What design researchers can learn from hostage negotiators

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It’s 2 a.m., and a call comes across the radio that a young man with a gun has barricaded himself and his mother in his home. No shots have been fired, and little communication has been established between the man and police officers outside. The officers on the scene report that the young man has been struggling with the loss of his job and feels like there’s no reason to live. The crisis response team has been called, and hostage negotiators are en route. It’s the negotiator’s job to ensure that the young man does not harm himself or others during this crisis.

What would you do? How would you handle this situation?

Throughout the past six years, the founders of ActiveComm Labs have not only been performing design research but also assisting the law enforcement community by conducting research on the communication patterns of hostage negotiators. Specifically, we have been analyzing the communication between the hostage negotiator and hostage taker to locate patterns that could introduce new strategies to help resolve crisis situations peacefully.

We’ve come to realize that the techniques used by hostage negotiators to resolve crises are also extremely valuable to user experience researchers. In essence, both parties are attempting to establish a relationship, both are trying to keep the communication flowing, and most importantly, both are trying to extract valuable data.

There are certain myths about hostage takers. Most of them are not bank robbers or terrorists demanding millions of dollars and a plane to Cuba. The vast majority of hostage situations are a result of domestic violence, psychological disorder, or barricade situations in which a person is threatening to commit suicide, possibly with a child in the next room. Hostage takers are usually confused, upset, and very scared. It’s also pretty rare for them to be outright hostile toward the negotiator. Hostage negotiators are trained to gather important data about the situation. Who’s in there? Is anyone hurt? What kind of weapons does the hostage taker have? How much ammo does he have? To do this, negotiators have to master a variety of communication techniques.

Have you ever worked with a research participant who will only give you “yes and no” answers? How about a participant who tells you exactly what you want to hear? These situations can be frustrating, especially when you invest so much time and energy in recruiting candidates. But these experiences don’t necessarily mean that these people can’t provide valuable data, it means that you need a different approach to extract that information.

A research session isn’t usually an emotionally charged situation and research participants aren’t typically in crisis, but the fundamentals of communication tend to hold true across different types of people and contexts. Our negotiation instructor told us that we should approach a hostage negotiation in much the same way as going on a first date; it’s important to bring a certain level of calm into the situation and put the hostage taker at ease. It is also extremely important to connect with the hostage taker on a personal level. Negotiation provides a great example of how to perform this kind of communication because it demonstrates these fundamental communication elements under the most difficult of conditions. Ultimately, negotiation is about two strangers coming together to work toward a common goal built on an understanding of each other, much like design research.

Application to Design Research

There are two types of behavior that we try to extract when conducting research:

  1. What the participant does (physical interaction with product)
  2. What he or she says (communication about the product)

Our goal is then to study the interaction between these behaviors in order to tell a story about the user’s experience of the product.

One of the most difficult parts of research is getting the participants to tell us their story about the product. Some researchers only focus on physical interaction data, but we think too much valuable content is lost. We’ve found that the communication piece of the equation provides the emotional and logical connection that participants make with products and how it relates to their lives.

With that said, one of the most common issues with communication-related data is how to gather accurate information. What a participant says is not always what he or she believes, and what a participant does is not always what the participant reports.

Much like a hostage negotiator, who must build trust in order to successfully resolve the crisis, a user experience researcher must establish a relationship with the participant in order to extract useful and accurate information. So, the fundamental element of becoming a better communicator, and also researcher, is to establish a relationship. Hostage negotiators focus on establishing relationships in order to save lives, there’s much we can learn from the methods that they have established.

Learning from Negotiators

Dominick J. Misino is a retired NYPD crisis negotiator who has been involved in more than 200 hostage and barricade incidents. He is recognized for his successful resolution of the Lufthansa hijacking in 1993 and numerous other successful negotiations. When it comes to communicating, Dominick knows what he’s doing. Since retiring, Dominick began training other hostage negotiators. To date, he’s trained thousands of negotiators across the country and around the world. A few years ago, we had the privilege to attend all three phases of Dominick’s negotiator training and certification program, which included hands-on practice as a negotiator and hostage taker. We learned communication techniques that we currently employ when interacting with research participants. These techniques include building rapport, building alliances, and using a team approach.

Building Rapport

Rapport is established through trust, open communication and empathy. Negotiators know that rapport is essential in their job. They use rapport to influence the hostage taker and gather information. If you can effectively build rapport with the participant, there is a higher likelihood he or she will trust you and disclose more information.

The following techniques used by hostage negotiators can help you build rapport with research participants:

  1. Go slow – Engage in small talk at first. If you dive right into business, the situation can become uncomfortable.
  2. Communicate openly – While you can’t disclose everything, it’s important to encourage an atmosphere of open communication. Tell the participant that there are certain aspects of the study that you can’t reveal, but he or she shouldn’t feel that you’re hiding something.
  3. Actively listen – When you are listening to a participant’s story, listen for the emotions behind the words. Ask open-ended questions that dig for the source of those emotions.
  4. Discuss personal topics – In a hostage situation, some of the most valuable topics that lead to a peaceful resolution are personal ones. The more a person feels that you accept them, the more comfortable they will feel with you.
  5. Share your experiences – Building rapport is as much about sharing your experiences as it is about listening to the other person’s. Negotiators know that the more you reveal about yourself, the more the participant feels like he or she knows you and therefore trusts you.
  6. Show you care – Hostage negotiators build rapport through empathy. Empathy is extremely important because it shows that you care about the other person and that you have their best interests in mind. As a researcher, you should do this also. If you show that you care, the participant will appreciate it and respond with more openness.


In a hostage situation, the negotiator works for the police department but he has to show the hostage taker that he’s on his side. In order to do this, the negotiator can never be the one in charge; it cripples his or her ability to negotiate. Anytime the negotiator has to tell the hostage taker “no” it’s because his boss is being a jerk. Anytime the negotiator says “yes,” whether it’s a pack of cigarettes or just some extra time, it’s because the negotiator fought hard to get it for him. The negotiator intentionally shifts the blame for anything negative and takes credit for anything positive. It convinces the hostage taker that the negotiator is on his side.

In user experience research, the researcher is on the side of the user. In our work, we establish this by telling the participant that we are not the people who designed the product and that their comments, whether good or bad, will not offend us. This establishes objectivity and allows a certain freedom in the research session. In most cases, participants open up when they hear that you have nothing at stake. Also, if the participant can see that you share his or her common goal of improving the product, the participant is more likely to be truthful in his or her evaluation.

Team Approach

Hostage negotiators always work in teams, and so should you. In the event of a hostage situation, a negotiation team is called to manage the situation. Each person in that team holds a different but critical role in the event. One of the most important positions on that team is the coach. As the negotiator acts as the primary point of contact with the hostage taker, the coach sits with the negotiator and functions as another pair of ears. The communication can move very quickly during a negotiation, and the negotiator can have a hard time catching all of it. The coach specializes in listening, controlling access to the negotiator, generating questions and helping guide the communication process by passing notes to the hostage negotiator. Through crisis negotiation training, my partner and I have learned that the ability to gather useful and accurate information dramatically increases when you work in teams. For example, when conducting an expert interview we have one person ask the questions and another person as a secondary moderator. Like the coach in negotiation, the secondary moderator listens closely, takes detailed notes and chimes in when he feels that something is being missed. This type of setup will reap maximum data in the shortest amount of time. We can’t always work in teams for logistic or financial reasons, but it is our preferred method.


For hostage negotiators, training is a crucial part of the job and they understand that the more you train, the more comfortable you will feel in the situation and in turn the better the outcome.

From what I have seen in the user experience community, little or no time is spent training on the best practices of communicating with participants. Every so often a workshop is attended but that only happens a few times a year. If we take a page from the book of negotiating, we would learn that just a little bit of training on a regular basis will take us to a whole new level of success. Here are some modified exercises that we can use to polish our communication skills as researchers:

  1. Communicate with new people all the time – every time you have a chance to meet someone new and learn about their life, do it. Ask questions about who they are, where they come from and what they’re like. When you start to feel more comfortable doing this, start pushing yourself and asking more intimate questions about their life such as “What keeps you up at night?” Play a little game with yourself where you try to learn as much as you can about a person in a short amount of time. Three things will happen when you do this. First, you will learn about boundaries and what you can ask and you should not ask. This doesn’t mean that you’ll necessarily insult people and then learn not to do it; it means that you will see what topics are challenging to people and how to pull that information out of them without upsetting them. You’ll also learn more about people in general and how they function in the world. You’ll get a better sense of behavior and start to see trends in people. Finally, you will make more friends in the process and that is always a nice outcome.
  2. Learn to listen – A well-known question asks, “When someone is speaking to you, do you think about what they are saying or do you think about what you are going to say next?” This is a very important question when learning to communicate more effectively with others. When you are communicating with participants or friends, really listen to what they are saying. Listen to the emotions behind the words, look at body language, and ask questions about their responses if they are unclear. There are sometimes differences between what a user will answer and what they believe. Ask yourself what those statements say about the speaker as a person; it will enable you to discover the areas where people are most passionate.
  3. Learn how to disclose – When talking with friends and new people, start disclosing about your life and observe how people respond. Most people will feel more comfortable sharing information if you share information also. You’ll be amazed at how quickly people will open up.
  4. Learn to trust your gut – When working with a participant or talking with a friend, learn to listen to your instincts. There are times when you need to speak up, times when you need to bring the communication back on track and times when you need to let the other person just open up and talk about whatever they feel is important. Different types of communication are needed for different situations. If you train frequently, you will notice that your gut tells you what you need to do.


This article began with a scenario of a hostage situation. After the first 30 minutes, the hostage taker and negotiator were talking like old friends about food, sports, and pets. At two hours, the hostage taker confided in the negotiator about his relationship problems and issues that led to him losing his job. At two and a half hours, the young man sent his mother out of the house, despite her protests that she wanted to stay with her son. At four hours, the young man placed his empty gun in a bucket attached to a rope outside an open window, where it was retrieved by the police tactical team. At 7:50am, after five hours and fifty minutes of negotiation, the young man peacefully exited his home and surrendered to police. The negotiator followed up on all of his promises. He rode with the young man to the police station, allowed his mother to visit so that he could apologize and even made a statement on the young man’s behalf at his trial, resulting in a reduced sentence.

This process should be mirrored in a research session in a condensed period of time. After the first ten or fifteen minutes, the participant should feel like you know each other and feel pretty comfortable talking with you about your product or service. After about twenty minutes, the participant should understand the product and its goals. After thirty minutes, the participant should be discussing how the product would fit into his or her life. In order to achieve this, some form of communication training should be implemented. Researchers typically receive a great deal of training in research methods, statistics, human factors and elements of design, but little training on advanced communication. Researchers who really want to invest into their skills as a researcher should think about spending time and energy to learn effective communication methods.


  1. Interesting comparison. Not that we are taking hostages, but there are times when we enter into a very intellectually private zone. I like how you included a section on using your real life communication skills to train yourself. There’s always a chance to improve if you are paying attention.

  2. Thanks for the comment Tammy. You are correct, if you are paying attention and really want to improve your skills, there are techniques you can use to train yourself to be an excellent communicator. It’s amazing how proficient you can be once you start training regularly.

  3. Great article! I appreciate that it addresses the importance of the human element, not just as it applies to a product or service, but rather how it applies to understanding what truly makes people tick. As we see more and more products and services becoming commodities, the focus has to be on the people. Great product and service experiences should feel like a satisfying conversation. Understanding the fundamental principles that give people the feeling of a satisfying conversation, both on the consumer side and arguably more importantly, with the front-line employees who are delivering a service, is emerging as a key focus area for all industries. Companies will need to take this stuff seriously and create a sense of urgency around these issues if they expect to not only compete, but survive. Nice work Bryan and Demetrius!

  4. Brian,

    What an amazing article! This is the best article on communication I ever read. I learned a lot about communication just by reading your article.

    Thank you for the excellent contribution!
    Giselle Mazurat (formerly Conyette)
    Technical Writer
    Toronto, Ontario

  5. Demetrius,

    My comment applies to you as well seeing that you are a co-author. Thank you very much for your excellent contribution! Amazing work!

    Giselle Mazurat (formerly Conyette)
    Technical Writer
    Toronto, Ontario

  6. Hi Brian,

    It’s an amazing article and one of the greatest example of user research and its abilities to perform interviews.
    Really the way it has been narrated makes really simple even for a layman to understand the importance of communication in real life.

    Pranay Bansal
    User Experience Designer

  7. Hi

    congratulations with great article.
    I will start training at work as soon as I get back to the office on monday, but I will not use this on the personal arena, there I think the best is to be yourself!
    It is irritating when people is using different communication techniques in the private area and you find out (lots of people taking these kind of courses today), then you really wonder if you are getting to know the person or being examined…

    Very useful thanks!


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