The Canadian Review of Policing Research (2004)

ISSN: 1710 6915


Mike Webster

Dr. Mike Webster is a police psychologist who acts as a consultant to emergency response teams, and instructs on crisis negotiation through his consulting company, Centurion Consulting Services Ltd. He also works as a consultant to American law enforcement in this area, and is an adjunct instructor at the FBI Academy.


Hostage negotiation received its first dose of respectability in the early 1970’s following the tragedy at the Munich Olympics, and a couple of disastrous hostage/barricade incidents in New York City attended by the New York City Police Department. As a consequence of these events, Dr. Harvey Schlossberg and Lieutenant Frank Bolz, implemented the strategy of talking with hostage or barricaded subjects rather than simply addressing them with a gradual application of force.

The field received its second administration of respectability during the early 1990’s when the Federal Bureau of Investigation declared that “hostage” negotiation was a misnomer, explaining that most call-outs were not hostage takings but people in crisis. It therefore followed that police officers tasked with talking to the subject should be considered “crisis” negotiators and taught crisis intervention, or active listening, skills.

In response, police institutions responsible for training crisis negotiators, such as the FBI Training Academy and the Canadian Police College, organized their courses around the teaching of active listening skills, which became the heart of their programs. Today, more time is spent in crisis negotiation training on discussing, learning, and practising listening skills than on any other single topic. Despite this, I was unable to find any literature examining the idea that these skills could be generalized from the counselling realm to hostage/barricade situations; nor was I was able to find any evaluative studies that had followed-up the use of these skills.

Based upon my near 30 years of observing crisis negotiators in action, I suspected that the skills were not being used to the degree that many thought they were. I had expected that given the time and emphasis placed upon training and perfecting these skills that they would be the crisis negotiator’s main tool. What I heard was quite the opposite. I gained the impression that the skills were rarely being used, and I found myself continually prompting and reminding crisis negotiators to employ them. More objectively, I reminded myself that perhaps owing to my own professional development, my expectations were too high and my perception was inaccurate. I decided to take a more objective look.


During 2001, I began to collect a sample of audiotapes from crisis negotiators. My intention was to analyze each of these hostage/barricade incidents to determine at what level these active listening skills were being utilized. Early in 2002, I was ready to begin my modest and straightforward project. I had collected tapes from British Columbia to the Maritime Provinces representing the work of 15 separate crisis negotiators. The average length of incident was approximately three hours. Twelve of the crisis negotiators were male and three were female. Their average length of experience, as a crisis negotiator, was six years. The crisis negotiators represented municipal, provincial, and federal levels of policing. The incidents represented both urban and rural settings. All incidents could be identified as non-hostage (i.e. expressively motivated subjects).

I obtained the audiotapes by outlining my project to a national gathering of Canadian crisis negotiation coordinators. I requested tapes that would allow me to perform an analysis on crisis negotiator communication. When I had all the tapes I thought I was going to get, I began my project. I used the research technique called content analysis. This technique is an objective, systematic, and quantitative description of the manifest content of communication.1 The raw material for the technique may be any form of communication. The form the communication took in my project was audio-taped crisis negotiator communication with a barricaded subject. The analysis entailed a simple classification or tabulation of specific content. I analyzed each crisis negotiator’s “speaking-turn” to determine whether it demonstrated an active listening skill or not; and, if it was an active listening skill, which one it was. I had a very narrow focus. I was not interested in outcome (i.e. success or failure) but process. I wanted to determine what the level of use of active listening skills was in a reasonably representative sample of trained and experienced Canadian crisis negotiators.

I needed to establish a hypothesis, but I was unable to locate any previous related work that would guide me in doing so. I ended up setting an arbitrary figure that would give me something to prove or disprove. I thought that as these active listening skills are considered to be the heart of crisis negotiator training in North America, and so much time is spent learning and practising them, they would be used at least 25 percent of the time. That is, 25 percent of crisis negotiator speaking-turns would contain one of the active listening skills of minimal encouragement, paraphrase, emotion labelling, mirroring, or summary. Silence proved difficult to quantify so “effective pauses” were eliminated. I thought this was a conservative estimate, as it left 75 percent of their speaking-turns to do all the other things that crisis negotiators do, such as calm, reassure, gather intelligence, problem solve and so on.

I relied upon a simple frequency count of the objective variables (i.e. the active listening skills) to prove my hypothesis. I listened to every crisis negotiator speaking turn on every tape I had collected. I marked each speaking-turn as either “yes” (it was an active listening skill; and which skill it was) or “no” (it was not). When I had all the tapes marked, I determined the percentage of active listening skills in the total amount of speaking turns. I performed no statistical manipulations of the data; I was not interested in the statistical significance of anything. I just wanted to find out how often active listening skills were used.


I found that crisis negotiators, in my sample, used an active listening skill only 13 per cent of the time. That is, these veteran crisis negotiators utilized an active listening skill 13 times in every 100 speaking-turns (see figure 1). This outcome failed to prove my hypothesis, since I had thought they would employ active listening skills at a rate of at least 25 times out of every 100 speaking turns.

I then went on to look more closely at the 13 per cent figure. I wanted to know which active listening skills were being used more frequently. Approximately 66 per cent of the active listening skills used (i.e. of the 13 per cent total) could be identified as an attending skill or minimal encourager (e.g. “yes”, “I see”, “uh-huh”, “you bet”, “you don’t say”, “sure”, “there ya go”, “right”); paraphrasing was 12 per cent of the total ; emotion labelling was nine per cent of the total; summary was seven per cent of the total; and mirroring was six per cent of the total (see figure 2). When the minimal encouragers were factored out of the original 13 per cent active listening skills total, this left approximately six per cent of all the speaking-turns being an active listening skill (see figure 3). That is, the crisis negotiator used paraphrasing, emotion labelling, mirroring, or summary (minimal encouragers having been factored out) only six out of 100 times. This is somewhat alarming as empathic communication is thought to be crucial to effective counselling; the area from which these skills were borrowed.2

I went even further to examine several other variables as factors. Once again, I performed no tests of statistical significance on the data. I simply computed percentages. I looked at date trained, experience, gender, and level of policing (municipal, provincial or federal) as factors. The differences found were small, in terms of percent, and I hesitate to report them in case they are misinterpreted as being more significant than they really are. It is safe to say that the above noted variables had no mitigating effect on the principal finding of this project.


This was a modest project done out of curiosity and not really clean enough to be dignified with the term controlled research. It really raises more questions than it answers. It can (and I’m sure will) be criticized on several levels. The sampling procedure was not strictly random (yet produced a group of those thought to be the best in their field). And, I was both the author of the project and the principal rater of the tapes. Perhaps some neutral raters and the establishment of inter-rater reliability would have increased objectivity. Nonetheless, I think it raises some interesting questions. For example, “What role does active listening actually play in hostage/barricade work?”

Someone several decades ago had the impression that these skills could be borrowed from the counselling context and transplanted to the emergency response context. If it turns out that the present findings are replicated by others, this impression will have to be questioned. The mystery to be solved would be: if the police are so successful managing hostage/barricade incidents and they are not using the skills they were taught, then what are they doing? In other words, to use the suggestive findings of this project, if they only employ an empathic technique six per cent of the time, what are they doing the other 94 percent of the time? Are there other equally effective factors that are more directive than responsive in nature?

In the present project the 94 percent was made up of leading skills such as questions, explanation, suggestion, advice, I-messages, confrontation, reframing, self-disclosure, and warning. Perhaps active listening is best viewed as a small piece of a larger package. It may account for the creation of a working alliance between the crisis negotiator and the subject but not for the solving of problems. The latter may need its own set of skills unrelated to active listening. Or perhaps the effectiveness of problem solving skills is in proportion to the quality of the working alliance established through active listening.

To focus directly on the hypothesis of the present project, “Is there an optimal level of active listening?” Perhaps it was folly to even attempt to discover how much these skills are being used. Perhaps it is more a question of timing than rates. That is, maybe it is not how often the active listening skills are used, but when they are used. Although, in the present project, scores of perfect opportunities were missed, the incidents were managed successfully. It might be asked if there is even a correlation between the rate of active listening and the outcome,

Another interesting direction to pursue is the job classification process. In most police services, police officers are selected to undertake general duty police work. The qualities thought to make the best professional police officer include tough mindedness, conservatism, dogmatism, achievement orientation, competitiveness, problem-solving, and so on. When these individuals are fill positions such as crisis negotiator requiring qualities outside the range of their personality adjustment, they experience discomfort. It could be that many police officers do not have the aptitude to learn the skills being taught, so they fall back on what they know best and is easiest for them to do.

As I stated above, this project raises more questions than it answers. I invite those interested in this field to answer some of them. I believe it is time to look critically at what police do in hostage/barricade situations. This project suggests a disproportion between the amount of time spent on training crisis negotiators to be active listeners and the amount of time in which active listening is used. There seems to be a discrepancy between what crisis negotiators think they do and what they actually do. My experience as a consultant to American law enforcement and an adjunct instructor at the FBI Academy leads me to believe that this discrepancy also exists south of the 49 th parallel. I may be mistaken, but I would expect that for all the emphasis put on active listening skills, one would expect to see it utilized more frequently. Moreover, if crisis negotiators are not using the skills they are being taught and are still meeting with success, it would be useful to know what accounts for it.


1. B. Berelson, Content Analysis in Communication Research, Glencoe Ill:1952, Free Press.

2. C. Rogers, Client Centered Therapy, Boston: 1951, Haughton Mifflin Co; C. B. Truax and R. R. Carkhuff, Toward Effective Counselling and Psychotherapy: Training and Practice, Chicago: 1967, Aldine-Atherton; E. T. Gendlin, “Client Centred and Experiential Psychotherapy”, eds. D.A. Wexler and L.N. Rice, Innovations in Client Centred Therapy, New York: 1974, Wiley.