From hostage negotiations to business negotiations with Moty Cristal

“I am glad to be in New Zealand,” says renowned hostage negotiator and AMINZ workshop leader, Moty Cristal.

Moty Cristal

We are doing a group exercise which requires us to explain to each other a fairly complex factual scenario. The point is to show that if talking fails to clearly explain the situation, you may need to resort to writing, drawing or acting it out. “When I run this exercise in Russia,” he goes on, “and I ask them what they would do next, they say ‘You shoot!’”

Mr Cristal is no stranger to tense situations. From 1994 to 2001, he served in Israeli negotiation teams with Jordan and the Palestinians and was part of the negotiation team during the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002, which he describes as involving a lot of “creative thinking” (for example reframing “deportation” of the Palestinian fighters as them being “sent abroad”).

Since then, he has been involved with advising and training top business people and government officials around the world in complex negotiation processes, across sectors and topics as diverse as energy, financial, technological, pharmaceutical, transportation, cross-cultural disputes, union conflicts and national crisis management.

Today, he is translating the knowledge and skills gleaned in such situations (some of which are pretty alien to the average New Zealander) into principles and practices we can all use – whether as part of complex commercial negotiations, employment mediations, or indeed in everyday work and life when compromise or persuasion are called for.

Understanding the context

“There is a significant difference between ‘text’, ‘subtext’ and ‘context’,” says Mr Cristal. The “text” of a conversation is the actual words we use to communicate, but this is not the end of the story. The “context” in which those words are said can obviously greatly affect their meaning and impact, while the underlying “subtext” (the feelings in the room, the social construct in which the parties operate, the balance of power etc) is also perilous to ignore. Reactions to what a party says depend on how listeners interpret all three elements.

“As people of words, we must be careful about the ‘text’ we use, and, although we cannot control them, we must also be aware of the context and subtext,” says Mr Cristal – he personally would prefer to touch on any contextual or subtextual issues rather than leaving them as an elephant in the room.

Negotiating in “low” to “no trust” environments

As will appear from Mr Cristal’s CV, his speciality is negotiation in what he describes as “low” to “no trust” environments. His successes in achieving outcomes/agreements in circumstances where there is very little trust between the parties (or even none at all) leads him to seriously question the traditional/ Harvardian theory that getting the parties to trust each other is a critical ingredient for a successful negotiation – “It is nice to have but not a prerequisite.”

Although perhaps not quite on the same scale as an armed stand-off in Bethlehem, other situations where there can be very little trust between the parties may include business partners going their separate ways, discussions between parties to a divorce or union negotiations. Mr Cristal suggests that in such cases, there are better ways in which a mediator can utilise his or her time and skills than in trying to get the parties to trust each other. Nor does he think the Western concept of trying to achieve a “win/win” outcome is always helpful either – the concept is in fact very difficult or virtually impossible to translate or explain in some cultures (the word for “victory” in Russia, for example actually means “defeat of the other side”).

He offers quite a different framework within which to deal with low trust situations, based on three key principles:

  • the freedom to be angry – recognising that this is a legitimate way to feel can make parties more willing to come to terms;
  • creating trust in the process – if the parties are able to build the process together before substantive issues are dealt with, they have already agreed on some common ground; and
  • having respect for each other – this differs from trust, in that it is a responsibility on you to act in a certain way, rather than a requirement that the other side behaves in a trustworthy manner.

“You need to have a track record of being someone who treats their enemies with dignity, especially if you will continue to live in the same neighbourhood as them,” he says.

Motivation, interests and “reframing”

One of the first things Mr Cristal says he would try to figure out in a hostage negotiation is whether the hostage-taker is operating under an “instrumental motivation” or an “expressive motivation”. In other words, does the hostagetaker want to get something tangible, or are they doing it because they want to be heard, perceive something is unfair, or want to express anger (expressive)?

While the speed at which this is clarified is probably less life-threatening in business negotiations, it is still important to ascertain what the other side really wants and what it is that is most important to them, always making sure that you do not make assumptions about this based on your own value system.

If the person is motivated by instrumental or tangible factors, it means they are in a business mindset, and the way is open to do a deal. However, if they are in an expressive or intangible mindset, the process will be longer because you will first have to allow room for “venting”. This is often the pattern in negotiations between an indigenous group and the state – whereas the past and the chance to air feelings and frustrations is intrinsic to the process for the indigenous group, the state may be more focussed on the future and questions of quantification.

The art of “reframing” can be helpful here in clarifying what the “basic deal” is likely to be. Mr Cristal considers that we are “lucky to have the English language” to help us do this, as there are so many ways in which ideas and concepts can be expressed more positively – other languages can be more limited in this regard.

In the case of the Bethlehem siege, negotiators found it helpful to reframe the situation from a religious tinder box (involving as it did a clash of three major religions – Muslim fighters besieged inside the holiest place in Christendom, surrounded by a Jewish military force) into a “military standoff”, allowing all parties to focus on resolving it, rather than getting caught up in questions of faith and morality.

The art of persuasion

Mr Cristal also discussed a number of useful persuasive techniques which can form part of your strategic “toolbox” and which can be deployed as appropriate depending on the context – some of which are “rational”, some “emotional” and some “operational”. Particularly helpful suggestions included the following:

  • Introduce doubt – Many people try to persuade the other side that they are completely wrong and try to show them an alternative truth. However, it is sometimes enough just to introduce a little bit of doubt. People can be very sure/ overconfident – just question them a little.
  • Scenarios (“what if?”) – Often people can be “tunnel-visioned”, but ask them “what would the consequences be if we don’t reach agreement?” This helps people understand that not everyone sees the same reality they do.
  • Window of opportunity – This can serve as a strong emotional persuasive tool (for example “last day of the sale!”). People hate to feel like suckers for missing out!
  • Option A and option B – Always give two options (this also works well when trying to get your child to dress themselves in the morning!).
  • Trade-offs (reciprocity) – Mr Cristal says that a hostage negotiator “never gives things away for free”, but always asks for the release of a hostage or a phone conversation in return for doing something for the hostage-taker. Educate the other side that there is a quid pro quo and that there is a process to be followed.
  • Foot in the door – Get a little bit now (the “slowly, slowly” approach), even if you can’t get the whole deal you were after. This can also help in building a good process.
  • Call me back” – This technique is commonly used in hostage negotiations to strengthen the hostage-taker’s commitment to the process. Don’t be like a pushy salesperson or threaten the other side’s decision-making authority – instead ask them to “call you back”.

Moty Cristal visited New Zealand in September 2015 as the guest of the Arbitrators’ and Mediators’ Institute of New Zealand (AMINZ). He is the founder of NEST group and the CEO of Negotiation Strategies Ltd, a global consulting company which provides complex negotiations and crisis management training, and consulting and operational support to senior executives and governments. He is also a Professor for negotiation systems at SKOLKOVO, Moscow’s leading Business School and a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and the Lauder School of Government, Herzelia. 

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