How to negotiate for what you want in politics
Hostage negotiator Suzanne Williams provides some advice on how to get agreement in a divided and febrile environment
Polarisation has become the defining feature of modern politics. The framing of complex debates as binary choices has heightened the stakes in an already hyper-charged arena.
It has made difficult negotiations seem almost impossible and cooperation, even on issues that require a collective response like COVID, even harder.
Suzanne Williams is a woman who knows a little something about tough conversations. She is an internationally renowned hostage negotiator.
“A lot of people think [to be a good negotiator] you just need the gift of the gab, to be a very good wordsmith and that truly is not the case at all,” she says. “Without a doubt the best skill you should have is to be a good listener.
“You should be a calm person who doesn’t get rattled. Of all the things that are going on within a hostage negotiation, you’re not really in control of much but the one thing you really must be in control of is your emotion.”
Williams has done the job for almost 30 years, after a colleague in the police force “noticed something in me that I didn’t notice in myself – I was quite a pacifist, always the peacemaker”.
Since then, she has been head of the Kidnap and the Hostage Crisis Negotiation Units at Scotland Yard, an accredited hostage negotiator for the FBI, and an adviser to COBRA, the UK Government’s crisis response team. Incidentally, she also attended the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 alongside the Queen as part of royalty protection.
She’s used to high pressure situations. She’s also experienced the kind of “toxic environment” that leads to the breakdown of communication and stalemate. When this happens, it’s important to “call time out, regroup, and try and assess what the blockage is about,” she says.
“Sometimes it’s the environment. Sometimes it’s the people. You know how sometimes it’s not a good fit, it’s just not the right people for whatever reason – past experiences, maybe, culture, there’s lots of reasons why it’s not a good fit. And so if you can change the people, that may be the reason to go forward.”
If there is still no clear path, it’s time to look at concessions and what can be given away as part of the negotiation strategy. But that does not necessarily mean compromise.
Williams says: “Compromise is a bit lazy, a lazy way of negotiating … I’m not saying compromise is wrong, but it comes with a health warning. Both people could end up with what they don’t want if you’re not careful. Really, it’s about understanding what the other person’s priorities are, what’s important to them.”
Building trust is important too. That starts from first impressions, but Williams accepts that in politics those impressions have often already been formed. “A lot of the men and women you’re talking about have been around each other for years. They socialise, they’ve got mutual friends, there’s a lot of history there. That takes away that clean cut business approach.”
That doesn’t mean trust cannot be rebuilt, as long as people do “exactly what you say you are going to do”.
“My friends always laugh at me because with normal people, if they say I’ll ring you at three, it’s ‘I’ll ring you about three’. But not with me, I’ve been doing this so long that if I say I’ll ring you, I will ring you bang on the time of three because that’s the way I’m programmed”, she jokes.
And there is absolutely no room for ego in negotiation. That “gets in the way of good communication,” she says, as does PR. “Everybody’s got a PR machine in the environment that you’re in, so often people want to create a reality through PR. Finding the real trust must be difficult … what’s true and what’s PR? And what’s news and what’s fake news?”
That’s become a bigger problem recently. “You definitely have to go more to your source about information and facts whereas perhaps a few years ago, you didn’t question information or news or facts as much as you do now, but because there’s so much artificial intelligence and other stuff out there, you really have to peel back the layers and make sure that what you’re talking about is a fact.”
So, does Williams think any of her skills could be useful in politics? “Apart from the ability to control your own emotion, one of the greatest skills – I don’t know if it’s a skill or quality actually – but you have to have the ability to see the situation as the other person sees it.
“Other people think that that means you’ve got to agree with them, but you haven’t. You can strongly disagree with their position, but you must have the ability to look at it from their perspective.
“That’s something we don’t do. We all have this default position that we look at everything, particularly if it’s something personal to us or something we’re passionate about like politics, we have this default position that our world view, our life experiences, our perception, our biases, conscious or otherwise, they must be right. That’s not always the case.”
She adds: “You have got to put yourself in their shoes. You’ve got to do that otherwise you haven’t earned the right to connect and if you don’t connect, then you don’t have good communication. If you don’t have good communication, then it can’t lead to negotiation.”