FBI negotiator says everyone can benefit from negotiating

02/04/11 Zack Baddorf
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You’ve probably seen hostage negotiations played out dramatically in movies like “The Negotiator” with Samuel L. Jackson. Last week, at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, an actual FBI hostage negotiator spoke about the reality of how he saved lives.

To learn more about Gary Noesner, check out his new book “Stalling for Time.”

Gary Noesner had always wanted to join the FBI.

“A career in the FBI was something I wanted to do from about the age of 12 when I saw a television show about the FBI and it intrigued me.”

After going to Florida Southern College, he joined up. But it’s not exactly what you see on TV.

“Television certainly glamorizes life in any police kind of drama. And of course they have to show a lot of action. And while all of those things can in fact reflect actual activities, those sorts of things don’t happen day in day out in most careers.”

Yet, over his 30 year career, Noesner was involved in his share of exciting cases, like the siege on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and the Washington D.C. sniper case. He also responded to prison riots, right-wing militia standoffs, terrorist embassy takeovers, and airplane hijackings. He describes his career as a ”dream come true.”

But Noesner says hostage negotiation is an under-appreciated and undervalued specialty that saves lives. He says people need to understand that negotiation is not capitulation. When he got into the field in 1980, the discipline was only a few years old.

“In those days, law enforcement agencies dealing with crises would often surround the location and demand surrender. And when then didn’t happen they would then use their force option and send police officers in harm’s way to affect an arrest and resolve a hostage crisis. And that often led to very bad consequences with lives lost for all involved. The development of negotiations really allowed us to have a more thoughtful, patient, strategic way of resolving a crisis."

Noesner says that it may take time to resolve a situation but for good cause.

“A slow patient approach while it may seem expensive and time consuming and disrupt movement around the city, is really the smart course of action because at the end of the day, the goal is to save lives and listening is the cheapest concession we can make.”

He says this is an approach that’s applicable to everyday life with your children, spouses, neighbors, and coworkers. Noesner shared these words of advice at his alma mater in Lakeland with about 250 people.

Sgt. Rian Shea was one of the audience members. He’s worked in the Polk County Sheriff’s Office as a member of the SWAT team for about 11 years now. And he, too, believes active listening is critical.

“I think a lot of the challenges of law enforcement is, law enforcement officers, most of the time, want to get their opinion out there. And rather than hear what the person they are trying to help, listen to what they are trying to say and what they need from us in order for us to help them."

Noemi Vega, a Miami native who is now a student at the Florida Southern College, also listened to Noesner’s talk.

“It was really cool to see their perspective on things because we always see like television but it’s not always the same thing on television. It’s really cool to see the real thing, to hear about his experiences and everything.”

One of Noesner’s former fraternity brothers also showed up for the lecture. Larry Stahl says Noesner was a catalyst for change within the FBI. And Stahl said he learned something from the event.

“I learned that in spite of this being about criminal hostage negotiators, all of us, as those of us who are a little older look back at our own lives, our business, our families, our community, we all have to be negotiators. We all have done it in some form or fashion.”

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