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The Art of Negotiation and Suicide Prevention


Longing for problem resolution is normal for all spheres of life. Negotiation is a tool for non-violent conflict settlement. The term “negotiation” is mostly used concerning business or politics, but its application is not limited to these spheres. Thus, crisis negotiation is considered to be one of the most efficient instruments of law enforcement. It has thousands of examples of successful outcomes of suicide attempts, kidnapping or hostage all over the world. The purpose of this research is to study the use of negotiation in suicide prevention and reveal the role of a negotiator.

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The Art of Negotiation

Some goals may be reached due to the pressure of authority. Still, negotiation is a better choice to achieve the desired objectives. It is still a matter of discussion that prompted the modern development of debatable. However, there is an incident that is considered a moving power in the modern crisis negotiation process evolution. It is widely known as the “Munich Massacre” and happened at the 1972 Olympic Games. At the time of the incident, 11 Israeli athletes were kept as hostages by Palestinian terrorists. The force was used to resolve the incident, which resulted in 22 deaths of both terrorists and hostages. This policy failure to rescue hostages revealed the absence of a procedure to manage such situations with minimal damage. It provoked the development of crisis management schemes and negotiation methods (Grubb, 2013).

Although episodes with hostages involved are more discussed in the context of police negotiations, they make only 4 percent of the incidents where the police enforcement is needed (Thompson, 2014). The rest belongs to situations where people find themselves in an emotionally-driven crisis. They may block themselves either alone or with a victim or may attempt suicide. These situations can be more complicated for a negotiator, for a person in crisis does not have any particular demands. Their ability to think rationally reduces and they are overwhelmed with emotions. That is why the application of crisis negotiation techniques to prevent suicide is worth a separate discussion.

The Use of Negotiation in Suicide Prevention

Schneidman (as cited in McMains, & Mullins, 2010, p.347) has suggested the following definition of suicide: ” a conscious act of self-induced annihilation in an individual who defines suicide as the best possible solution to a defined problem.” The two points of this definition are of interest. The first is that suicide a conscious act, and the second treats suicide as a solution. They mean that, on the one hand, a person makes a decision to end the life, and, on the other hand, that the individual considers it the way to stop the pain. Consequently, if a person finds a way out other than suicide, he or she changes the mind in favor of life. Thus, there is a possibility to influence a person. This is the task of negotiation to present the opportunity of change for suicidal individuals and save their lives. Schneidman (as cited in McMains, & Mullins, 2010) believes that suicidal people have some common characteristics.

The knowledge of them may assist negotiators in interpreting the behavior of the people in crisis. Hence, suicidal people have similar stressors. These may be a job or relations loss, or health problems. This type of person also observes the common stimulus; a psychological pain they cannot bear. They do not see a solution other than suicide to stop the pain. Their purposes often coincide as well. Suicidal individuals are also influenced by the same feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, etc. They usually think the same way too. The thoughts are concentrated on pain and the impossibility of positive outcomes. The suicidal people are often good manipulators, thus tending to control the people around them. Finally, their stories are similar as well. They may have some previous suicide attempts and are not able to tolerate frustration.

The core aim of a negotiation is to rescue people in crisis. The desired solution to any crisis is to stop the conflict without damaging anyone. As for suicide, there are many strategies developed over the centuries to prevent this action, both religious and civil. The attempts have been made to explain, manage, and finally prevent suicidal behavior. Still, there is no efficient means of suicide prevention. Of course, some researches were conducted to reveal the biological grounds of suicide and the reasons for provoking suicidal behavior like depression. It resulted mainly in the prescription of medicine to deal with depression but did not reduce the suicide rates. The drugs just mask the signs of an illness and do nothing with the problem that caused it. It increased suicide rates. In fact, in the United States, suicide has become a burning social problem with its rates higher than that of homicide (Lanceley, 2013).

When a person decides to commit suicide in public, law enforcement will be involved. The negotiator has to figure out if the person is suicidal first of all. It should be a direct question like “Are you going to commit suicide?” (Lanceley, 2013, p.40). It is important not to skip the question. The negotiators should be very accurate in talking to suicidal individuals. No utterances that may be interpreted as permission or approval should be used. For many suicidal people, a negotiator is the last hope for help. A sad example of words misinterpretation is given by Lanceley (2013). A priest and an officer were trying to prevent the suicide of a young man. He was going to kill himself with a rifle because of the break up with his girlfriend. The negotiators were trying to make the young man put the rifle down. To urge him to do so, the priest said, “Go ahead and do it, my son.” The young man considered it to be an approval and killed himself, although the priest did not mean that.

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Another problem of dealing with suicide is the difference in approaches. The negotiators consider it a problem. On the contrary, a suicidal person considers suiciding a resolution of the problems. One of the reasons for suicide is that a person loses control over life and suicide looks like a way to stop it. Another popular suicidal reason is revenge when people are obsessed with the idea to hurt the one who made them feel bad. These reasons give a negotiator a possibility to prevent suicide. If a negotiator if persuasive enough, he or she may convince a suicidal individual that killing oneself is not a way-out. In the first situation, a negotiator should make the person believe that everything is under control as long as one is alive. In the second case, it is worth explaining that the person will not see the shock of the offender after the suicide.

All the suicidal plans should be taken seriously. Of course, not all the people who intimidate suicide do it. Still, 90% of those who committed suicide announced it earlier. So, the awareness of the suicide attempt may help to stop the tragedy.

It is considered that negotiators should attempt to prevent all the suicides. Negotiators should not judge the situation and the reasons for a suicidal person. They should also be careful not to be involved in the crisis themselves. The negotiators should be aware of the fact that a suicidal person may threaten the others and hurt them in the case of possibility. Finally, the negotiators should realize that any suicidal individual still hesitates. Otherwise, he or she would have committed the intended action without attracting the public.

Negotiation Process and Strategy

The negotiation process is dynamic and complicated. It presupposes some axioms to follow. The knowledge of these principles may contribute to the successful outcome of the negotiations process. Strentz (2012) mentions the following axioms. First, comes listening. “Contrary to popular belief and media representations, a good negotiator is a good listener, not necessarily a good talker” (Strentz, 2012, p.9). Negotiators observe what the subjects say, analyze their interpretation of what is going on, and decide on the best ways to get out of the situation. The negotiation team also has the secondary negotiator to aid in listening. Active listening skills are applied to encourage a person in crisis to tell a story.

Strentz defines active listening as “doing something to encourage the other person to do most of the talking” (2012, p.10). It is important to remember that the people in the crisis are usually guided by emotions, and describing the problem they involuntarily reveal what they wish to hear. As a rule, “people in crisis want to talk about their stress and stressors” (Strentz, 2012, p.10). Active listening has some steps to follow. These are to tolerate silence; it is possible to echo the last words of the person; emotional labeling in some situations is also acceptable. A negotiator may paraphrase and summarize the words of the person, or formulate some open-ended questions. The use of some inspiring words or “I”-messages may be useful (Strentz, 2012).

Another axiom is victimization. The suicidal subject usually has a story, and after it is revealed, a positive outcome becomes more probable. Often a reason for the suicide attempt is that person considers himself or herself a victim and this situation is the result of other people or conditions’ influence which was impossible to avoid. In this case, a subject and a victim are the same people, so the negotiator should be careful with the approach and tone of voice used.

The tone of voice is one more axiom of successful negotiations. It is the thing that a subject remembers even a long time after the incident. So, the voice of a negotiator should be reassuring and calm. The tone of voice is like a body language when the person is out of view. Role change is a tool to keep the subject quiet. A successful negotiator “must put his or her badge in a pocket and switch roles from correctional officer or cop to counselor (Strentz, 2012, p.12). It is vitally important to make communication emphatic. A negotiator will sound more convincing if he or she builds a relation of trust with the subject.

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One more axiom to be considered in the negotiation process is time. Most of the problems involving law enforcement should be solved as quickly as possible. Still, in suicide crises haste is ineffective. Careful time management is key to successful conflict settlement. Dr. Harvey Schlossberg (as cited in Strentz, 2012, p.13), introduced the notion of “Dynamic Inactivity.” It means that a negotiating team does nothing and stimulates the subject to discuss the situation. It is aimed at the change of the subject’s primary intention, which is to commit suicide. Such behavior demands patience from the negotiator but is rewarding.

Another important tactic of the negotiation process is to avoid direct refusal. A negotiator should not say “no,” the phrase “not now” can be more productive with some subjects.

In case suicide is suspected, immediate actions should be taken. The subject should not be left alone. The earlier the negotiator contacts a suicidal person, the more probable is the positive outcome. The negotiator should not ask for reasons. The person may not know the reasons, and it will just add frustration and nervousness (Greenstone, 2013). Concentration on the future is not effective with suicidal people, for they do not want the future and intend to kill themselves in the present. So, the focus on the present may be more productive. If the subject is armed, too much attention should not be paid to the weapon. Greenstone suggests the “rule of thumb: “Check out the “specificity of the suicidal plan” and the “lethality of the suicidal means” (2013, p.112). The risk of suicide increases depending on the plan specificity and the lethality of means.

There is a problem of good negotiators. Although it may seem that any officer who can calm a person and build certain relations can become a negotiator, it is not so simple. Just calming a subject does not mean a successful negotiation. It was believed that a suicidal individual would talk to a negotiator honestly. Still, the experience showed that people in the suicidal crisis often lie. Thus, a negotiator should not believe anything a suicidal person says, especially when it deals with the promise to give up the attempt of suicide. Another factor that pushes people to suicide and should be considered by negotiators, is the use of drugs and alcohol. They increase the risk of suicide. One of the important moments to observe in the negotiation process is the negotiation progress. A negotiator and the team should not be disoriented with the suicidal person’s positive mood or the promise to surrender.

The Role of Negotiator in Crisis Management

Starkey, Boyer, & Wilkenfeld present negotiator as an actor (2005). A successful negotiator changes roles and chooses methods to solve the problem peacefully. Still, the main task of a crisis negotiator is not to settle all the troubles of the subject. There are other specialists, like psychologists or social workers, who are in charge of people in trouble. Despite the reality and the importance of the problem, the task of a negotiator is to get the person out of the urgent crisis. As soon as the person is safe and cannot hurt himself or herself, other specialists may be engaged for further help.

The crisis negotiators in suicide situations let the subject know that they have the possibility and power to help. As a rule, suicidal people believe that no one can help them and everything can only get worse. The task of a negotiator is to convince the subject that there is an opportunity to solve the problem and give hope. In suicidal situations, it is advisable to mention the negotiator’s rank and repeat it during the conversation, for a rank is considered a symbol of power. A crucial moment in negotiation with a suicidal person is to make him believe that a negotiator has the power to aid.

The relation between the negotiator and the subject are similar to those of a doctor and a patient. It is wrong to treat this relation as friendly. Like the patient feels comfortable realizing that a doctor is the professional that will help to cure the illness, the same way the suicidal person should gain confidence in the process of negotiation. It is a kind of professional relations, where the subject has a problem, and a negotiator is a specialist able to help. The negotiator should remain an officer in authority, not a friend. As a law enforcement officer, he or she condemns suicide. This may stop people in a suicidal situation. So, the negotiator can be emphatic and supportive but needs to preserve the authority.

On the whole, negotiators should not judge. They should realize that a crisis solution is not therapy. No lecturing or moralizing is acceptable, for they may have the opposite effect. The subject’s feelings cannot be neglected (Lanceley, 2013). All these components together with strong personality make an effective and successful crisis-solving negotiator. People tend to act and react by their personality type. The same way they behave in the situation of stress. Thus, personality is important for a negotiator, for coping with stress and acting properly are crucial for this profession.

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Negotiation for Suicide Prevention: Life-Stories

There are numerous examples of both positive and negative outcomes of crises connected with suicide. Police officers sometimes even risk their lives to save others. Let us study some stories involving different negotiation methods. For example, a man barricaded himself. Before that, he had lost his job, reputation, and marriage. His ex-wife took their daughter and moved away. He thought his life was finished. So he made a plan to shoot himself. He was planning to leave a message for his wife, accusing her of his problems. The plan he made was serious enough. So, negotiators had to find an approach to interfere with his plan. They decided to concentrate on his previous successes rather than losses.

They contacted him on the phone as if they were asked by his daughter who could not contact him. He asked to leave him alone but hold the line, which was a positive sign. So they talked about his feelings after his wife left. In the conversation, the fact that he was going to kill himself with the overuse of barbiturates or shooting himself was revealed. The negotiator addressed the man’s professional field. The man was a doctor, so he was asked for a piece of advice for a person in depression. Finally, the man agreed to consult his friend, also a doctor. At last, he repeated this plan to the negotiator, put the gun away, and came out of the house (McMains, & Mullins, 2010). So, it was an example of a successful negotiation, appealing to the positive personal experience of the suicidal person.

The process of suicide negotiation often resembles a Hollywood movie with a tense plot, but it is real. Every word and movement of negotiator matters, for life, is on the scale. Scott Kraushar, a police officer, is a member of the negotiation team. He shared one of the success stories of a suicide rescue (Day, 2013). A man was going to jump off the brink of the waterfall. The team had two negotiators, the main and secondary. The main negotiator talks to the subject. At the same, time the task of the secondary negotiator is to listen and predict the subject’s actions. Kraushar mentions that negotiators contribute emotionally to the process. Their primary task is to make the person trust the negotiator. Even after the negotiation finishes successfully, the team may communicate with the subject for months to check his or her condition. The negotiations lasted for five hours. Finally, the team convinced the man not to jump.

Another example of well-organized teamwork is the rescue of a suicidal man on the Golden Gate Bridge (Golden Gate Bridge crisis negotiations). The bridge is a popular place for suicide. The work of the negotiation team here is complicated due to the traffic and lack of space. While the negotiator was talking to the man encouraging him to share, the bridge workers managed to get closer to the man and save him.

One more curious case of a successful negotiation outcome is that of Jonh Shoener (Crisis negotiators have a rare conversation with a suicidal man). He parked his truck, took pills, and drank beer. Besides, he had a gun near him when he phoned the police. Four-hour negotiations were stressful for he could kill himself at any moment. The final point in the rescue operation was the record of his wife’s voice. She said that she loved him, and that made him put the gun away and get out of the car. Later he came to meet the negotiation team to say thank you and to share his view on the effective strategies that may help rescue people like him.


In the contemporary world of digital communication people often get lonely and depressed. Of course, it is the task of medicine to heal both body and soul. Nevertheless, when people are not aware of the problems they have, they do not visit a doctor for a solution. Their depression gets deeper, and they find themselves in a suicide attempt. That is when a police negotiator can assist. The role of those people is vitally important in rescuing suicidal people. Their ability to listen, hear, analyze, make conclusions, and influence others can save people’s lives. The art of negotiation is not an easy thing. Not every police officer can become a good negotiator. Although those who choose this profession make an important thing, which is saving lives.


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Greenstone, J.L. (2013). The elements of police hostage and crisis negotiations: Critical incidents and how to respond to them. New York, NY: Routledge.

Grubb, A. (2013). Modern day hostage (crisis) negotiation: The evolution of an art form within the policing arena. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 15(5), 341–348. Web.

Lanceley, F.J. (2013). On-scene guide for crisis negotiators. (2nd ed.). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

McMains, M.J., & Mullins, W.S. (2010). Crisis negotiations: Managing critical incidents and hostage situations in law enforcement and corrections. (4th ed.). New Providence, NJ: Matthew Bender & Company, Inc.

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Thompson, J. (2014). Crisis or hostage negotiation? The distinction between two important terms. Web.

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