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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

New Aasra write-up in The Khaleej Times Weekend Magazine


Finding middle ground
Karen Ann Monsy
Friday, December 07, 2012

Not everyone knows to deal with conflicts or crises very well. They happen all the time, some with higher stakes than others, but the rules for negotiating them remain pretty much the same
Not everyone knows to deal with conflicts or crises very well. They happen all the time, some with higher stakes than others, but the rules for negotiating them remain pretty much the same
When faced with a critical situation, the immediate human reaction can go either one of two ways: they may act quickly, calmly and effectively — or they may demonstrate what someone who’s ‘lost it’ looks like in person.
Crises come in many forms, the more serious ones ranging from hostage situations and life-threatening emergencies to boardroom battles and marital splits. While many would gladly opt to stay well away from conflict (in any of its forms, whether their own or others’), there are a few crisis negotiators who regularly take on the mantle of walking that fine middle line in the hopes of finding a favourable resolution to all. We speak to a few folks who have learned to battle the high stakes and still play it cool.

“Don’t be a hostage”
It’s true that extreme circumstances may sometimes be the best way to confront one’s true potential. American citizen George Kohlrieser certainly discovered his the first time he got taken hostage. The experience was traumatic but it paved the way for a career as a clinical psychologist that includes 35 years as a hostage negotiator. His story of how that came to be is far more personal than most and, as you may have guessed, a little extreme.
FORGING BONDS: George Kohlrieser warns we can be taken hostage without weapons, if not careful
He’d signed up to participate in a domestic violence protection programme right after grad school, and on one of the days when he was driving around with the police, they got a distress call from a local hospital, where a “psychotic man was holding a nurse hostage”. A quick assessment of the situation told the lieutenant in charge there was only one option: someone had to go in. “To my surprise, it was me he asked,” George narrates. “But I agreed and went in. The man wasn’t happy to see me and, within a few minutes, had cut the nurse’s throat (though not her jugular).”
He quickly took George hostage with a pair of scissors at his throat. But after an extended negotiation of about 20-30 minutes, George had managed to convince him to give up the nurse, the scissors — and himself. He puts it down to the emotional bond he managed to form with his captor: “At one point, I’d asked him how he wanted his children to remember him. With rage, he shouted: “Don’t talk about my kids. In fact, get them here; I’ll kill them too!” It wasn’t a rational answer but it was an answer to my question — the first one. In fact, he did love his kids. We later learnt the whole scene was a result of getting into a fight with his ex-wife after he broke a court order to see the kids.”
George got taken hostage three more times after this (these things happen) but it was the first incident that changed his life for good. Currently a professor of Leadership and Organisational Behaviour at reputed business school IMD in Switzerland, the 67-year-old is not involved in direct hostage negotiation today but teaches many of the same negotiation techniques as applicable to everyday living. “The fact is you can be a hostage without weapons — to a boss, to ideas, to children, spouses, in-laws etc,” he states. “But the same techniques we use in hostage negotiation can be used in those situations where you’re psychologically held hostage, powerless or entrapped.”
He encourages building bridges but draws the line at being taken hostage. “Learn to say no without offending the other person. Learn to tolerate conflict and talk your way through the differences. A hostage negotiator’s best tool is not a gun — but his words and how they’re used. You must be master of your own fate.”

Corporate techniques
Crises are nothing new to Washington-based Christopher Voss, whose cool negotiation style caused some colleagues to dub it as “very Zen” during his seven-year tenure as lead kidnapping negotiator at the FBI. The former special agent spent a total of 24 years in the agency’s service and worked in excess of 150 kidnapping cases while there, but it was the botched rescue attempt of the 2001 Burnham-Sobero case (American missionaries and citizen who’d been kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf group) that made him step back and change his entire outlook on things.
ACE NEGOTIATOR: Christopher Voss has adapted several techniques they used in hostage crises for the corporate world
“It was the first time I’d worked a case where people got killed, especially when we thought they were going to be released towards the end. It was probably the worst professional moment in my career and a pretty low point in my personal life too when I got called in the morning and got told that Martin Burnham had been killed. That’s when I wanted to understand the dynamics of what had happened. I vowed to myself I’d never let that happen again.”
Christopher ended up on the Harvard Law School negotiation course, where he rediscovered techniques they’d “already known but whose power they didn’t entirely realise”. He left the FBI in 2007 and eventually opened his own firm of negotiation experts called The Black Swan Group that has adapted crisis negotiation techniques for the business world. In other words, he posits that several techniques learned on the front lines of negotiation in international kidnapping crises can go a long way to making or breaking deals in the corporate world — if you know to use them.
For example, most people go into a negotiation looking to ‘win’. “That’s short term thinking,” he contends. “You can cut someone’s throat in a bargain and win every last dollar on the table but those people are never going to want to talk to you again. What’s more, your reputation precedes you so no one will make good deals with you. No one complains about doing business with Warren Buffet because those who do prosper. That’s the sort of negotiator you want to be.”
While there are many qualities to a good negotiator, Christopher, who is also an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University McDonough School of Business today, considers integrity paramount to success. “First off, most people that take hostages are generally really good liars anyway,” he says. Likewise, even in the corporate world, the consultant says some of the best businessmen he knows often ask their counterparts set-up questions to begin with so they know clearly later on when they’re being lied to. And that would just be a deal-breaker.

Help on the line
When Mumbai-based Johnson Thomas received a call a few months back from a compatriot in Milan threatening suicide by poison, the 37-year-old coolly allowed the distressed caller to vent his frustrations till eventually, he calmed down, listened as Johnson reasoned with him and, finally, ended the call after promising to get in touch if he felt unable to handle the pressure again. Random, you say? Not at all. That call was just one of over three lakh calls that Johnson’s 24-hour suicide prevention hotline Aasra has received over the last 14 years. Well, 3,15,434 calls as of last week, to be unnervingly precise.

PATIENT LISTENER: Johnson Thomas helped found Aasra as a suicide prevention hotline in 1998
A freelance journalist and film critic by profession, Johnson founded the helpline in 1998 after one of his students from the orphanage he taught at after college in those days committed suicide. “I met a lot of kids who were disturbed, distressed and suicidal there,” he recalls. “But maybe if I’d paid a little more attention to that student, he might still be alive today.” The tragedy spurred him to contact international charity Befrienders Worldwide/Samaritans, and together with some like-minded individuals, Aasra was born.
The number of callers has jumped greatly since the service first began. But years on, he admits you still never know what you’re going to get with a caller today. They range from as young as 10-year-olds wanting to take their lives to 75-year-olds too weary to go on. No matter what their profile, each caller gets a patient, listening ear – the oldest, most effective disarming technique to date. “We’ve learned they don’t really want to end their lives… just somehow kill the pain they’re experiencing. So we provide complete emotional support and aim to lower their tensions to the point where we can get them to think of options other than suicide.”
It’s not a job for everyone, Johnson concedes. “You need to have the innate ability to empathise with these callers because if you can’t, you won’t be able to adapt to the repertoire [of distressed callers and their issues]. The idea is to stay calm and allow them to express themselves without judgement or criticism.” And that works across the board — whether you’re a parent, sibling or friend.

When love has lost…
The honeymoon period is over and the strains are starting to show. At times, it’s on decades of marital… togetherness that the curtains are set to close. It’s when the legal route is inevitable that family law solicitor Alexandra Tribe steps in to mediate the process.

MEDIATOR: When things go sour in a marriage, Alexandra Tribe steps in to ease the legal process
The 36-year-old Briton, who trained as a resolution accredited specialist before moving to Dubai in 2007 and establishing the Expatriate Law division at Al Rowaad Advocates, says her first advice to feuding couples is always to reconsider. “Since I’ve been in Dubai, I’ve probably divorced about 300 expats, about 20-30 per cent of which end up in court,” she notes. “The remaining are dealt with amicably through negotiations so that a court decision isn’t required.”
If the couple insist on calling it quits, the negotiations — so integral to keep things from turning ugly — begin. “It’s very common, when parties separate, for emotions to run high. They often don’t want to speak to each other so that’s where I get involved, negotiating so that the transition is smooth, especially if there are children involved.” The division of financial and marital assets are one thing, but Alexandra finds there’s often a lot of anxiety about what will happen with the kids. “If an agreement about the children is reached early on, other financial compromises tend to be easier to sort.”
Quarrels can get petty and trivial, with both parties using their solicitors to trade stingers. But that is a game Alexandra is not too keen to play. “I have to remind them to take a step back and focus on the important issues otherwise costs will unnecessarily escalate and there’ll be more hostility between the two,” she explains. “I often find the husband/wife want to use me as a voice for their anger, which is inappropriate since I’m there to resolve the problem...”
With so much hostility to deal with every day, it’s only inevitable for things to get to the professional at times as well. “Clients are understandably upset and emotional when they come to see me, and I always have a box of tissues on my desk. It’s quite hard but I see my job as resolving the problem so I try not to get too swept up in the happenings and focus on reaching a good outcome for them as soon as possible so they can move on with their lives.”

Facing the fire
A fire fighter by profession for the last 17 years, Fujairah-based Pieter Smit says he is “in negotiations” all the time. From trying to convince an old South African lady to leave the house that was burning down around her (“it was all she had left”) to coaxing trapped cats out of elevator shafts and poisonous snakes out of residences (“we negotiate with animals too”), the South African national has probably done it all.

TO THE RESCUE: Pieter Smit (left) with fellowfire fighters during a water rescue training session in Saudi Arabia
The 36-year-old first started as a volunteer at school before landing a permanent position at the local fire department then moving on to work with the UN mission in Congo and the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. Currently the lead fire fighter at oil and gas company ADCO, Pieter says negotiation skills are critical in his line of work because “firemen usually find people at their worst — when their property has been destroyed or family members are in grave danger… Everything is chaos and nobody’s thinking straight.”
Some of the most trying situations, however, involve crowd control more than search-and-rescue, he feels. “People want you to help them but in some situations, it’s just too dangerous. Sometimes, a building may be in danger of collapse and you have to remove all the emergency workers from the area. The public doesn’t always understand why the fire fighters are, at that stage, standing back and doing nothing.” Though he and his team try to explain the situation calmly to those distraught, Pieter admits they often bear the brunt of a lot of fiery tempers too. “You have to be patient with them,” he reasons. “It comes with a fireman’s temperament. That’s why I always say: firemen are born, not made.”
Of all the negotiations he’s been part of, perhaps none were as interesting as when there were cultural mores to consider during those perilous operations as well. Take the 2009 Jeddah floods, he says. The country’s worst floods raged almost two metres high, destroying many homes and sweeping away thousands of vehicles. “There we were trying to get people out of houses but all the women had locked themselves up inside. Due to the local custom, they couldn’t speak to us either.” How did they manage? “Very carefully!” he laughs. “Thankfully, the security guards helped us explain... You still had to wait for them to put theiron — but times like these, you just go with the flow!”
Everyone deals with some form of crisis everyday. The point is, whether in the bedroom, the boardroom or the courtroom, neither aggression nor non-resistance will help. It’s all about finding middle ground.

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