Vol. 80, No. 1Ask an expert

Male police officer talking on cellphone.

Listening saves lives

How a crisis negotiator defuses critical incidents

RCMP Sgt. Donovan Tait says attentive listening and building rapport are essential skills when responding to someone in crisis. Credit: Courtesy of Sgt. Donovan Tait, RCMP

When a supervisor took note of Sgt. Donovan Tait's calming influence and superior listening skills, he encouraged him to pursue a specialized career in crisis negotiation. Now, 10 years later, Tait is a seasoned negotiator in Nanaimo, B.C., with nearly 100 critical incident calls under his belt. Amelia Thatcher spoke with Tait to see how he handles charged crisis situations.

What does a crisis negotiator do?

In the most highly charged and dangerous events, there's an expectation that we [the police] are going to try to speak to subjects first. So that's where trained negotiators come in. We work as part of the Critical Incident Program, under an incident commander and alongside the Emergency Response Team (ERT), which is the tactical side. We attend everything — calls for suicidal people, hostage taking, kidnaps, barricaded persons and emotionally distraught individuals. Most calls are for people who are in crisis where they've lost the ability to cope. For example, they've lost their job, lost their spouse, lost kids in a court case, are going through financial troubles, or suffering from post-traumatic stress.

What's the first thing you do?

When we're driving to a call, we're trying to get as much information as possible from all sources. What's caused this today? What's their history? Is there a mental health component? As a best practice, we'll consult mental health practitioners to get their advice. Sometimes we'll try to get in touch with relatives or friends. If the person loves hockey, that piece of info could be used by a negotiator to start a conversation.

Are there steps you follow to build a rapport?

The first thing you do is introduce yourself. Some people respond better to a show of force, some people might respond better to saying, "Hey this is Donovan and I work for the police." That introduction takes the word "officer" out of it, and personalizes it. You always want to say, "I'm here to help" and reassure them. You also want to get information: Are they okay? Are there weapons? Are there other people? Is anyone hurt? After you've gathered the basics, open-ended questions work best. You want to do some rapport building — you'll never be able to influence or change behaviour unless you've gathered a measure of trust.

What are some challenges?

Technology and social media have changed how we control an incident and how we keep a subject focused. If someone posts on Facebook, you get media coming to the scene and people trying to get in contact with them. We want to shut down live videos, lock down their social media feeds and block all calls going to their phone except ours. We get help from service providers to do this. We try to control the technology and the subject's access to the outside world so that the focus is on the negotiators.

How often are you successful?

A lot of cases end successfully without any harm to the public or police, but it's a team effort with the ERT and incident commanders. But despite our successes, there are some people who are goal-oriented and no matter what we do or how good we are, they had already made up their mind to do what they planned.

What's the most valuable skill for a negotiator?

It's about active listening. If we do all the talking, we're not going to change anything. The most valuable skill is being able to listen to the person and digest what their problem is and then craft strategic responses to influence their behaviour. In any crisis event, buying time is the goal. Time tends to makes everything better, because they can start looking beyond the present situation.

Why do you keep negotiating?

I love the teamwork, the challenge and helping people. I'd say most cases are good people who are having a bad day or who had something bad happen to them. Their ability to cope has been overwhelmed and they're reacting badly and they need help to be brought back into reality. If you can get them through a crisis without hurting themselves or someone else or doing something irreparable, then that's great. It's very rewarding to hear a person say, "I was going to kill myself today until you guys came." And it's a team credit.

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