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Key Takeaways

  • Melissa’s psychology background, rather than traditional law enforcement or military experience, provided valuable interpersonal skills crucial for FBI negotiations.
  • Effective communication and understanding human behavior are vital in law enforcement, often more than physical prowess.
  • Handling complex and emotionally charged situations such as kidnappings requires patience and strategic communication.
  • Teaching law enforcement officers to slow down and gather intelligence is essential for successful crisis resolution.
  • Melissa’s company focuses on transforming relationships through improved communication and negotiation skills.
  • Thorough information gathering and understanding different perspectives are crucial for effective negotiations
  • Building trust and credibility within an organization is key to influencing decision-making and integrating negotiation strategies.
  • A shift towards cautious and patient approaches in the FBI has led to safer and more successful outcomes in high-stakes situations.

Executive Summary:

Hey everyone! Thanks for joining us on a brand new episode of the NEGOTIATEx podcast. We are joined by Melissa Fortunato, a retired FBI special agent. Melissa served for over 23 years in the FBI’s New York and Cleveland field offices. 

Throughout her career, she gained extensive training and experience in crisis resolution and negotiations, operating as a crisis negotiator and team leader for the FBI Cleveland’s crisis negotiation team. 

Additionally, Melissa has trained hundreds of law enforcement officers, instructed at the International Law Enforcement Academy in Hungary, and represented the FBI at Scotland Yard’s Hostage Negotiation Course in England. 

Melissa’s strong skills in strategic assessment and targeting were honed during her time as an undercover agent, working both domestically and internationally. One of her cases was briefed to the President of the United States and earned her the FBI’s Director’s Award. 

Now retired, Melissa shares her knowledge and experience as a negotiation and conflict resolution trainer and consultant. She is the founder and chief negotiation officer for Alchemy-Team

Now, with the introduction out of the way, let’s uncover the insights Melissa provides in this episode.

From Counselor To Crisis Negotiator: Melissa’s Unique Journey To The FBI

Nolan kicks off the discussion by asking Melissa to reflect on her career journey and what led her to the FBI and become a crisis negotiator. 

Melissa shares that her path to the FBI was unique and unexpected. She explains that her background in psychology, rather than a typical law enforcement or military background, initially made her family find her career choice surprising. 

Prior to joining the FBI, she worked as a counselor and social worker at a rape crisis center, with plans to become a psychologist. Her deep fascination with human behavior, particularly why people commit crimes, guided her career choices. A chance encounter and subsequent introductions led her to consider a career in the FBI, which eventually became a reality and a highly rewarding decision.

Melissa notes how her psychology background perfectly suited her FBI role, challenging the belief that FBI agents mainly come from law enforcement, military, accounting, or legal fields. She explains that her ability to understand and communicate with people proved invaluable. 

Whether dealing with her team, colleagues, or individuals they were investigating, her skills in psychology helped her navigate these interactions effectively. She notes that many traditional FBI agents, who might be strong and tough, often struggled with the interpersonal aspects of the job, which were critical for gathering information and cooperation. 

Her psychology background enabled her to connect with people, gain their trust, and extract crucial information, which she found to be a significant advantage in her work.

Aram then probes further into how Melissa applied her psychology background daily in her FBI role. Melissa elaborates that the job is more about people skills than physical prowess. She recounts how her ability to communicate effectively and build rapport with witnesses and targets was crucial. This skill set allowed her to persuade individuals to cooperate, even when it went against their self-interests or allegiances. 

She observed that while some agents struggled with these interpersonal aspects, her psychology training enabled her to succeed. Melissa utilized her psychology degree extensively, both in investigative work and specialized FBI tracks, showcasing how her unique background provided essential tools for her role.

Melissa’s Most Challenging Kidnapping Negotiation

Aram praises Melissa’s insights on the strengths required in negotiation, emphasizing the importance of connection and listening. He then asks Melissa to describe the most difficult negotiation she handled while on the crisis negotiation team. 

Melissa recalls a particularly challenging case involving the kidnapping for ransom of an American citizen in Afghanistan, which lasted for 56 days. The negotiation involved numerous micro-negotiations within the larger framework, demanding the use of all their negotiation skills.

The case was complex not only because it involved a kidnapping for ransom but also due to language barriers and the personal relationships involved. The wife of the kidnapped individual had to negotiate directly with her husband due to a dialect issue, adding a unique and emotionally charged dynamic. 

Melissa and her team had to coach the wife through these conversations, helping her stay composed despite the immense stress and emotional toll. Additionally, the family’s Mennonite faith, which emphasized non-violence, further complicated the situation, as they were uncomfortable with any potential for violence, even towards the kidnappers.

The negotiation process was complicated by the involvement of multiple parties, including the military and government agencies, requiring coordinated efforts in negotiating ransom demands and gathering intelligence for a possible rescue.

Despite these challenges, the negotiation was ultimately successful, and the military was able to rescue the kidnapped individual based on the intelligence gathered.

However, the story took a tragic turn. After rescue and returning to the U.S., he felt compelled to return to Afghanistan due to deep community attachment and a sense of unfairness that he escaped while locals could not.

Sadly, he was kidnapped again upon his return and was murdered. Melissa reflects, acknowledging that while his decision to return might seem incomprehensible, understanding his perspective reveals a deeper commitment to the people he had lived and worked with in Afghanistan.

Training Patience: The Challenge Of Preparing Crisis Negotiators

Moving on, Nolan inquires about the hardest aspect of training negotiators, particularly contrasting crisis negotiators with corporate negotiators. 

Melissa explains that there are some differences between the two, but one of the most challenging aspects of training crisis negotiators is teaching patience. Law enforcement officers often have a mindset of quickly resolving issues because there’s always another crisis to handle, so slowing down and taking time to understand the situation is difficult for them. 

She emphasizes the importance of slowing things down, particularly at the height of a crisis and at the end, as it helps in leveling off emotions, gathering more intelligence, and managing expectations.

Melissa highlights that many people involved in crises have multiple layers of problems that can’t be fixed quickly. She compares this to dealing with her children, noting that often, people just need space to vent and process their emotions. 

Although business negotiations might not be as emotionally charged as crisis situations, emotions still play a significant role. She advises that taking time to make decisions and building relationships can be beneficial in the long run, even though some industries prioritize speed.

Melissa shares an interesting experience where she was approached to work on a television show. She had to negotiate her pay and title, an unfamiliar industry. While her instinct was to slow down the negotiation process, her lawyer advised against it, explaining that delaying could result in losing the opportunity in Hollywood. 

This situation taught her to adapt her negotiation style to different industries. Unfortunately, despite the negotiations, the project didn’t proceed due to the writer’s strike, and by the time it ended, other competing shows had taken precedence. 

Melissa notes that she managed her expectations from the beginning, understanding the unpredictable nature of the industry.

Transforming Relationships With Melissa’s Alchemy Team

Aram acknowledges the difficulty in managing the tempo of negotiations, highlighting Melissa’s earlier points about the importance of taking time and suspending judgment. He connects this to her previous story about the kidnapping for ransom in Afghanistan, emphasizing that rushing can lead to failure. 

Aram then asks Melissa about her company, Alchemy Team, and the significance behind its name.

Melissa explains that she chose the name “Alchemy-Team” because alchemy refers to the medieval practice of transforming base metals into gold, symbolizing a magical transformation process. 

This concept resonated with her, as she believes effective communication and negotiation have the power to transform relationships similarly. Additionally, the name was inspired by one of her favorite books, The Alchemist, which she was reading while starting her business.

She elaborates that good communication and negotiation can profoundly impact all areas of life. Although everyone knows how to talk and listen, these skills are often practiced at a basic level. 

Improving these skills can help one achieve transformative, “golden” connections and moments in personal and professional relationships. Melissa shares that her company works with various clients, helping them develop these crucial communication and negotiation skills to enhance their interactions and relationships.

The Crucial Role Of Strategic Assessment In Negotiation

Nolan asks Melissa why strategic assessment skills are critical to negotiating and requests an example of when hers were tested. Melissa explains that her strategic assessment skills were honed during her time with the FBI, shaping how she approaches situations. 

As an FBI agent, she learned to gather information thoroughly before proceeding with interviews or interrogations, emphasizing the importance of understanding who the other person is and what matters to them. This skill was particularly vital in undercover work, where operations were tailored to appeal to the target, making herself someone the target would want to engage with.

Melissa highlights the importance of active listening and using the gathered information to be persuasive and influence behavior. She strongly believes that this approach has become ingrained in her thinking and benefits all areas of her life. Additionally, she stresses the significance of suspending judgment and avoiding assumptions about people’s intentions. 

Asking the right questions and considering the other person’s perspective can help one craft more appealing and effective communication. Melissa acknowledges that while some might view this as a “soft” skill, it is a powerful and strategic approach that leads to greater success.

Melissa describes the FBI’s use of negotiation position papers, which include three parts:

Stating the known facts

Assessing the situation’s risk level

Making recommendations for the negotiation strategy

According to her, this structured approach ensures commanders receive comprehensive information, allowing them to make well-informed decisions. The ability to perform strategic assessments is crucial in negotiations, as it helps in better understanding the situation, considering multiple perspectives, and making more effective decisions. 

This skill has significantly contributed to Melissa’s success as a negotiator within the FBI and in her current work.

Navigating Internal Dynamics: Building Influence And Trust Within The FBI

Next, Aram asks Melissa about the challenges of navigating internal channels and team dynamics while trying to influence upward within the FBI. Melissa acknowledges the complexity of internal negotiations, emphasizing the historical favoring of the SWAT team due to their perceived power and strength. 

However, she notes that during her 23 years with the FBI, the negotiation team’s perception and integration significantly evolved.

Initially, negotiation teams operated independently, with little interaction or training with SWAT teams. Over time, this changed dramatically. By the end of her tenure, Melissa observed a seamless integration between negotiation and SWAT teams, with mutual respect and regular joint training sessions. SWAT team commanders began recognizing and appreciating the value that negotiators added to their operations.

Melissa highlights the importance of building relationships and establishing a good reputation with commanders and other team members. Effective communication and demonstrating the success of negotiation strategies helped gain trust and credibility. Educating others about the negotiation team’s role and showing its effectiveness in real situations were crucial steps in changing perceptions.

She stresses that these relationships, built outside of high-pressure moments, were vital in influencing decision-making. Commanders who understood and valued the negotiation team’s contributions were more likely to consider their input seriously. 

Thus, while making a strong argument is important, the relationships and trust built over time played a significant role in the internal dynamics and successful integration of negotiation strategies within the FBI.

The Evolution Of FBI Tactics: A Blend Of Cultural Shift And Exceptional Leadership

Nolan references previous podcast guests like Gary Noesner, noting the cultural shift within the FBI regarding the perception of negotiation teams. He asks Melissa if the changes she described were a broader FBI trend or the result of exceptional commanders she had during her time. Melissa reflects that it’s likely a combination of both.

She acknowledges that the evolution within the FBI came partly from learning through past mistakes. Situations where brute force and rushing in resulted in injuries prompted a reassessment of tactics. 

The pioneering work of negotiators like Gary Noesner, who built relationships and effectively communicated the value of negotiation strategies, contributed significantly to this shift. Over time, law enforcement began recognizing the importance of slowing down and assessing situations before taking action.

Melissa shares an example from her career involving a barricaded subject who had fired at law enforcement officers. Despite the SWAT team’s initial inclination to rush in, the assistant special agent in charge decided to wait, emphasizing the importance of patience and using all available tools, such as drones, gas canisters, and, eventually, a communication robot. 

Although frustrating for the team, this decision ultimately ensured the safety of everyone involved. The commander’s willingness to withstand pressure from his team and prioritize a cautious approach exemplified the evolution of tactics within the FBI.

Melissa concludes by noting that cross-training and improved unit coordination have been crucial in these positive changes. This collaborative approach has allowed different units to work together more effectively, leveraging their strengths to achieve safer and more successful outcomes in high-stakes situations.

Thank you for your time!

Transcript

Nolan Martin : Hello and welcome to the NEGOTIATEx podcast. I am your co-host and co-founder, Nolan Martin. And with me as always, good friend, co host, co founder, Aram Donigian. Aram, want to introduce our guests for today?

Aram Donigian : Folks, today, we're joined by Melissa Fortunato, who is a retired FBI special agent. She served for over 23 years in the FBI's New York and Cleveland field offices. She has extensive training and experience in crisis resolution and negotiations, having operated as a crisis negotiator and team leader for the FBI Cleveland's crisis negotiation team.

Melissa has trained hundreds of law enforcement officers, including instructing at the International Law Enforcement Academy in Hungary and being a coach for the FBI's National Crisis Negotiation Course.

In addition, Melissa was selected to represent the FBI at the Scotland Yard Hostage Negotiation Course in England. Melissa's strong skills and strategic assessment and targeting come from her years as an FBI undercover agent. She operated both domestically and internationally. Her undercover portfolio included transnational organized crime, public corruption, drug trafficking, and counterintelligence matters.

One of the cases in which she was directly involved as an undercover agent was briefed to the President of the United States and was recognized with the FBI's Director's Award. Melissa now shares her knowledge and experience as a negotiation and conflict resolution trainer and consultant. She is the founder and chief negotiation officer for Alchemy Team.

Melissa, thank you for joining us today.

Melissa Fortunato : Nolan, Aram, thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.

NM : Awesome. Well, let's get this one started. So reflecting on your career journey, what is it that led you to the FBI and specifically becoming a crisis negotiator?

A Unique Journey Fueled By Psychology And Passion For Understanding Human Behavior [02:26]

MF : Gosh, I am not what I think people would say is your typical FBI agent. I don't have the background that would lead you to believe I would have gone down that path. My family, I think, thought it was hilarious when I said, What do you think about me becoming an FBI agent? They were like, You? Really? I have a background in psychology. And prior to going into the FBI, I was a counselor, social worker at a rape crisis center.

I thought I would become a psychologist. That was my plan even as a kid. I have always been fascinated with people. A genuine interest, really kind of a weird interest in why people do bad things. So I think that's probably what got me started in the sexual assault area and then also leading into law enforcement.

You know, like anything in life, it's a series of connections and relationships that kind of lead you down that path. So I had met someone that had brought up the idea. I thought about it and I was like, Oh, it’s interesting, but I still never thought I would do it. And I made a phone call to someone that I know, and it just took a life of its own.

And they introduced me to an FBI agent and then it grew from there. And I have to say it was probably the best decision. I didn't, I mean, I did intentionally make the decision, but I think it sort of led me in a direction with a momentum more than I was giving it at the time. But I think my psychology background was the perfect fit for law enforcement and the FBI.

I, you know, typically it's somebody coming from law enforcement or military background. We have a lot of that or accountants or lawyers. But the one thing was I use my psychology degree every minute of every day, you know, amongst my team, amongst my colleagues, and then with people that we interacted with.

So it ended up being the most logical fit. And I was so lucky to be able to have wonderful opportunities in the FBI.

NM : Awesome.

AD : Tell us a little bit more how your psychology background is used every day.

MF : You know, going in, I really thought, Oh gosh, I'm not the strongest, the fastest. I can't shoot a perfect circle from this far away, all those things.

But what I realized, it's really a people game. And if you have an ability to communicate with people and approach people the right way, You can be so much more successful. So, like I said, we interview witnesses, targets, getting people to cooperate many times against their own self interests. You know cooperating against countries, you know their allegiance to their countries. It's just being able to approach people that way and ingratiate yourself to them and get them to want to talk to you want to tell you things they have not wanted to tell anybody before

AD : Right

MF : And I found so many people who were all the things I thought you needed to be as an FBI agent, big and strong and tough. Have a really challenging time connecting with people and being able to get the information they need to do their jobs. And so that's why I was so surprised how much my psychology was applicable.

I used it as an FBI agent. I took some additional tracks in addition to my investigative agent work that allowed me to really utilize my psychology degree. But I used it all the time, even as an agent.

AD : I love your response, Melissa. I just, strength in negotiation can come from so many different places and the ability to connect and listen. I know we'll get into that a little bit more as a big one. Hey, can you tell us about the most difficult negotiation you ever had to handle while on the crisis negotiation team?

A Tale Of Negotiation, Compassion, And Tragedy [05:57]

MF : So probably the one that comes to mind initially is a kidnap for ransom case that we had involving an American citizen who was kidnapped over in Afghanistan.

It was challenging for a series of reasons, not just a kidnap for ransom, but it went on for 56 days. There were so many micro negotiations within the larger one that we thought we were there for. That enabled us to practice all of our negotiation skills in these small moments and the big moments. And I think for me, some of these challenges I think are very similar in any type of negotiation, right?

We were doing and coaching the wife that was getting the ransom calls. On how to have the conversation, so getting her ready, making her feel comfortable, then she's talking on the phone and what initially had started as a ransom negotiation with the hostage takers, the Taliban had taken Mr. Geiser hostage, it ended up being there was a communication problem.

The wife did not speak the same dialect that the hostage takers were speaking. So she ended up negotiating with her husband. They put him on the phone and said, you talk to her and you negotiate. So what a weird dynamic that that added to it.

AD : Right.

MF : And some of the things that we use made it a little more challenging because they knew each other, they had a relationship. So he could understand she was maybe a little bit different than he was used to. So he's trying to do that calculus in his negotiation.

AD : Right.

MF : In addition to that, her children felt differently about the approach that we were taking. And so she's trying to navigate this relationship with her children in the middle of the most stressful time of her life, as she's has this large responsibility of negotiating with her husband for his own release.

At times, she's hearing him on the phone, and he's sharing with her what he's experiencing and how hard that is for him. So just as a wife, to absorb that, and then still keep your wits about you, right? There was so much work with her as we went through it. And then also, you know, working with the children who disagreed a little bit.

The one part too was, it was a religious thing. So they were Mennonites under the Amish, and very nonviolent. And so as we were trying to walk down all the different areas with them of what could happen, they were very concerned about even trying to do a rescue, how hard that would be, because what if something happened to the hostage takers?

AD : Right.

MF : Now I think a lot of people, you think, oh, you took my husband hostage, I don't care what happens to you, but they really did care. And it was very challenging for them to make a decision to go forward with a possible avenue where someone could get hurt. Even just having us there as FBI agents with, you know, showing up with weapons on, that was uncomfortable to them.

So we kind of had to adjust to make that less obvious and something as we're coming into their home regularly for 56 days over that period of time, there's just so many dynamics that play out in there. And then probably another part of it was we were always trying to run down multiple avenues. So we are working through a ransom demand and talking that through and figuring out how, if we do that, that's going to happen at the same time, we're in conversations with the military, you know, and our larger government about maybe doing a rescue, gathering all kinds of intelligence.

So it was so many different avenues of having to try to operate through all the different parties involved. And I think that's why I consider that one probably the most challenging.

AD : Yeah. What a great example of a complex situation in terms of even if it had just been the hostage negotiation itself, that has layers of complexity, but then everything else you're adding in there with the wife and the family and then all the other agencies, that's very complex. Was it successfully resolved?

MF : It was, so what ended up happening, like I said, you're running multiple avenues down at the same time. We were negotiating for a ransom payment and that may have been something the family chose to do. But at the same time, in conversations with the military, they were able to do a rescue based on the intelligence we gathered.

They were able to figure out where he was being held and did do a rescue. Interesting, like, advanced part of the story was like, yay, he's rescued. He's brought home. The military is flying him back on the helicopter and they say, this is your one time. Like, we rescued you. We're happy that you're home. Go home and don't come back.

He felt so compelled to go back because he really had attached to the community that was there. So he was home in the US, home for maybe a year and chose to go back. Sadly, he was kidnapped again and was murdered in that exchange. So there was not a second ransom demand. But when I, when I heard the story, I think a lot of people's initial reaction was, Oh my God, why would you go back?

I think as we talked about in all negotiations, we may not understand why people do things or the choices that they make, but if you can take the time to sort of suspend judgment and really understand why. When we talked to his wife, she said it was where he was living and working, right? He had gone missionary work there, but then decided to stay.

AD : Right.

MF : He had friends there and he felt unfair, that it was unfair to the people in Afghanistan that he could flee to the safety of the US when they couldn't. And so it was really bugging him that he was able to leave. And so he felt compelled to go back. May not be the decision I would make.

AD : Wow.

MF : But hearing that, I understand his position. And then it does sort of make sense, his behavior more.

NM : Wow! That's crazy. So what is the hardest thing to train a negotiator? And does that differ if they're a crisis negotiator versus a corporate negotiator?

Lessons From Law Enforcement To Hollywood [12:11]

MF : I think there probably are a little bit of differences. I found with crisis negotiation that one of the areas that was the most challenging is patience, but I do think this is probably applicable for all of us, for law enforcement trainers.

The personality, I think, for law enforcement is you're very used to coming in, fixing, and getting out. Because there's another crisis right after this. So that was the most challenging part in training police negotiators was that ability to just slow down, take time, learn what's really going on. There's a benefit in taking time, right?

Slowing things down, especially in crisis. It really allows for that leveling off of emotions. It does give you time to gather more intelligence. It also helps you manage expectations of what's going to happen, right? Sometimes people come in with big ideas and throw out demands, and they learn over time that may not happen the way that they imagined it to happen.

And there is a benefit to slowing things down. For crisis negotiations, the worst time is really the beginning, that height at the most crisis time and at the end as it's wrapping up, depending how it's ending. And so we really try to slow down that way. A lot of police negotiators, I think, want to come in and solve the problem. Tell me what the issue is. I can figure it out and fix it.

AD : Right.

MF : I think what you quickly learn is many people in these situations have layers upon layers upon layers of problems. And you're not going to fix all of it. And so they have to learn to trust the process that if you really just listen, try to connect with them and work through the problem as a team, they almost solve the problem themselves.

You don't even need to do anything. You don't have to come up with this amazingly great solution. I see this with my children, right? If they're having a hard time and if you're just willing to listen and let them lay it all out many times, they know what they need to do and they'll do it. They just need that space to vent and get all those emotions out.

I know it's different in business negotiations where it may not be as emotional, but I think emotions are always at play there. And so I think human nature is people tend to want to come in quickly, figure out the problem quick and move on. We're so busy. We just want to put things behind us, check off the list and go. But sometimes making decisions quickly, just for speed's sake, is not the best choice, right?

AD : Right.

MF : And that we all have to learn to just kind of slow down a little bit. Maybe it's not so bad to take the time and maybe make the connection, build the relationship. I just think that benefits you in the long run.

I recognize certain industries or things like that, speed is a factor. So I guess I would say you just have to learn what is it that you're doing, do that assessment of what matters in that situation. I had a very interesting experience where I was approached about working on a television show and we got into, okay, let's do the negotiations of what you'll be paid, what your title will be.

I don't know, I don't know anything about this industry at all. And I thought, Oh my gosh, here it is. It's a negotiation and I don't know anything. And so I was like, okay, my gut was to just slow down, but in communications with the lawyer, he was like, Okay, here in your world that you guys slow things down, just letting you know, in Hollywood, don't slow down because if they find something else, like a shiny penny they're interested in, there'll be off this and on to something else.

And I thought, Oh, wow, that makes so much sense, right? So I had to adjust my normal style to a different industry.

NM : Did you end up getting the show or?

MF : Frustratingly enough, we went through this whole process. Then the writer's strike happened and went on for months and months and months. And by the time we circled around, I think there were so many other shows competing. So they chose to not go forward, which was a shame. I was managing my expectations very early from the beginning.

AD : I was going to say managing the tempo is so difficult. And I wanted to tie back, I mean, you had so many great points about why time is so important there. Even going back to the previous story about the kidnap for ransom in Afghanistan, the ability to suspend judgment, you mentioned that at one point, it's hard to do that when we are rushing ourselves, potentially rushing ourselves to failure.

So what a great illustration of a key skill that negotiators need. And sometimes it might translate into picking up the pace. Your team is called Alchemy Team. That's the name of your company. Why did you choose that name? How does it apply to the skills that you teach?

Transforming Relationships Through Effective Negotiation [17:00]

MF : So the reason I chose it was alchemy is this medieval chemistry term for transforming base metals and turning them into gold. It is somewhat considered a magical process of transformation. The other side note is one of my favorite books is The Alchemist, which I love. And so at the time I was reading it again, I was starting my business and I realized, wow, there is really in what we do in communication and negotiation, there is a transformative power when you're a good communicator.

And it can impact all the areas of your life. And I thought we all know how to talk and we say, we know how to listen, but we kind of do it at a base level most times. And if you could work on being better at that, boy, couldn't that transform your relationships, you know, to have these sort of golden connections and moments with your family, your business and all of that so that's why I named it that way. I do work with many different people. So my business is, you know, a smaller subset of what I do, but I do work with a lot of different companies and their clients also.

NM : So why are strategic assessment skills critical to negotiating? And can you share a time when yours were tested?

The Key To Effective Communication And Negotiation [18:13]

MF : I talk a lot about strategic assessment skills because I have found, and I think it's through my experience with the FBI, it really shaped the way my brain works. As an agent, I learned to do it where you would do an investigation, you would gather all your information, but there's a point where you're moving forward and doing an interview or an interrogation.

I have to understand who you are, what matters to you. I have to listen to all the words you say, the way that you say things. It tells me so much. And when I did undercover work, that was really big on what we would do, right? Is you would learn all this information. Many times you would shape an operation to appeal perfectly to the person you were trying to target.

You're trying to make yourself a person that they want to be with, right? And even as a negotiator, I'm doing my active listening skills, taking in all this information and figuring out a way to be the most persuasive and have influence over you in the hopes of changing a behavior.

It is just the way that I think now. And the cool part, which I'm happy for now, is it lets me do it in all areas of my life. I have learned how to really pause. We talked about this before, is suspending judgment. And really, I think what happens with that suspension of judgment is we make so many assumptions about people, about what they meant, and we don't even realize we're doing it sometimes.

And I have learned this assessment skill of really asking the right questions. And considering the other side, people call it empathy. It is that if you don't like that word, if that's too touchy feely for you, it is strategic, right? Because you will be more successful if you can see it from the other person's perspective.

And if you can use words, and you can craft things a certain way that is most appealing to them. So why wouldn't you do it? I mean, people just still don't do it sometimes, but I think they think it's too soft a skill, but it is so powerful when you consider the other person and even just saying, yeah, I could see how that looks from your side, or I can see how you got there from where you started. I understand how you got there. Even if where they got is the worst thing and you're not even condoning that behavior.

But to be able to just say to someone, I now see how you see it and just leave it at that. And then later you can get to your position and where you want it to go.

But there is a power in just being able to do that. And that, I think for me, has made me so much more successful. As a negotiator, as an FBI negotiator, we do all this intelligence gathering in a negotiation. But we do something called negotiation position papers, and it has three parts to it, and I think it could be used anywhere, right?

You kind of state the facts that you know. This is what happened, he or she did this at this moment, this is how many hostages, all the things that we know, right? Just factual. Then the next part is our assessment of what that means, right? So we've taken all those facts and we've assessed it for high risk, low risk.

And then we make our recommendation as a negotiation team to our commanders of how we think we should go forward. You know, what's our plan? Do we think this is really high risk and we're going to keep negotiating but we probably should be planning for our SWAT team to consider a tactical entry? Yes. Or hey, I know it sounds awful but here's why I assess this as a low risk and I actually think we're getting somewhere.

I also think when we lay that out to our commanders it gives them information to be able to make a better decision because they're getting the same thing from our SWAT team. And they have to measure both sides and then make a decision themselves. And so I think that ability to do that assessment in everything you do is really powerful and can make you so much more successful as a negotiator.

AD : You mentioned just now this idea of influencing kind of up the chain of command, getting the commander to be able to maybe to influence their ability to make a wise or decisive decision. What are the challenges that you found when needing to navigate those internal channels or the internal team dynamics and you're negotiating just as much as you are externally, but you're trying to influence upward?

Building Relationships And Integrating Strengths [22:35]

MF : Yeah, that's a great point, right? Because there are so many different negotiations going on. I found in the FBI world, more credence was lent to the SWAT team. I just think historically it's cooler, you know, I think from a law enforcement perspective, power and strength is something you need, and it is what has been favored for many many years.

In my 23 years in the FBI, I was able to watch this evolution of the negotiation team really change. It went from, you did your thing over here, it was cute, we may or may not ever train together, we may or may not ever talk, to a point that when I was leaving, it was completely seamless between the two.

And I was having a SWAT team commander, you know, call and after and say, thank you so much for coming. It adds so much to what we do, what we do here. You're considered from the beginning. We were training together regularly. We were building relationships with each other. Such a difference, right? So when I'm trying to push the negotiation team side of what we think we should do to our commanders, my reputation, what we do, if I'm able to articulate well what we do to our commanders, those relationships were important.

And so initially it just takes work and you're building how they view you just even as a person with how I interact with them. That they then think, Oh, that makes sense why she's doing it out there. A lot of times we had to explain why we're doing what we're doing. You know, we're not just talking to fill space until you go in and do a tactical entry.

So we had to educate around what we're doing. And saying why it works. They have to see it work sometimes too. But many times I think it was my relationships with the commanders, them seeing that we're having a better relationship amongst the SWAT team, and now we're sort of coming together where we can support each other at different times in different ways, depending on what the situation was calling for.

So I think that made a big difference. Many times it's not just straight, I'm arguing a great point to you. It's those relationships that you build outside the moment that really matter.

NM : So we've had a ton of great FBI negotiators on the podcast,Gary Noesner, to name just one of them. But when we talked to Gary, you know, it seems like culturally what you kind of initially mentioned of negotiations team, not being necessarily deemed as serious as the SWAT team first today.

Sounds like you have some great commanders. Is that a change in the times, do you think, for across the FBI as a whole? Or do you think it was just the great commanders you had at the time?

The Evolution Of FBI Tactics And The Power Of Patience [25:13]

MF : That's an interesting perspective I hadn't thought of. I do think it is a bit of an evolution where, hey, you also learn when bad things happen, right?

So I think we've learned over time. That may be just straight, hard, strength, domination, rushing in, isn't always the most successful, and sadly we learn that from people getting hurt. And so I think when it goes bad, I do think that causes people to pause and say, Huh. What happened? I think it was the amazing work of Gary Noesner and, you know, the people that came before me building relationships and explaining why they're doing what they're doing.

I think probably those relationships allowed them to have conversations that led to more success. So when I saw over time, you know, just even my law enforcement career doing search warrants and things, you know, people would just run up, kick the door, run in blind, not even knowing what you're walking into.

And then realizing, oof, it's okay to slow down a little bit, assess the situation before we're sending people in. So, even at the end of my career, some negotiations we were out on, or SWAT callouts we were on, there were barricaded subjects. We had one that target would fire upon us trying to do an arrest, right, so a shot at the law enforcement.

Our commander, our assistant special agent in charge, came out. Full SWAT team surrounding the house. It's one person inside. We know he doesn't have any hostages. We have a giant team out here. But our commander was like, I'm not doing it. We're going to slow down and we're going to keep talking and we're going to use all the tools we have.

We use drones. We use gas, you know, we can work together as a SWAT team and as a negotiation team to add pressure, take off pressure. So we tried all the parts. We knocked out every door, every window in his house. We threw every gas canister we had. He still would not communicate at all. 15 hours go by, in a snowstorm, overnight, people are getting tired, people are frustrated.

The SWAT team is saying to the commander, who used to be a SWAT guy, What are we doing? Let's just go in. To his credit, he was like, we're gonna wait. We have another bigger tool, we have a giant robot that'll allow us to communicate, let's wait. Because I don't want to tell your family. That I just got hired, frustrated, and I sent you in there and it wasn't safe.

So, that was a big evolution over time. I think it was really hard for the commander to make that decision because I think he was feeling pressure from his guys that we're perceiving him as maybe being weaker or slow to make a decision.

AD : Right.

MF : But he was right in the end. He was right. I mean, we were able to get a robot in. We were able to have comms with the target and then get him out safely and nobody got hurt. It's just really hard sometimes to wait the long period of time to see the success at the end.

AD : And it sounds like you mentioned some cross training and more coordination that's occurred to that, that allows the various units to work together.

NM : Hey everyone, Nolan here. I have to jump in and end today's podcast for part A of the show. Be sure to rate review and subscribe to the NEGOTIATEx podcast if you haven't already. And also join us next week for part B of this awesome interview.

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