Two words to never say when someone’s life is on the line

Isabella Maldonado here, as a new member of the Murder Books squad, I’d like to highlight how one aspect of my career in law enforcement helped me become a better writer. For a bit of background, I retired as a police captain after over 22 years on the Fairfax County Police Department, a large agency in the Washington, DC metro area. During my tenure on the job, I was a member of the hostage negotiation team for more than ten years. Nowadays, the correct term is crisis negotiator. This change came about because some people we deal with are barricaded, suicidal, and not presenting an immediHN, megaphoneate threat to anyone but themselves.

Like most people, I had preconceived notions about what negotiators do before I received formal training. Unlike what you see on television and in the movies, police negotiators avoid putting relatives, co-workers, and friends in direct contact with someone in crisis. An untrained individual can inadvertently (or intentionally) make comments that inflame the situation. Conversely, the hostage-taker may be waiting for this particular individual to bear witness to his final act of revenge, defiance, or desperation.

So what does a negotiator say to an agitated gunman? In reality, the trick is to LISTEN, not to recite psychobabble. It’s also important to know what NOT to say. There are very few trigger phrases, but they’re out there. As an example, two words you should never utter to anyone who is upset, angry, or just plain freaking out are:

Calm down.

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That phrase is arguably the most provocative in the English language. Anyone with a background in law enforcement, mental health, medicine, or raising children has direct experience with how much those two words serve to incite rather than soothe.

Regarding listening, most people don’t actually pay attention to what others say. Instead, they wait to interrupt. I recall learning about the process of dealing with someone in acute crisis. I had been under the impression that I would go to training to learn what to say. To the contrary, the most important point was to learn how to listen. We were taught Active Listening techniques, which are surprisingly effective in daily personal life as well.

The fact is that you can’t fake caring. People can tell when you’re giving them lip service or when you’re being genuine. When acting as lead negotiator, I poured my heart into every interaction, giving each individual in crisis my undivided attention. Sometimes, that was what they needed most. To be heard. To feel understood. To make a human connection on a visceral level.

That’s one of the reasons why each negotiation team consists of at least four people: The lead negotiator, who interacts with the subject; the coach, who provides intel to and from the negotiator; and the research team, who learn everything they can about the subject and pass it on both to the negotiator and to SWAT in case of a need for their intervention.

Coaches are key not only becauHN, standoffse they relay information, but they also prevent the negotiator from getting sucked in. One of my instructors recalled a case where the lead negotiator was conducting face-to-face negotiations (a rarity these days). The negotiator kept inching closer to the corner of the wall behind which he was taking cover while shouting back and forth to the armed suspect. Finally, the coach had to resort to gripping the back of the negotiator’s belt to prevent him from subconsciously gaining physical proximity and inadvertently giving up cover and getting shot. In the effort to make a human connection, the tendency to draw physically or psychologically close is real. And quite necessary in order for negotiations to be effective.

In the aftermath of an incident, there is a debriefing and an after-action report for all involved. For the crisis negotiators, there is also a separate debriefing in which the lead negotiator is given support from his or her teammates. I’ll never forget what one of my trainers said: “You can never take credit for a successful negotiation, because then you’d have to take the blame for a failed one.” While we all want to celebrate when an incident ends with no one getting hurt, there are times when that doesn’t happen. Human beings are complex, and many factors come into play during a dynamic scene like a hostage situation when emotions are running high.

While there are no hard-and-fast rules involving negotiations, there are best practices that are fairly universal:


  1. Isolate the suspect. Use whatever technology is necessary to prevent him from putting on a show—or worse—getting input from people on social media. Or even worse yet, watching live television coverage of the SWAT team making an approach on his position (YES, this has happened).
  2. Listen, listen, listen. What he says will provide clues to the best resolution of the situation.
  3. Stay in control of your own emotions, no matter what. Some individuals will try to provoke you by denigrating you in every manner conceivable. Suck it up.
  4. Nothing is free. Any request/demand from the hostage taker will only be granted if it doesn’t put anyone else in danger and in exchange for something…like a hostage.
  5. Talk through deadlines. If the hostage taker creates a deadline, make every effort to talk past it without putting a hostage in danger. If the suspect becomes aggressive toward a hostage, switch tactics and deal with the deadline immediately.
  6. Allow the subject to fall asleep. It’s physically and mentally draining to HN, chopperbe in crisis. Sometimes, a suspect simply succumbs to exhaustion after hours of negotiation.
  7. Avoid providing mind-altering drugs or alcohol unless medically necessary (a psychiatrist responded with our team to provide insight about drug interaction and withdrawal). Cigarettes and food are okay if rule number four is followed.
  8. Do not allow the suspect to go mobile. Nope, he’s not getting a helicopter and five million dollars.

The series I’m currently writing features a Latina homicide detective on the Phoenix PD who ofDeath Blow cover, amzten finds herself—or those she loves—in mortal danger. She’s not a crisis negotiator, but at times has found herself bargaining for someone’s life. In those cases, I draw on my training to lend a sense of realism to her tactics, and the state-of-mind of her adversary.

That was one of the reasons behind the impetus to write crime fiction. People often ask me why I don’t write true crime, which is very popular right now. My answer is that, after over two decades on the job, I wanted to have situations come out the way they should rather than the way they do. Plus, I love to tell stories and enjoy engaging with readers. A writer’s life is extremely rewarding, if super busy at times. If you ever see me right before a deadline rushing around in an over-caffeinated frenzy…just don’t tell me to calm down.

5 thoughts on “Two words to never say when someone’s life is on the line

  1. Wonderful and highly informative post, Isabella. You’re a great addition to Murder Books. My first dive into the negotiations field was in the late 70s when, as an Army Military Police officer, I attended a Hostage Negotiations (yes, they called it that back then) in San Francisco, taught by Dr. Harvey Schlossberg, an NYPD detective and psychologist. The science of negotiations has changed greatly since.
    Fast forward to the late 1990s when I was one of the tactical commanders and later the commander of Special Operations, I was the overall commander of hundreds of critical incidents, where I commanded the crisis negotiations, entry, sniper, and tactical communications teams to resolve these situations.
    And unlike TV and the movies, SWAT guys weren’t cowboys who wanted to rush in and kill people, the snipers didn’t take it upon themselves to shoot guns out of hostage-takers’ hands, and the negotiators didn’t disobey orders and go face-to-face with the armed suspect to save them from trigger-happy snipers and SWAT operators.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post, Isabella. Glad to have your insights here at MB. As you noted, your lessons on listening extend far beyond hostage negotiations. During my time as a prosecutor, we all regularly needed to be reminded to shut up, to get out of the way and to let the victim really tell us what they wanted from a case.

    Liked by 1 person

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