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What You'll Learn In Today's Episode

  • In any type of negotiation, keep asking “why.” Find out why the other party has made their choices and if anything precipitated them, why that happened, as well. Seek to understand them as much as you can.
  • Great negotiators are made… but some are born, too: Even if you’ve never seen yourself as someone with people skills, if you have any interest at all, give it a try. You could be amazed at what you discover.
  • Don’t be pessimistic, but consider possible worst-case scenarios ahead of time. This helps lessen the likelihood of surprise when things don’t go as planned. Hopefully, things won’t go sideways, but if they do, you’ll be calmer.
  • Since experience is the greatest teacher, volunteer with a local crisis outreach. At worst, you’ll learn more about your community. At best, the more you do it, the more your comfort level in varying negotiating situations will improve.

Executive Summary:

Welcome back to the NEGOTIATEx Podcast! Our special guest is Mike Baker, a former LAPD SWAT negotiator. His skills and attitude have brought ample success, but it didn’t start out that way. In fact, for a long time, he believed he was most useful as a sniper.

A Fateful Hostage Situation

A former US Army Ranger, Mike had entered the Los Angeles Police Department’s SWAT program with simple expectations. He wanted to help stop modern-day John Dillingers; violent criminals with whom reasoning seems a waste of time.

Most LAPD SWAT teams rotate duties. As a result, he might be an assaulter (on a battering ram) one week and an EMT the next. Overall though, he preferred tactical duty. So, whenever possible, he’d serve as a sniper, watching to protect hostage negotiators from lethal attacks.

His SWAT training had included a required 8-hour course in crisis negotiating. The subject never personally interested Mike, though. Perceiving this, his lieutenant even said one day that Mike wasn’t cut out for it.

Nevertheless, something else was in the works. One day at a hostage situation, Mike was in position, covering a youthful new negotiator to-be: A man had killed his wife (in front of their child).

As the man and the new negotiator conversed, Mike was informed that things weren’t going well. That is to say, the right things weren’t being said and the right questions weren’t getting asked.

Before long, the officer in charge radioed in, pulling the rookie.

Next, that same lieutenant—the one who’d told Mike he wasn’t good for negotiations—told Mike to take the kid’s place.

As Mike prepared, another team member was dispatched to be the counter-sniper. They would now be covering him with a scope.

He didn’t know it at the time, but Mike Baker hadn’t just left his tactical position in the immediate sense. In fact, as he crossed to speak as the negotiator on-scene, he began a symbolic transition, as well.

Unexpected Engagement

In complete honesty; without pretending to approve of the man’s actions, he listened and spoke. He found himself emotionally detaching from what the murderer had done in favor of sincerely conversing; seeking the man’s immediate welfare.

In other words, he’d found his calling. His eyes were now open to the fact that not all situations have to be resolved with force.

In time, the man surrendered peacefully. As a result, the man’s father later thanked Mike for saving his life.

Despite his initial shock, Mike soon found himself pursuing opportunities to negotiate. At the time, LAPD SWAT encouraged members to volunteer periodically on a crisis (or suicide) prevention hotline. The idea was to build everyone’s negotiation skills while helping the community.

Crisis negotiation differs from the business variety. Both involve the ability to establish a relationship with whoever you’re talking to. However, crisis negotiation typically allows far less time to work within.

Mike quickly got addicted to it. Even as interest in volunteering on the hotline waned within the department, he craved more of it.

The result was a kind of positive snowball effect: The more he helped people from all of Los Angeles’ backgrounds and situations as a volunteer, the more confident he felt.

Consequently, the more confident he felt conducting hostage negotiations, the calmer and more relaxed he was. That kind of relaxation is contagious—and the people he negotiated with began responding to it positively.

It sounds simple, but it’s also true: The more you negotiate, the better your chances of improving at it.

Things didn’t always go perfectly for Mike. He doesn’t condemn the need for tactical responses when there’s no other option to save lives, either. Regardless, he’s learned that negotiation tools can be just as useful.

And, at the end of the day, he’s gotten far more fulfillment from peaceful resolutions than he ever did from using deadly force.

Key Takeaways

  • Experience is the greatest teacher. Courses and training are good, but you’ll grow most as a negotiator as you gain experience actually doing it. When you can’t get real-world experience on short notice, role-playing can be beneficial, too.
  • Educate yourself. Read everything on negotiations that you can. If don’t understand it, read it anyway, put it down… and then go back and read it again. You’re allowed to keep what you find useful and forget what you don’t.
  • Work to build trust.Be the honest person that you’d open up to. At the same time, be patient if other peoples’ interests cause underwhelming results. Watch for things you might be doing that unintentionally undermine trust-building, too.
  • Share this episode (please). If you receive genuine value from this special episode of the NEGOTIATEx podcast with Mike Baker, please think about sharing it with others. We’re out to help everyone we can.

Mike Baker shares more of his expertise in this first installment of our special 2-part series. We’ll have the second for you next week. Questions and episode suggestions to team@negotiatex.com are always welcome.

Your time’s important to us. Thanks for listening!




Nolan Martin : Welcome to the NEGOTIATEx podcast. My name is Nolan Martin. I'm the co-host and co-founder of NEGOTIATEx. My good friend and co-founder is also with me, but Aram, we also have another guest on today following up from Luke from last week. So do you want to introduce Mike?

Aram Donigian : Yeah, I will. And again we're grateful to have somebody else on the talk so it’s not just you and me. For our listeners, you know, one of the things I have loved about this field of negotiation is the number of different people I've met along the way who are in the field working in, you know in parallel and, and side-by-side organizations and learning from them. And about a decade ago- I can't believe it's been that long, Mike- I had the opportunity to get connected. I don't even remember how we got connected. So maybe, maybe Mike, one of the first things you told me that, but at the time officer Mike Baker of the LAPD SWAT crisis negotiation team, where he spent 29 years serving, Prior to that, Mike Baker had been an army airborne ranger, serving in Alaska in an Arctic ranger company. He did some time as a facilitator at BU’s Master of Criminal Justice program. And now as a trainer with American Airlines and it, and it was just, I could tell we were kinda cut from similar cloth years ago when we met. Mike hosted some West Point cadets for us, took them through some of the ins and outs and drills out in LA of his work there. He came out to West Point a couple of times as a guest speaker, working with our classes. And so, Mike, it's just a pleasure and honor to welcome you to this, uh, to our program. Thanks for joining us.

Michael Baker : No, you're welcome. It's a pleasure to be here. I can't remember who you are. I'm just kidding. I am like... a decade ago? I can't believe that either! And as far as being cut from the same cloth, I think mine might be more from like a shroud or something that is maybe around the body of Christ or something, and yours might be something a little more modern, you know. [laughs] It’s my pleasure to be here.

AD : [laughs] Yeah. Thanks for saying that. Hey, listen for our listeners, tell us a little bit about what crisis negotiation is.

What Is Crisis Negotiation For The Uninitiated? [4:06]

MB : Crisis negotiation. Well, I guess, I guess for a start I think it's a little different than negotiating in business. I'd like to think that, uh, I think the major difference, although there are a lot of you know, similarities between the type of negotiation you're doing both, both situations, but I think what crisis negotiation crisis negotiation, which is a powerful tool, I think in any kind of negotiation is, is the ability to establish a relationship with somebody you're talking and trust with someone which is so, so important, I think invaluable, in resolving any kind of a crisis that's going on. So I think crisis negotiation is just like any kind of negotiation absent the fact that you are limited a lot of times, as far as the amount of time that you have to get the job done, which is, which  could be a huge problem.

AD : How did you get- how'd you get into this field in the first place?

MB : I will say, let's see, I try to keep things short, but you know how that goes. You've been with me before. Well, let's, let's suffice to say that when you, when we went, when you applied for the SWAT team with the Los Angeles police department and went through tryouts, if you were admitted into the department as a SWAT operator, one of the classes that you've had to do was eight hours of, what they call CN2- crisis negotiation training. Everybody is required to do that on the unit. Our members of our unit are, although we serve in different cadres within the unit, for example, I was a sniper, I was also an assaulter or I was an EMT, I was a negotiator, I was also a climber. Those are different cadres within the department, within the unit itself. Some units have exclusive people. They're just snipers, they're SWAT snipers, and that's it. We did it all. But some of the cadres you weren't allowed to get into unless you showed, you had some kind of potential there and were good at what you did. Crisis negotiation was one of them. I took the eight hour class because we all had to go through eight hours of training. After I finished it, I said, there's no way in the world I ever want to do that. And I think the Lieutenant of the SWAT team said something along the lines is don’t worry, I would never ask you to be part of this unit. I think he didn't see any potential. And at the time I had no interest in it. I was a young cop. I went on the SWAT team from one thing, probably the same thing I wanted to be a ranger for. I wanted to go blow things up and go, uh, I felt there was only one way to resolve, you know, um, crime and problems in the city and crisis in the city is that, that was through brute force. And I wanted to be part of that. And I only learned later on in my career that, yeah, that, that is a method that can be used, but I think it's probably one of the least constructive. Uh, and I found out one of the most constructive was negotiating. I found that out when I was forced into a negotiation position, as a sniper, believe it or not, I was a sniper in a unit and I don't know how much of the story you want me to tell.

AD : Tell us!

Mike Baker’s First Time Handling A High Stakes Negotiation [6:45]


MB : Actually, I'm referencing that the first time that I was ever exposed to negotiation period in any actual live situation. And that was the situation with the individual who was suicidal. He had a gun to his head between a couple of houses in the north section of Los Angeles. Earlier in the day, he had murdered his wife who was actually sitting alongside their baby girl inside her vehicle. He had shot and killed her numerous times, shot her, but anyway, so, that they had patrol had located him later on in the day. And he was sitting between a few, I believe there were apartments on a grassy hillside, in the Northeast section of Los Angeles with a gun to his head. They had him surrounded and SWAT was called out in that situation because it was considered a barricade and they were unable to resolve it.

When I got up there, I was immediately deployed to go up on, up behind or in the area of a black and white vehicle where one of the patrol officers, a young kid who was fairly new on the job, was actually actively negotiating with this gentleman. And I was just supposed to be protecting him as well as protecting the advancing SWAT officers who were at the time taking up positions in relieving the inner perimeter of containment on this individual, so he couldn't get outside that area with that gun and do any more damage. So I was covering them as well as covering this young cop who was trying to negotiate with the guy. And it was obvious to me, even though I wasn't experienced as a negotiator, that he was having trouble.

And I, and I understand that it's no, no fault of his. They're not, we're not trained animals. Most police officers aren't trained in negotiation or talking to people like that. And he was saying a lot of the wrong things, I guess you'd say, you know, and our Lieutenant got wind of that radioed me and my headset and told me that I need to take over negotiations. You need to relieve this kid and they're bringing up another sniper guy to cover me. So at that point, I took over negotiations with this gentleman. It was the first time I'd ever negotiated with anyone. And the same Lieutenant that told me I would never negotiate, put me in that position. So [laughs] over the couple of years that I've been serving under him, he got an idea that maybe I was kind of good at what I did.

I don't know, long negotiations. I would say that it probably took, you know, close it. I can't remember, but it was hours and hours out there. I would say three, four hours at least that we were out there negotiating with this person and resolved without talking about everything that had in between, unless you have questions about it is that he peacefully gave up, put the gun down and came down and I received him and others. He came right to me and gave up, we handcuffed him and took him to jail, you know? And the end result of that was there were no civil lawsuits, no litigations against us. In fact, his parents came up and thanked me, which was, you know, thanked me for taking their son to jail. I mean, it was obvious he was going to jail for a long time, possibly life.

During the process of negotiating, he admitted, you know, out loud that he had killed his wife. It wasn't like it was something that they had to investigate later or, or get a confession out of him. He did it, you know, right out there in front of the whole world. So he was going to jail and he knew it. But I guess the main thing I did in that whole negotiation process was to reassure him that there is a chance that if he lived, he might be able to accomplish some of the things that he wanted to accomplish. And he was frustrated with it and thought he'd never would be able to do. And so that happened through, I think, um, something that you and I both know as active listening, I think more than anything, asking a lot of questions, listening to what he's saying and hearing what he's saying at the same time and figuring out how we can use that information to maybe resolve the situation.

So it was a learning experience on the job thing. It was a success. I can't say all of mine were successes. That one was and it definitely I would say probably, uh, put fire underneath my desire to want to do more of that. I mean, we actually, you know, I've been in shootings before and it resolves situations that way, because they had to be done that way. It was a tactical resolution and it had to be done that way, but I got a better feeling, solving something this way than I did ever, you know, doing something tactically, which I thought meant something to me,

AD : What you just talked about with active listening and, and kind of hearing their concerns. I remember you referring to that in the past as a hook and the power of being able to find that hook, did that become a common practice for you? And how would you define that for our listeners, this idea of finding a hook with somebody that you're, uh, you know, in the midst of, uh, you know, negotiation with.

Finding The Hooks And Building Relationships With Your Negotiation Counterparts [11:22]

MB : I don't even know if this is a good analogy or not, but it's like finding that treasure map that actually leads to treasure. It's like, you know, you're looking all over, digging holes all over the place and not finding anything and all of a sudden laying right there is a map that shows exactly where the treasure is. And that's kind of like what it is when you find that hook, then it's like, you got them, you got them, you've now got control of the situation and I'm not, you know, and it would be great to find that early in the process. But usually you don't find that until you establish some type of relationship with somebody and someone trusts you enough to start talking to you and telling you, giving you information about them, themselves, that you can think about and ask yourself why, when you hear some of the responses that he gives to some of your questions.

AD : So Mike, you know, you're just telling us about the patience it takes to building that relationship. Asking these questions to find that hook. I love the analogy of finding the treasure map. I think that is just relevant to a number of contexts. So the question I have is really about many of our listeners are never going to be faced kind of with the situation you were faced that day, someone who had just committed murder. And, and I have to imagine there's a little bit of emotional, you know, for you to connect with them, that part of you, how and how did you throughout your career kind of manage this piece of saying, “I need to build a relationship with this person to accomplish this, but boy, this is, this is somebody who I don't approve of, or don’t like a whole lot” or something like that.

MB : Yeah, it's interesting because I would say not only generally across the board in negotiations, whether I was doing crisis intervention on a suicide line, or I'm doing it out there, I have spoken with a lot of people that I did not agree with, with their actions and what got them into the situations they got into. I don't know how I do this air because I don't consciously do it, but I end up coming across as being someone who understands why they did what they did and doesn't- for some reason or another, doesn’t get to my emotions or my feelings about what they did get involved in negotiations whatsoever. I think a lot of people like for, in the criminal element, when you're negotiating with them deep down inside, a lot of them realize that what they did was wrong. They know what they did was wrong. It's just that they need somebody to listen to them and to understand their anger or their reasons for why they did what they did not to agree with their method of taking care of that. You know, I don't do that and I've never done that. And I think the minute that you start doing that as the minute that you lose all credibility, because they're not stupid. They know that as a police officer, as a negotiator, as someone who wants to bring peace to a situation, you're not going to agree with somebody murdering somebody. You're not going to agree with that, but you do understand what it is to be angry. You know, we've all been angry at some point in our life. Maybe not to the point where they want to kill somebody or have actually killed people. But you understand anger and you understand someone who can be very, very angry. And this particular a situation, he believed that his wife was cheating on him with somebody at work. And maybe she was, maybe she wasn't. I have no idea, but I can understand an anger. But again, letting him know that, letting him know that you do understand why he was angry, that you don't necessarily agree with why he did what he did, that his ways of resolving that, you know, that situation, he doesn't either, because obviously he would rather not be in the situation you said right now, you know, if he was smart and he had control of his emotions, he might sit down and talk to his wife and say, “Hey, what's going on? And can we solve this? Or we need, do we need to break up, but do we need to end this marriage or what?”

But obviously he didn't do that. He let his emotions take over and he realizes he was wrong. People sometimes just want to be heard. And at that particular point in their life, they can't find anybody to talk to this and agree with them or listen to them. At least you listen to them, you don't agree with them, but you understand why they acted the way they did. And I think in all the situations where I talked to people, um, that committed crimes or engage in activities that, that I don't agree with, whether, whether I'm talking to a suicidal person, that's a child molester, which is, you know, like the last person in the world that I want to hang out with and have a drink, but they're going to kill themselves. They called in and I got to talk to them, whether it's that kind of person or not, you have to at least listen to them because they have nobody to listen to.

That's your job as a negotiator. It is not to make decisions, whether people are bad or good, and to tell them that because they know what they're doing is wrong. They all know what they're doing is wrong. And unless they're extremely mentally ill and they just don't, they don't reason or are under the influence of drugs, which can be a problem. But for the most part, I think that having someone to listen to it, because they can't, they've found somebody to listen, to having them look at you and look at you as someone who sincerely wants to listen to them, who cares about their wellbeing and also values at least their opinions on things so that you can establish trust. And, you're not going to do that. If you're holding a Mac or scolding people all the time you're talking to them. So you don't lie to them. Cause that's the worst thing you can do, because once you lie to somebody, you, if you had any trust built at all, you're never going to get it back. Be honest with them, but listen to them and hear their story. I think that's a lot of them just want to just want to have happen.

AD : What a great, like number of things there for our listeners. I mean, to, to understand, without agreement, to suspend judgment, right? To be able to, to be able to listen critically, really listen, and probably ask some good questions, and just to give them somebody who's heard those. I think those concepts probably apply in other aspects. Do you know? So you've talked a little bit, I mean, as you, so beyond the initial eight hours of training, I would have to assume that over, over the course there was additional training that occurred. Can you tell us a little bit, I mean, how, how does someone get skilled, more skilled and how did you kind of get more skilled in this field as you pursued the path?

Levelling Up One’s Crisis Negotiation Abilities [17:20]

MB : I had, we had a practice, our crisis negotiating team on a LAPD SWAT had a practice of volunteering supposedly once a month to go over to the suicide lines and work. I did that one time and went over there and went, oh, you know, I kind of liked this. It was practice talking to people in crisis, maybe a different crisis in what I was doing as a SWAT team member, but still a crisis. It allowed me exposure to more people in crisis in different situations that I've never been involved in before. And, and the more I did it, I ended up volunteering and doing it first, going through their training, their civilian training there for people that wanted to be crisis line operators. After going through that training, I decided to put myself on a shift once a week. So I arranged my days off.

So I would go one day a week over there, you know, on my own and, and volunteer and I ended up doing hours and hours of things. The SWAT team basically fell behind. And really didn't keep up on sending people over there anymore. They weren't really doing it. Most people didn't like to do it. I was gaining more and more knowledge. I got to the point where I remember the first time I picked up a phone as a SWAT team negotiator, they said call in. We cut the line, established another line where they throw phone and allow them to only receive calls from us. They couldn't get outside calls. This is before cellular actually happened. And then when cellular happened, we had to shut down cellular. But at the time we would cut their lines and establish a new line just between us so that there would be no outside communication.

The only communication between the negotiator and the person inside the hall, and it was barricaded. And I remember the first time they gave me the number and they said, call in, let's talk to this person. Let's see if we can get them out. And I remember dialing a phone up and sitting there on the phone and thinking to myself, don't pick it up. Please don't pick it up. I didn't want, I didn't want that. Cause I had no idea what I was going to say to somebody after they picked it up. I was scared to death, honest to God. And that training over the crisis, negotiating suicide prevention network over there at DD Hershey in Los Angeles, numerous times that I'd gone over there, the shifts that I worked over there got me to the point where I felt like there was nothing that anybody was going to ever going to tell me on the phone, whether it was in a crisis or hostage negotiation or whether it was in suicidal situation that I had never heard before.

And I was, I was hoping just like I did when I served tactically on the unit, whenever I was in that capacity that you gave me the worst one, the ugliest one. That's what I wanted. I wanted the challenge because I just was, I, that, that was something about doing that, that I just, I lived on, I, I breathe, thrived on. So I felt like I heard so many different stories, so many different things. And I've talked to so many different people that I wasn't going to be surprised by anybody. And I wanted people to pick that. I wanted to pass the phone around with everybody in the house. I wanted to talk to all of them. I would say when we used to talk about toolbox and put more tools in the toolbox, other than a hammer, otherwise treating everything like a nail kind of thing, that's the way it was with me.

It was like, I was just putting more and more tools in the toolbox. I mean, I went to work, I could fix electrical things, plumbing, things, anything. I had tools to fix everything in that toolbox. And it was so comforting, you know, and that comfort, I think really when you talk to somebody that comfort gets transferred to that person you're talking to too, they realize that you're all not, you're not a nervous wreck. You're not, you know, all crazy and kind of like all worried about what's going to happen. You're relaxed and you know, this guy's got a gun he's talking about killing people. And you're just totally relaxed. That's a little addicting. Sometimes people, you know, people pick up as contagious, you know, they, they up on it and they start relaxing themselves. And then that's when they start relaxing their guards and they start spitting out stuff they normally wouldn't do.

And you hear that information and that's where you grab your hooks. That's where you get your info. You establish that relationship with people. They're comfortable talking with you. And, um, boy does it. That's a wealth of information that you open up the, you know, the faucets and it all comes pouring out. And then you've got all this stuff to play with, uh, all the, all these tools and all these things to bend and twist people the way you want to do it. The only way you get good at negotiating is to do more negotiating. Or you can read every book in the world and it might help you through a particular incident every once in a while, but the way you get good at it is they actually do it.

AD : Yeah. That and listen, listen to our podcast, uh, because we have people like you on, but I agree. I, you gotta practice it. And then everything you're talking about, building your toolkit and the different skills and, and then being really well-prepared incredibly valuable.

NM : Hey, this is Nolan. I'm gonna jump in right here. Aram and I decided to make this a two part series instead of trimming down the episodes for it to fit our traditional, you know, 20, 25 minute format. So you're going to have to listen to next week's show for our discussion with Mike as we wrap it up. So if you could please do us a favor and share this with one of your friends who would benefit from learning more about becoming a better, more purposeful negotiator, we would really appreciate it. And then we'll see you in the next episode.

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