to diffuse, mitigate and resolve extremely tense situations – highly useful skills and knowledge for effective workplace investigations and mediations.

Kieran’s negotiation and mediation experience started inadvertently, as although he was a registered psychologist before he joined the Queensland Police Service, he had no desire to become a police negotiator. Kieran was focused on achieving his Detective appointment when his Officer-in-Charge at Rockhampton CIB nominated him for a 4-week Police Negotiators course.  The successful completion of that course set him on a 10+ year path that included qualification as Negotiator Team Leader, Counter-Terrorist qualified Negotiator, then a Counter Terrorist qualified Negotiator Team Leader.

When he left the Queensland Police Service in 2007, Kieran was accepted into the Harvard Executive Education Programme to study Negotiation and Strategic Decision-making and he has continued to further his skill set by becoming a certified coach and a nationally accredited mediator.  Currently Kieran is completing a Masters in Conflict Management and Resolution.

In this article Kieran shares 8 important lessons from his time as a police negotiator – learnings that he brings to the table when negotiating and mediating workplace disputes:

  1. Provide the Calm in the Chaos. 

On many occasions, negotiators would be called to attend a siege situation or suicide intervention and I would arrive to a scene that would be quite chaotic.  Often everyone present wanted the very tense and volatile situation resolved peacefully and expediently and all held the expectation that they were waiting for the ‘experts’ to arrive.  So, the first lesson I learnt was no matter what rank or title, that as a leader, you need to provide the calm in the chaos.  You need to present as calm, collected, confident and competent.  No one wants to follow someone who is running around like the proverbial headless chook.  No matter what is racing through your mind, presenting a very calm demeanor can very quickly get people to focus on identifying the critical issues and start a process towards resolution.

  • Be Present

I learnt that if I was going to contribute and bring all my training, experience and skills to facilitate a resolution, I needed to be 100% present and totally focused and committed to the process and the other person/people.  I didn’t have the luxury of being distracted by competing personal issues or commitments because if you lose concentration and miss a cue or even say the wrong thing, things can go bad very quickly.  This taught me that as a leader if my team or colleague needed my time, particularly if they sought me out, then they deserved for me to be totally attentive. 

  • Try to Connect

We need to develop skills to engage people. As a negotiator I needed to connect with the subject very quickly, build rapport quickly and escalate the relationship to the point where we could problem solve and then resolve together.  It is so important to learn about people and be able to engage them. As leaders we need to learn about our people and what is important to them, family, sports, hobbies, partners names etc.  It is the simple things that leaders can do to help their team feel connected and valued – a really simple thing, like remembering colleagues’ names can be transformative in the creation of a connection.

  • Communication – all the bits

The most important thing is the ability to communicate and all that goes with that.  It is also the second and third most important thing.  As a negotiator you are not only listening to what the other person is saying but you are also trying to really ‘hear’ that person.  You are trying to listen to understand and not just listen to provide a solution. So good communication links to being present but it is also about being aware of your own tone, body language etc.  In a crisis situation, everything can be amplified, so it was really important to always be self-aware and actively listen.  As leaders, part of our own professional development, is developing a greater understanding of how we impact others, as well as trying to understand what is in other peoples’ ‘invisible backpack’.

  • Everyone has a story.  Everyone carries around their ‘invisible backpack’.

As a psychologist I am acutely aware that we human beings have our own specific beliefs, values, experiences and thoughts that make up who we are. Every person who is the subject of a negotiation, finds themselves there from a cumulation of experiences and events.  It wasn’t a random event that occurred in a vacuum. As leaders, we need to be sensitive to what is happening to our people – our team members come as a total package not as two-dimensional workers just doing a job.  Appreciating team members in their entirety goes hand-in-hand with creating good working relationships with them.

  • Dignity of Exit

Little has been written about what I call the ‘dignity of exit’; this negotiation strategy is vital because regardless of the situation, people need an out.  If people feel boxed into a corner, they generally feel powerless to take any other option but confrontation.  This was such a critical lesson to me that I applied it to so many scenarios as a leader and as a human resource professional.  How people exited a business was as important as how they were on-boarded. In negotiations or difficult conversations, I always persevered to provide an option that enabled the person the opportunity to exit with dignity.

  • Team playing as important as leading

Being a leader is important but so is being a good team member.  Occasionally when police negotiations became protracted or complex, we would use a negotiation team of four or five.  Every member of the team was a qualified negotiator, and every team member always wanted to be the primary negotiator.  But what I learnt was not everyone can be the one on the phone or megaphone or face to face but every team member had a role to play in a successful resolution. The worst thing that could have happened was if people come out of their roles and did not stay in their swim lane; whether it was organising intelligence, or keeping notes, or writing on a whiteboard – whatever your role, do it to the absolute best of your ability and share in the success.

  • Creating the “we”

Through all of the above, being present, the listening, engaging, understanding, it is also important to remember to create a ‘we’.  In resolving a suicide intervention or a siege situation, I learnt to create a shared problem-solving approach with the subject.  Once we can create a “we”, the pressure is off from one person to find a solution. Good leaders recognise that and create a team approach. No one person is greater than another. Success has many parents.

Being a police negotiator was one of the most rewarding parts of my police service.  I was fortunate to work with some outstanding negotiators and human beings, and quite simply we saved lives.  We were able to transform a difficult situation that appeared all consuming, into events that were diffused, mitigated and in some cases I know people went onto live great and fulfilled lives. Leadership is like that – it truly has the ability to transform people’s work lives and be better for the experience. But it doesn’t come without effort, contemplation and action and willingness to learn lessons. In the words of the great Spider-Man, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Leaders need to respect and honour this responsibility, not just to empower their teams but to become the leaders they aspire to be.

As a Senior Associate with Change2020, Kieran is available to assist across a wide range of investigations, mediations, negotiations or conflict coaching with leaders and leadership teams.  His high-level negotiation skills borne from an extraordinary career culminate in a very special blend of knowledge and experience that complements and broadens Change2020’s services to improve workplaces