in: People, Podcast, Social Skills

• Last updated: April 2, 2024

Podcast #977: Tips From a Hostage Negotiator on Handling Difficult Conversations

In resolving hundreds of kidnap-for-ransom cases involving gang leaders, pirates, and extortionists, Scott Walker, a former Scotland Yard detective, has learned a thing or two about how to negotiate and communicate in a crisis. He shares how to apply those lessons to the difficult conversations we all have in our everyday lives in his book Order Out of Chaos: Win Every Negotiation, Thrive in Adversity, and Become a World-Class Communicator, and we talk about his tips on today’s show.

Scott and I discuss what a “red center” means in a kidnap-for-ransom scenario and how to create one in your personal life, the “immediate action drill” that can help you stay in that red center, the importance of separating the decision-maker from the communicator in a negotiation and having a “battle rhythm,” why you don’t give hostage takers the money they ask for right away and how to structure a negotiation instead, and more.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. In resolving hundreds of kidnapped for ransom cases involving gang leaders, pirates, and extortionists, Scott Walker, a former Scotland Yard detective, has learned a thing or two about how to negotiate and communicate in a crisis. He shares how to apply those lessons to difficult conversations we all have in our everyday lives in his book, ‘Order Out of Chaos’. Win every negotiation, thrive in adversity, and become a world-class communicator. And we talk about his tips on today’s show. Scott and I discuss what a red center means in a kidnap for ransom scenario, and how to create one in your personal life, the immediate action drill that can help you stay in that red center, the importance of separating the decision-maker from the communicator in a negotiation and having a battle rhythm, why you don’t give hostage takers the money they ask for right away, and how to structure a negotiation instead and more. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at All right. Scott Walker, welcome to the show.

Scott Walker: Thank you for having me.

Brett McKay: So, you are a hostage negotiator. So, you negotiate with people who have taken other people hostage. You also help organizations who have had ransomware attacks. How’d you end up doing what you’re doing?

Scott Walker: Yes, a great question. I don’t actually recall the conversation at school where you sit down with a careers advisor and they say, so what is it you want to do? Do you want to be a train driver? A teacher? A doctor? Whatever? And at no point do I remember them saying, “Hey, Scott, do you want to negotiate ransoms for people?” Because it’s one of those jobs you kind of fall into, so to speak. I was a cop. I was a detective in London, Scotland Yard, for about 16 years. And towards the end of my career there, I got introduced to the world of kidnap for ransom negotiation and operations to help resolve those and get the hostages back. And I did that for a number of years. And when I left the police, I went to work for a consultancy firm that specialized in crisis response, you could call it, which ultimately was about flying off all over the world, working with families and organizations to get their loved ones and colleagues back who’d been taken hostage, had been kidnapped and a ransom was being demanded.

Brett McKay: Are you still working with that company or are you doing it on your own now as a consultant?

Scott Walker: Yeah. I’m doing it more by myself now. And over the last couple of years particularly, it’s taking all those lessons and themes and patterns and tools and techniques that I learned over hundreds of cases over many years into the business world, into the corporate world, and also into people’s personal lives as well. How can you have really difficult conversations? How can you succeed in those and just have better relationships and communicate better regardless of which area of your life really?

Brett McKay: Oh, so you’re taking the lessons you’ve learned as a hostage negotiator and helping people be better negotiators in everyday aspects of their lives?

Scott Walker: Yeah. It’s how to think, feel, and act differently in a better way, particularly in times of stress, uncertainty, overwhelm, conflict, crisis, a bit like the world we’re living in right now. And in a way, it doesn’t really matter what the circumstances, the principles apply, or at least the underlying principles apply. And then you can just adapt accordingly depending on what your needs and circumstances are.

Brett McKay: So, this is a world that is just new to me. I don’t know anything about it. How often does kidnap for ransom cases happen? Does it happen more often than we’re aware of that you see in the news?

Scott Walker: An accurate figure for how many kidnaps take place each year is not really known. Because if you think about it, the places in the world where these kidnappings take place, the government, the tourist department are not gonna say, “Hey, we’re the kidnapped capital of the world. Come and invest your business and your hard-earned money here or will come and visit us as a tourist.” There are probably 40,000 to 50,000 kidnappings a year worldwide. That’s what we estimate. Probably only about 10,000 of those are actually recorded. But when I was working in London in the police, we had about one a week.

Maybe you about 50-52 kidnappings a year there? And then when I worked in the private sector, we were dealing with over 100 a year, just us as a small team doing that. But the chances of the average Joe walking down the street somewhere becoming a victim of a kidnap is really slim. You have to be unfortunate to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Usually, they’re targeted ’cause they’re high net worth, or there’s some kind of, we used to call them bad on bad, where a criminal gang would kidnap another criminal or a family member of another criminal for retribution or to pay off some debt or for lack of respect or whatever it may be. But for the average person, you’ve got to be really unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Brett McKay: Okay. Let’s talk about how people can apply the lessons that you’ve learned as a hostage negotiator to their everyday negotiations or even just difficult conversations you have at work or with family members. You say and you argue that dealing with kidnappers is easy. And I think when most people hear that, they think, are you crazy? That’s the most… Like you’re dealing with irrational people. It’s one of the most stressful situations you could be in because the person who’s kidnapping is often threatening the life of the person they’ve taken hostage. Why do you think dealing with kidnappers is easy?

Scott Walker: At the end of the day, it’s a business transaction nine times out of 10. They have something we want, the hostages, and we have something they want, primarily money. And it’s coming to an agreement about how much that’s gonna be and when. How they’re going to get it and how we’re going to get the hostages back. I appreciate if you’re the family of the hostages, you’re not going to see it like that, but ultimately that’s what it comes down to. And there’s a bit of leverage we can apply there. And ultimately it’s pretty straightforward. Whereas what the challenge is, is on your own side and this applies to the big business world as well. It’s when the egos and the internal politics and the competing demands and the conflicting arguments and priorities all come into play. We call it the crisis within the crisis. And you can see that in a lot of, as I said, business negotiations where a lot of the time will be spent dealing with internal stakeholders who all want to have their say. They all want a piece of the action.

They all want to feel as if they’re in control or they’re dictating the narrative somehow. And I’d say probably 80% of my time on all of my kidnap and other crisis negotiations around the world, 80% of my time was spent managing the client, managing their expectations, their egos, their emotions, their needs, their wants, the challenges that they were going through. And so at times it’s quite a relief to be able to get onto the phone with the kidnappers and come up with a straight forward negotiation, so to speak. But that goes back to the point you made about irrational actors, irrational people, difficult conversations. And I think one of the most effective ways of dealing with those kinds of situations, realizing that actually it’s not about me, so to speak. I need to be able to understand where is the other person coming from? What’s their underlying needs, for example? And it’s that classic saying, first seek to understand before being understood. And by spending the time, bringing more curiosity than assumption to the table and working out, okay, what’s really going on for this person? Then that takes a pressure off you slightly. And it means you can then tailor your communication style, your part of the conversation to actually address that.

Brett McKay: Okay. So, a hostage negotiation is, it’s a business negotiation. And I imagine that’s the value you bring as a crisis negotiator, is you’re a third party. Of course, you care about this person who’s been taken hostage, but you’re detached, like you’re not as invested as the family members who have their loved one. And so they’re thinking, oh, my gosh, I got to do whatever I can to get this person back home safely. They’re going to get angry when the hostage takers don’t cooperate. They might say something irrational, but you as a third party, you’re able to kind of keep it cool and detached.

Scott Walker: Yes. And I think that’s a great way of highlighting that if you can regulate your own emotions, and identify the people’s emotions, you can go some way to bring in about far more calm and equanimity and balance and groundedness to the situation. And yes, by default, my position is coming in as a third party, so to speak, I bring that naturally, because it’s not my loved one that’s been taken. But even dealing with my own kids or in my own personal life, where there’s some that really triggers me or winds me up. Actually, initially, I’ve now over many, many years of getting it wrong, been able to regulate, understand, okay, what is showing up for me now in my body, my emotions, and then by being able to identify it and name it, that can somehow dissipate the impact it’s having on me, which means I can bring around more objective, rational thinking and decision making, rather than some knee jerk reaction.

And really, when you think about it, it’s a skill that we’re all capable of, and we get plenty of opportunities all day, every day. It could be the person who cuts you up in traffic, or is rude to you on the subway, or it could be an ego driven boss. There’s all these moments, all these pockets of time and situations where it gives you this great opportunity to practice this regulation. And if you can do that, it’s a real superpower in that actually less and less things phase you.

Brett McKay: So in your book, ‘Order Out of Chaos’, you walk readers through a process and practices that they can implement in their own lives so that they can be more like a hostage negotiator, that sort of objective, third party negotiator in their own personal negotiations. And one thing you talked about at the very beginning is this idea, as a negotiator, you want to develop what’s called a red center. What’s a red center in hostage negotiation? And then how can people develop their own red center in their own difficult conversations?

Scott Walker: A red center, particularly in law enforcement terms, is the physical location where the telephone calls are being received from the kidnappers. It’s where the family member, for example, is receiving the demands and the threats. So, it could be the family kitchen, it could be a hotel room, it could be an office somewhere. And that is the place where we have to bring order out of chaos, which is why I called the book this. It’s a place that’s high emotion, lots of irrational thinking, understandably, and it’s about bringing this calmness so we can actually come up with a proper negotiation strategy and communicate it in the most effective way possible.

And my job was actually to bring about that calm, was to instill that in what is a really challenging situation. And I realized over time in many, many, many cases in many years was, you know what? We’ve got our own red center within us, each and every one of us. And it’s this place that no matter how challenging, how many problems or issues that get thrown at us in life, personally, professionally, we’ve all got this inner ability, it’s like an inner resilience almost, that we have that ability to overcome whatever is put in front of us. And if we can master that mindset, and tap into those resources that we have, then actually nothing is really gonna knock us off our path again.

And just like anything, it’s like working a muscle, it’s muscle memory. It’s like going to the gym. You don’t just go once and expect to get the body of Adonis. You have to practice it and reinforce it daily, which is why I was saying a while ago that every day life presents you with opportunities to practice emotional regulation, getting your mindset to where it needs to be, and developing this inner resilience, this red center that actually you’re gonna find a way through this no matter how challenging or how stressful the conversation, the negotiation, the business presentation, that difficult phone call with a loved one you’ve been putting off, or whatever it may be.

Brett McKay: This idea of a personal red center. It reminds me of the inner citadel that Marcus Aurelius talked about.

Scott Walker: Yeah. Actually I never thought of it like that, but that’s exactly what it is. And do you know what? It’s the only thing really, now that you’ve mentioned it. It’s the only thing, I guess, that you have complete control over. You can’t control the weather. You can’t control the taxes. You can’t control traffic or what someone is gonna do or not do or say or not say. But what you can control is what goes on between that stimulus, that trigger, and your response. And as you described there, the stoic approach, I guess, of this citadel. I control what goes on within these walls here. And that’s what… You can become the master of that domain, so to speak. So, I like that analogy there. Thanks.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So in any difficult conversation and negotiation, you want to develop this red center, this inner citadel where you’re in control, you’re still gonna feel emotions, but you’re gonna…

Scott Walker: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Control them and manage them effectively.

Scott Walker: That’s it.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about how we can do that. What are some things that you do to maintain your cool in a hostage negotiation? Especially, in situations where there are threats about killing the hostage, do you have processes that you go through to keep yourself centered and in that personal red center?

Scott Walker: Yeah. And again these have been developed over time, and these are tools and techniques that I know work when the stakes can’t get any higher, when there’s a mock execution on the phone, the family is in bits, the threats are coming in. The negotiation is not really working that well for a whole host of reasons. The money is not becoming available. The hostages are in poor health. So, anything that can go wrong is going wrong. And as the negotiators, the… As the crisis response consultant, so to speak, all eyes are on me or people that are doing my job to resolve this. And so I can’t afford to let my emotions or mindset be anything other than really, really strong and agile in the moment.

And so the techniques I’ve developed and a sense of discovered that they’re grounded in neuroscience and what have you, I call it the immediate action drill. And this is something that I keep in my back pocket, even to this day. The kids know what button to press or, as I said, somebody on the train tube subway or in the traffic. And the first part of the immediate action drill is interrupting the pattern. It’s so important that, what I mean by that is something is said or something happens, or you get the trigger, there’s a danger, you can just stay so focused on, that you get that tunnel vision and then you just get lost in a negative, disempowering story that plays on loop over and over and over again.

And interrupting the pattern could be something as simple as standing up and going outside for a bit of fresh air, or going for a walk, or going to the gym, or having a glass of water, or putting some music, on. Something to… Or it could be some breathing techniques. It could be something to interrupt the pattern, the situation that you’ve just found yourself in. And from that moment, the second stage is about riding the wave. So, for any surfers, or skiers, or skateboarders, listening, is imagine you’ve interrupted the pattern and now we wanna ride the wave. And this is the wave that happens to us biologically, chemically is for about 90 seconds, two minutes maybe tops, we have this rush of cortisol and adrenaline and other chemicals pumping through our bodies when we face the whole fight, flight, and freeze response. And so that 90 seconds, that two minutes, we wanna ride the wave. We want to feel the feeling and drop the story. It doesn’t matter why we’re feeling this, we just need to tune in and allow that to dissipate. And if after about 90 seconds, two minutes, it’s still going, it just means we’re stuck in a story or some trauma pattern there.

But then, so we’ve interrupted the pattern, we’re really tuning into what’s showing up for us, riding the wave for 90 seconds, two minutes. And then the third step is to ask better questions. And you can only do that when you’ve regulated, when you’ve brought the nervous system into balance and better questions such as, okay, what am I missing here? What’s the opportunity? What’s the learning or insight? What else could this mean? What can I be grateful for? Whatever happens to be. And so it’s asking better questions because if you ask better questions, you’re gonna get better answers. But you can only do that from a regulated state. And if for some reason that’s still not quite working, I’ll just go back to do some breathing techniques such as box breathing, which is quite a popular and an effective one where you breathe in for four seconds, you hold it for four, you exhale for four, and then you breathe in again, you hold it, and then you breath in again for four. So you just repeat the cycle.

Or there’s the physiological sigh where you breathe in through your nose and then before you breathe out, you do an extra little in breath as well through the nose. And then there’s a longer exhale. And again, these are just proven ways of regulating a system. And I would do this every time before I walked into the room where the kidnappers were gonna phone, before I sat down with a family or the client, I would do that so I could regulate my emotions. And if we were using a communicator because of a language barrier who was gonna speak to the kidnappers, I would get them to do that as well. Either box breathing or the physiological sigh or whatever technique worked for them so they could regulate, they weren’t stuck in a pattern and that we were able to ask better questions if we need to. And the same applies to people’s personal lives as well. The techniques work.

Brett McKay: Yeah. If you are dealing with a kid who’s frustrating ’cause they’re not wanting to do their homework, you feel triggered, you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I’m getting angry here.” You can just do this really quickly. Interrupt the pattern. That might just be, I’m gonna leave the room and say, “Hey, we’ll talk about this here in a bit.” And then you can do the process of ride the wave, ask better questions like, okay, what am I missing here about what my kid’s point of view is and how can I better understand them? And then maybe do some box breathing and then you can come back and begin the conversation again.

Scott Walker: Yeah, and absolutely. And dealing with your kids, for example, or a loved one, a partner, a friend, a colleague is, you can look at it for… You look at your hands, look at your both hands. You look at your left hand and you go, “Okay, this is the person, this is their true self, this is their identity, them as a person,” you know, they’re inherently a good person. And in the right hand you look at them and go, well actually this is the behavior that’s showing up. These are the unkind, unhelpful, disruptive, so-called bad behavior. And it’s about separating the two. So, then you can deal with the behavior that’s manifesting itself rather than what we generally do. It’s really both together and we attack the person as opposed to the behavior. And I think by separating that as part of that immediate action drill as well, can go some way to avoiding, you know, us jumping in or making the situation even worse by going into a spiral or a tit for tat, arguing back and forth, which isn’t really gonna resolve anything.

Brett McKay: I can see this happening in a business negotiation. Maybe in a business negotiation, there’s multiple issues being discussed. And let’s say there’s one issue where you can sense that there’s a trigger, like people are uncomfortable, there’s some tension there. You can interrupt that pattern there with that issue by saying, “Hey, I sense we’re reaching an impasse here, let’s table this for now and then we can discuss these other issues that are not as pertinent or not as heavy.” And then you can come back to that one issue once you’ve calmed yourself down.

Scott Walker: Absolutely. Which is why you get saying such as, well, okay, well let me sleep on it, or let’s have a coffee break. Let’s, you know, people can, if you have what I call a sensory acuity, if you can walk into a room or you’re sat in a room for a long period of time and sense, actually this is… We need a break and the tension is getting too much, something is not quite right, people are flagging, the air is getting quite irritable. We just need to interrupt what is going on here. So, we’ll go outside for a bit of fresh air. Let’s grab a coffee and we’ll come back in half an hour. And something as simple as that. You’re right, it may sound really, really super simple, but it works.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Scott Walker: And which is why I always recommend clients now in business negotiations, particularly if they’re face to face, is have somebody in the room on your side whose sole job is to observe. They’re not to actually take upon the negotiation itself. Their job is just to pick up on all the nuances and the context and the body language and what is not being said. And the mood. And the energy. Because so often we can get narrow focus, we get tunnel focused onto the specifics of a negotiation. We can sometimes miss the bigger picture. And those people who are the observers, they’re worth their waiting goal, because they’re the ones who can pick up stuff and go, well actually we’re not in alignment here. There’s a mismatch, there’s an incongruency between what’s being said and everything else I’m noticing we need to take 20 minutes out ’cause we need to have a conversation about this.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. That reminds me that idea of having an observer in a negotiation reminds me of another point you make as a hostage negotiator, one of the things you do is you have a team, there’s a big team going on in a hostage negotiation. One thing you do is you separate the people who are the decision makers in the hostage negotiation from the person who’s communicating. Why do you do that?

Scott Walker: Commanders command and negotiators negotiate. Absolutely, because if I’m the key decision maker and I’m jumping on the phone with, it could be anybody, it could be kidnappers, it could be in a business deal. I have nowhere left to go. I can’t put any buffer, any firewall. I can’t store for time ’cause I can’t go, well, let me check with the boss if I am the boss. And not only that, it allows… Even if it’s just you, even if you are buying a car for example, you could still separate the negotiating and the decision making yourself. Which again, it goes back to that point I made just now is, well, let me sleep on it. I wanna think about it. Let me come back to you on that. It’s really important to build that buffer so you don’t get caught up in the whole emotion of it. Because we do make decisions emotionally and then look to justify them rationally afterwards. Whereas, because we know that, well, let’s put a bit of time in so we can make sure they have the right emotions. And we are not making a decision in the moment out of fear, greed or whatever it may be. And so by separating that ideally with two or more people, but even if it’s just you, the same principles apply.

Brett McKay: And while what this does, it just helps you bring in that idea of you being a disinterested objective third party. You’re trying to get to that as close as possible by doing that.

Scott Walker: Yeah. It just brings a bit more space and control and enables you to make better decisions that are gonna be in your interest ultimately, rather than agreeing to something, and then you come off the phone or you walk out the room and going, “Oh, we could have asked for more money. Or do you know what? We’ve been ripped off here.” Which happens to all of us because we make those decisions too quickly because we’re caught up in the emotion and the high drama, the negotiation, rather than having some time to think about it.

Brett McKay: And so the idea is you need to have a plan whenever you reach one of those decision points where you could get caught up in the emotions as the communicator and negotiator, you know, doing it by yourself. Have a plan where, “Okay, I reached this point where I can see my emotions are getting the best of me. That’s when I need to separate the two.” The inner negotiator, the inner communicator, and then take a break and then let the decision maker do the decision making and then come back and let the communicator do the communicating.

Scott Walker: Yeah. And that could even be a five minute gap. It doesn’t have to be five weeks, you know what I mean? It’s just separating it. You bring an intentionality to it, I guess, of right, I’m deliberately, consciously putting a firewall in place now between this negotiation. Okay, well let me, I’m gonna go off for half an hour. I’m gonna come back and then I’ll make a decision.

Brett McKay: What do you do in the situation as a hostage negotiator? ‘Cause I’m sure this happens there, ’cause this happens in regular negotiations. Let’s say you do want to put some space, “Okay, I wanna interrupt the pattern here. I want some time to think about it.” But the other party is like, “No. You gotta make a decision now. It’s do or die.” How do you handle that?

Scott Walker: Okay. Well, we would’ve preempted this ahead of time and we can come onto that later about what we call that and how we do that. But in terms of, it’s just explaining, well, if you want me to get the money, we need time to do that. And all the time I’m on the phone to you, I’m not gonna be able to get the money. It’s a lot of money you’re asking for, we’re a poor company, we’re a poor family, whatever. Actually, I need to go and speak to people. I need to try and get the money from them. I need to raise the funds, whatever it is. So, you’re building in a narrative, you’re building in a story, a credible story as to why you need time. And then you can go, well, “Do you know what? Let’s speak again, same time tomorrow.” And that helps with what we call the battle rhythm of being able to manage this over a long period of time without getting burnt out. And so if we can buy time, if we can separate the negotiation from the decision making, and it just means it’s far more sustainable and everybody stays far more alert and in better shape, and they can make better decisions. And ultimately it’s about the safe and the timely release of the hostages.

Brett McKay: Tell us more about this battle rhythm idea in hostage negotiation.

Scott Walker: Yeah. What it is, is when you don’t have an effective battle rhythm, what that looks like is people on edge 24/7, every phone call notification ping on their phone or computer, they think it’s from the kidnappers. They don’t sleep, they can’t eat, they don’t get any rest. And that’s fine for a couple of days, but after week, two weeks, two months, three months, six months, it’s just not sustainable. And the longer that goes on without an effective battle rhythm, people get burnt out and make poor decisions, and ultimately people can die as a result of that. And so what a battle rhythm really is, it’s about a routine. It’s about a structure. Again, this applies to the business world as well. Is, “Okay, we’re gonna sit down and we’re gonna negotiate between 2:00 and 4:00 PM every day.” And outside of that, each side is gonna work on their side of the deal, you know, their offers and counter offers and dealing with all the demands and threats maybe that are showing up. But it also means people get a chance to sleep, to eat, to rest, to think through things, to work out 4, 5, 6 steps ahead, particularly kidnapping. “Okay. Well, we need to start thinking about how we’re gonna get the money together and who’s gonna transport it, who’s gonna carry it to the kidnappers, for example.” So, that’s really what we mean by a battle rhythm.

Brett McKay: It’s interesting, I didn’t know this about hostage negotiations. You’d think hostage negotiations, they’d be resolved really quick. But the way you describe it, it can be a very long drawn out affair.

Scott Walker: Well, it’s worth emphasizing the different terms here, the hostage taking that people think of when we use that term, they think it’s like a bank robbery gone wrong, or it’s in a domestic situation where usually a disgruntled husband is taking the wife hostage because she’s having an affair with somebody. Or the bank robbers are caught in the bank and they can’t escape. Those situations aren’t that common. So, really what we’re talking about is somebody is on the way to the factory in West Africa or Latin America or Southeast Asia somewhere, and a kidnapping gang want to take them. And then we’re gonna ransom the family or the company for money. And that is what we’re talking about really here. And I said that could take days, weeks, or months to resolve.

Brett McKay: So, the battle rhythm is just establishing structure to the conversation that you’re having?

Scott Walker: Yeah. So, you can have a sustainable negotiation, which ultimately is important because if you don’t have it, it can impact the efficacy of the negotiation, which ultimately can impact the chances of the hostages coming back alive.

Brett McKay: And you can do this in your own personal negotiations where you say, “Hey, we’ll discuss this for 30 minutes and then we’ll take a break if it hasn’t been resolved. And then we’ll come back to it 10 minutes later.”

Scott Walker: Yeah. And as I said, we’ll sit down, we’ll meet up here in the meeting room between 2:00 and 4:00 every day and look to work through this. And then in the time outside of that, each side will have their own challenges and issues as I mentioned at the beginning. They’ll have their own crisis within a crisis, so to speak, where they’ll have to brief upwards. They’ll have to come together and work out what they’re gonna do and all the challenges and all the issues and problems that can come from doing these big negotiations. And so it’s in everybody’s interest to do this.

Brett McKay: Well, another aspect of establishing parameters for the negotiation, not only establishing a rhythm, it’s actually establishing who will be doing the talking and who you will talk to. ‘Cause one thing you talk about in the book is a tactic that hostage takers will often use is they’ll go to multiple parties and try to negotiate with multiple parties. Why do they do that?

Scott Walker: To spread fear, distress, dissent, confusion. Which is why one of my key roles at the very beginning is to try and get some control over those communications. And so we say it’s, we want one number, one voice and one message. We want the kidnappers and us to be speaking on one number. We want one voice on either side, and there’s gonna be a clear message, certainly from our side to them, one clear message. We don’t want four, five, six different people all trying to get involved, all trying to have their say, all in these parallel negotiations because ultimately it confuses the situation. It can lengthen the negotiations and ultimately threaten the ultimate outcome, which is the release of the hostages or in a business context, the deal. But you often see that particularly in the business world is where, well actually in kidnapping where people come out of the woodwork, they all feel as if they should have a say or an involvement. And sometimes they’ll open up these parallel lines of dialogue without each, you know, the other… The partner of negotiation realizing this, and it rarely ends up well.

Brett McKay: You know, who does this tactic very well of causing discord and confusion? Kids do this when they go to their parents, they’re like, “Hey dad, can I go to the amusement park?” And then your dad gives an answer, and then they also go to the mom, “Mom, can I go to the amusement park?” And then, they give different answers, kids are… They know about that.

Scott Walker: Yeah. They’re the best, best negotiators going around. And I’ll tell you what, if anyone listening has got kids that realize actually we wanna watch and learn how they do it. ‘Cause kids are masters at it, it must be an inherent thing that as adults, we lose it over time, perhaps. I don’t know.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So, it’s something you can do when your kids do that and they ask you a question where it’s kind of like, “Oh, I’m not sure.” Just be like, “Well, let’s talk about it with your mom as well.”

Scott Walker: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah [laughter]

Brett McKay: Yeah. You just nip that in the bud. Another aspect of prepping for a hostage negotiation is this idea of bunch of fives. What is that?

Scott Walker: Yeah. This is something I was alluded to a short while ago around as part of the preparation for any form of negotiation, if you can come up with a bunch of fives, and again, just imagine your hand, the palm of your hand, if you can think of, okay, what are the top three, four, five objections, challenges, opticals questions, threats, demands, issues, whatever the other side is likely to levy against you, if you can understand and work out what they’re likely to be ahead of time, that’s a great position to be in because you can then preempt, and you can mitigate against them. You could even introduce them yourself, you know, they’re the elephant in the room, so to speak, and you could just introduce them into the negotiation, and it gets it out the way because if there’s a chance that the other side are gonna levy them against you, it means that it’s gonna be playing on their minds somewhere. Which is why if you can have, and we use this in a kidnapped negotiation. We want a conflict call. We call it the conflict call.

We want that as soon as possible. And this is the phone call with the kidnappers where they’ll ask for, say, I don’t know a million dollars. And the family has got about 20,000. So, there’s a huge, huge disparity between the two. And so that initial conflict call is when we’re looking to manage the kidnapper’s expectations. Our initial offer could I don’t know, $10,000-$15,000. And obviously the kidnappers are not gonna respond too well to that, but it’s far better to have that at the outset than wait till you’re two, three, four, five weeks into the negotiation. And so this bunch of fives allows you to get to that position and have that conversation from a place of strength, because it’s not gonna faze you when the other side suddenly come out with the threat, the demand, the question, the challenge, the obstacle, the objection. And so it’s time spent preparing for that is time well spent in my experience.

Brett McKay: Okay. So, all the things we’ve talked about so far, the immediate action drill where you interrupt the pattern, ride the wave, maybe do some breathing, the separating the decision maker from the negotiator, this bunch of fives, this is all about developing that red center, that mental fortitude that you’ll stay calm when you’re in the process of negotiation. Let’s talk about actually just the negotiation process specifically. You talk about how it’s important to establish empathy with the other party that you’re negotiating with. And I think people can understand that when you’re in a business negotiation, you wanna understand what people’s needs and wants are. Why would you wanna develop empathy with a hostage taker who is threatening the life of somebody?

Scott Walker: I think it’s worth emphasizing what empathy is not at the outset. Empathy is not agreeing with somebody. It’s not acquiescing, it’s not condoning, it’s not even necessarily being particularly pleasant or nice. [laughter] Empathy, it’s a verb, it’s a doing word. It’s what you do to demonstrate you understand where the other person is at or where they’re coming from or what’s going on in their mind or their position. And people have difficulty with that because they bring their own ego to bear in the driving seat. And they allow that to get in the way and they’ll then be judging the other person where again, it’s really worth emphasizing, it doesn’t matter if I disagree with the person. In fact, empathizing with the other side when we do disagree, when we have nothing in common is really, really powerful. But if I can do that, I’ll explain how we can do that in a moment, but if I do that, if I can demonstrate that empathy, it enables them to feel seen, heard, and understood. And this is not some kind of woo-woo, fluffy nonsense.

This is, it’s grounded in neuroscience and it works. I’ve seen it work time and time again, both in situations where high stakes, life or death situations, and in a more benign, let’s say, corporate environment. If people feel as if they’ve been listened to and that the other side gets them, they’re more likely to agree to your terms and suggestions. And actually by empathizing, you’re earning the right, you’re building the trust, you’re earning the right to then look about influencing and persuading the other person to do something that they may not initially wanna do. And the way we can demonstrate that empathy is first of all, remove our judgment and ego out of the way. And it could be something simple as just summarizing where you think that the person is at. It’s like, okay, well, before we go any further, is it okay if I just share with you where I think you’re at with this deal? You think actually this deal, it’s a lot of money. It’s probably more money than you wanna pay right now.

You feel that actually we’re in a stronger position here and you may even feel as if we’re looking to rip you off because we’ve inserted these terms and conditions or clauses in the deal that you probably feel as if they’re not really fair to you. And this isn’t the first time this has happened. This is the third time as two businesses we’ve been in this position. And they’ll go, “Yeah, actually, Scott, yeah, Scott gets me. He understands. Even if I disagree with him thinking, well, actually, this is all above and beyond. It’s a standard contract, standard terms and conditions. And actually you’ve signed this many times before without any problem.” It doesn’t matter about that. I just wander to the side to think, “Ah, they understand me. They get me.” And then you’re almost given an open goal in which you can then start to influence and persuade.

Brett McKay: So yeah, you can do this even when the guy is saying, “I need a million dollars now or I’m killing this person.”

Scott Walker: Yeah. And it’s like, okay, well, “Hey, it sounds like getting a deal here pretty quickly is important to you so you can get back to your family or whatever it is you’re doing. And actually you believe that we’ve got the money at hand to pay you so we can get our loved one back.” And they go, “Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. Yeah. Yeah. You’ve got the money we wanted. Otherwise we’re gonna kill them.” Okay. Well, then we can actually at that point go, “Well, please, the responsibility of the hostages is down to you. I know this is important. I know you want this resolved, but you must look after the hostages. And if you do that, we’re gonna do our best to get you as much money as possible.”

Brett McKay: Another thing you do in a hostage negotiation is this idea of decreasing increase. What is that? And how do you use that in a hostage negotiation?

Scott Walker: Decreasing increases how the offer, counter offer, demand, counter demand, et cetera, how that goes. So, say there’s an initial demand for a million dollars and we, the family or the company, they can maybe get quarter of a million. That’s the maximum amount of money they can get. And so we would make an initial offer of, I don’t know, let’s say 150,000. And then each time we make an offer, we would do slightly less than the previous one. So, each time we offer some money, it’s less than the previous offer, which signals to the kidnappers where this is gonna go. Actually, they’re not gonna get a huge jump, a huge increase anymore. And the longer this goes on, the less and less we offer. The challenge comes when sometimes the kidnappers will say, “Okay, okay, this has gone on long enough. We understand where you’re at. You can’t get this much money. But actually, you know what? We’ll settle first.”

Let’s say we’re at $200,000 so far. They’ve declined that offer. And they’ll go, “Okay, actually, if you can get 220,000 to us by tomorrow, we’ll release the hostages.” If our last couple of offers have been in increments of maybe a 10,000, a 5000, and a 3000, and then all of a sudden we’re gonna find an extra 20,000 overnight, the kidnappers are gonna go, “Well, hang on. You’ve been telling me you could only find 3000 for the last couple of days, and now you’ve suddenly found 20,000 overnight? Well, then they’re gonna hold on for more.” And so it’s a way of bringing some discipline, I guess, and some structure to the negotiations. And again, as I said, it manages expectations. It sets the trajectory of where this is gonna end.

Brett McKay: That seems counterintuitive that you wouldn’t to just give the money that you have available, because I’m sure their loved ones are like, “Geez, I want my son back alive. So, just give them the $250,000.” Why wouldn’t you just wanna give the hostage takers the money they asked for right up front?

Scott Walker: That question probably gets asked on every single case. And the reason we don’t do that, the reason we don’t wanna do that, well, you imagine if we paid what they asked for too quickly, what do you think is likely to happen as a result of that?

Brett McKay: I guess they’ll just ask for more.

Scott Walker: They’ll go, “Thank you for the down payment. Thank you for the deposit. Now we’re ready to negotiate. And not only are we gonna keep that money, the poor courier, the poor person who you’ve managed to persuade to bring us the ransom money, we’re gonna keep him as a hostage as well.” And so what we wanna do, and it’s counterintuitive, I get that. But by bringing about this discipline in the negotiation, it actually shortens the amount of time that the hostages are kept for. And so we want the kidnappers to feel as if there’s no more money left. Because in the business deal as well, if you think there’s more money left on the table, you’re not gonna agree to a deal. And the kidnappers are no different to that. And we call it squeezing the orange. We want them to feel as if they squeezed every last drop of juice out of us so they don’t come back for more, so they don’t release the hostage and then they kidnap them or a family member next week, for example.

Brett McKay: So to come back to the decreasing increases technique, this would be like you’re negotiating for a new car and you throw out a low number and then that’s rejected and with your subsequent offers, what happens?

Scott Walker: The money goes up. My offers to pay more money would increase, but the amount that they would increase would decrease each time.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. Well, Scott, this has been a great conversation. I think the big takeaway is from this conversation, in a negotiation or a difficult conversation, you got to keep that red center, that inner citadel. We talked about some tactics you can do to do that. Is there like one thing you think that if someone started implementing today with difficult conversations they’re having, whether it’s at work or at home, where they’d see immediate return on investment?

Scott Walker: I would say it’s the emotional regulation piece. It’s any conversation or every conversation you have now and you can feel yourself getting a bit riled, it’s just pause even if it’s for a split second and just notice, “Actually, do you know what? I can really feel that tension coming up in my body. Okay, well, let me just focus on that. Let me breathe through it and then I can reengage.” And the more you can practice that, this can be a split second or one or two seconds maximum by the time you’ve practiced this. And I would urge people to then seek out worthy opponents, I call them. Those are those people who always annoy you and frustrate you or the situations you know are likely to be testing because it’s just a great practice to work those emotional regulation muscles. And if you can do that, it means you’re never gonna get fazed again in a negotiation when it really counts.

Brett McKay: Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Scott Walker: Yeah. They can go to the website and there’s more details on there. Sign up for the newsletter and get a copy of the book and learn about my negotiation workshops and other good stuff.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Scott Walker, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Scott Walker: Thank you.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Scott Walker. He’s the author of the book ‘Order Out of Chaos’. It’s available on You can find more information about his work at his website, Also check out our show notes at, you’ll find links to our resources. We delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at where you find our podcast archives. And while you’re there, make sure to sign up for our newsletter. We’ve got a weekly option and a daily option, they’re both free. It’s the best way to stay on top of what’s going on at AOM. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to review our podcast on Spotify. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time it is Brett McKay, reminding you to listen to AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.



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