Negotiation Tips from a Hostage Negotiator

I’m the only one who can get you out of the situation that you’re in.

Negotiation Tips from a Hostage Negotiator

Whether negotiating for a raise to save for a dream home, or a contract to finally sell that “passion project,” a negotiation can sometimes feel like life or death.  Law enforcement and hostage negotiation expert Scott Wagner, retired New York Police Department homicide detective, advises that negotiating means careful listening.  


Out of about 4,000 NYPD detectives, up until his retirement shortly after 9/11, Wagner was on an elite force of 95 hostage negotiators, trained as emergency psychological technicians.  Working homicide in lower Manhattan for over 23 years, Wagner was always on call, ready to rush at a moment’s notice to the scene of a police stand-off. “You could be in the middle of a homicide investigation,” he said, “and you just had to get in your car and go.”

Ninety-five-percent of the time, a task force of heavily guarded and armed officers would be on the scene first, he said, and already had the situation under control. But for the life-threatening five-percent, when a hostage situation could last for a few days, Wagner would often have to build and maintain rapport with a deranged human being.

To get through 23 years on the force and never lose a hostage, Wagner relied on his sensitive side.  “Listen very carefully to what people say. Take notes,” he said, offering his advice to would-be stealth negotiators.  

He stresses that tense negotiation requires a listening coach—a third party whose job it is to objectively listen and take notes for you. “I live by the credo that there are three sides to every story,” he added. “An impartial third person listening in on the conversation [is the third side].”  He warns that engaging in the conversation risks overlooking important details.

Following the renowned protocol developed by NYPD’s Richard Bolz and Robert Louden in the 1970s, his hostage negotiations always included a “coach” who would listen through headphones to Wagner’s conversation with the hostage-taker and write down details. If, for instance, the hostage-taker repeated the word ‘mom’ two times—something Wagner missed—the coach would write a note up on the white board, flagging this as opportunity to steer the conversation toward resolution.

Who makes ideal “listening coaches,” according to Wagner?  Women. “I always like to have a woman as a coach,” he said. “Women hear things and have a way of looking at things differently than men. I value a woman’s intuition. Even if she wasn’t a negotiator, I would get a female cop and put a pair of headphones on her to have her listen in.”

To emphasize this point, Wagner mentioned how his first partner on the force was a female, which brought him flack from other male officers who questioned how he could feel safe in the field.  “I’d say, yeah, I feel safe out there. I’m better off, [because] I have her opinion.”

Along with careful listening, Wagner advises abiding by the motto of the hostage unit of the NYPD: Talk to me. “As long as you have them talking,” he said, “they’re not killing anybody.”  To stretch and translate this into a business mores, let the other side talk so you can get to the heart of what they care about and then focus on shared interests.

“That’s what detectives do. We talk to people,” he said. “I have to convince you that I’m your world, I’m the only one who can save you. I’m the only one who can get you out of the situation that you’re in.“

To strike this balance of cautious intimacy, Wagner shared, “You go in soft but you go in firm. You don’t get too personal right away. You never say ‘I’m Scott.’ I say, ‘I’m Detective Wagner.’  If things are going well, I say, ‘why don’t you call me Scott.’ You have to know when to relinquish some of your authority and when to maintain.”

As a result of his career on the force, Wagner jokes that, while watching the news together, his wife is sometimes shocked that he can empathize with criminals. It comes with decades of earning their trust, and getting inside their heads. "You’ve got to learn to read people very quickly. The inflections in their voice," he said, which leads to an ability to "understand why things happen without condoning them. You can’t investigate it or get in someone’s head unless you understand what motivates them to do what they do. You have to understand what makes them tick and what do they really want."

Sometimes, engaging with someone, letting them be heard isn’t enough, unfortunately. “A lot of times they take their own life and it hurts. When you’ve been on the phone with someone for 15 hours and they take their own life, a part of you goes with them. You do develop closeness, a rapport,” he said.

Despite the outcome--tragic or peaceful--every NYPD hostage negotiation is filmed and goes through an extensive critique. "We learn from every job we do," Wagner said, but was quick to add, “No two situations are alike. You have to be very open minded.”

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7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

Nero's Torches. A group of early Christian martyrs about to be burned alive during the reign of emperor Nero in 64 AD.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
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  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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