Gary Noesner’s Stalling for Time: Lessons for Mediators

It isn’t often that I’m so absorbed in a book that I miss my subway stop. But that happened to me when I was reading Gary Noesner’s Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator. The book is fascinating reading, whether or not you’re the sort of person (as I am) who can be transfixed by movie scenes of high stakes negotiations. Aside from being an absorbing read, Noesner’s memoir contains some important lessons for mediators, even for mediators who hope never to negotiate with armed criminals.

The Importance of Coaching: FBI negotiators usually work in teams. While one officer negotiates, another listens and may offer suggestions via a passed note. The “coach” will often sense an opening or possibility that the active negotiator, listening and working in the moment, has not noticed. For example, FBI negotiators tried for weeks to persuade followers of David Koresh to leave their compound at Waco. Some did leave, including many of the children, but negotiations were slow and difficult because Koresh had a strong psychological hold on his followers. One woman got the courage to leave after the negotiator told her that her son, who had been released earlier, “needs a hug from his mom.” The primary negotiator told her this only because Noesner, acting as a coach, had been monitoring the ongoing conversation and sensed that this remark would be effective in getting her to think of her son’s emotional well-being and thereby weaken Koresh’s influence. Any mediators involved in complex, multi-party negotiations might benefit from working with a co-mediator.

Trust and Credibility: Noesner sometimes had to work hard to establish trust with his negotiating partners. His work brought him into contact with violent prison inmates, men who were angry and abusive towards women, religious fanatics, right-wing extremists, and mainstream political activists. Often, these were people from very different backgrounds with whom he had little in common. In every case, he treated those on the other side with respect and strove to make them feel like he cared about their well-being. Noesner tried at all times to project the view that he genuinely wanted to help them get out of their predicament with security and dignity.

De-briefing and Support: When negotiations have gone well – and especially when they haven’t – negotiators meet to discuss which techniques worked and which were less successful. FBI negotiators often work long hours in extremely stressful conditions, sometimes far from their families and the comforts of home. When a job is over, staying in touch with co-negotiators and talking things over is an important part of maintaining good mental health.

Safety: Although they are tough and confident around firearms, FBI negotiators place a high priority on their personal safety and do not put themselves at unnecessary risk.

Mediation Works: Noesner tells us about some pretty challenging cases, and not every story has a happy ending. Still, it was truly inspiring to read about his successes. A trained negotiator has important skills and the power to do good, to avert violence and to help resolve even those situations that might seem hopeless. This is important to keep in mind, even if the only high-stakes negotiations we are ever exposed to are in the movies.