With the upcoming release of hostage drama Rebellion, directed by and starring Mathieu Kassovitz, we thought we’d chat to a real life negotiator. Richard Mullender has trained staff at the UN, the Metropolitan Police, even the FBI. By turning the (apparently) simple act of listening into an art form, the man has recovered hostages, defused suicide attempts, and saved lives.
How well do you think the movies portray the job of a hostage negotiator?
The Negotiator with Kevin Spacey is pretty good. There’s a fair amount of Hollywood in there as you’d imagine, but it’s not bad and the techniques they portray aren’t far off. The film Rebellion is interesting as it’s got some insights, which are really quite clever. When you hear the character’s thoughts, they’re the sort of things we would think.
Have you ever seen a film and thought “That’s rubbish, I’d NEVER do that?”
I’ve seen lots of films where I’ve been annoyed by the representation of police, but not negotiators. I think Hollywood is really quite good. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but it’s true. They do a fair amount of research, and while they embellish, it’s pretty accurate. Regarding Rebellion, maybe the French do it slightly differently, but as hostage negotiators, we wouldn’t have anything to do with soldiers, we wouldn’t go that close and we certainly wouldn’t be put in a position where we could be taken hostage ourselves. Most of the time though, films get it pretty close. Mind you, there’s been a few times where I thought “I would never do that”, but its Hollywood, they’ve got to entertain.
So you’ve never felt in danger yourself?
There have been situations where people were armed, but you’re always protected. You’re not there to be put in danger, you’re there to use your brain… if you’re vulnerable, you can’t listen as well as you should. You take yourself away from the incident as it’s happening so you can think clearly.
Have you ever sympathised with a hostage taker? Or related to them at all?
The real skill of a negotiator is to remove yourself from the situation, be apolitical, very impartial. A real hostage situation is extremely complex because you have different needs from different sides. First and foremost you’ve got to get the detainee out. In order to do that, you’ve got to convince the person holding them they have an alternative to keeping or killing these people. At the same time, you have to remember that various governments have their own needs, so you can’t just go making promises because the government might say “you can’t do that.” There are a lot of constraints and you’re constantly weighing up agendas.
I don’t think I could handle the responsibility.
Well that’s just it, it’s not about you, it’s about them. Say you’ve got a child who locks themselves in the bathroom. We know the best thing is for them to come out and talk about it. But they don’t think that, they think “I’m alright here, leave me alone, go away.” You have to figure out what put them in the bathroom in the first place. Now that’s a simple analogy for someone who’s contemplating suicide, which is far more complex, obviously. But as you try to help, you have to realise, “It’s not about me, it’s the other person.” What’s forced the other person to go in there, what could be so bad in their life. You have to listen so hard, and most people don’t listen. If I asked you to teach me to listen, what would you tell me?
(At this point I realised I am an appalling listener)
I… Wait, what?
Okay. I’ve run courses and I ask people to teach me to listen. So they say, “concentrate”, and I say, “What does that mean? What do I concentrate on?” It’s about the important words and interpretation. How do I interpret those words to understand the meaning and how do I know my interpretation is right? As you listen to these hostage takers, you think, “What are they really telling me?” So you say, “I get the impression what you’re actually saying is this…” and they’ll either confirm or deny it. If it’s confirmation, you can move forwards, if it’s denial, they’ll tell you what they truly want.
I never realised listening could be so complicated.
It’s the number one key skill. It works everywhere. If you can learn to listen, the first thing you do is to stop asking questions. If you keep asking questions, you’re telling me what you want to know, so you’re telling me about who you are, and you’ll change the subject.
Sorry, I’m not sure I follow.
If I said I was going on holiday, you’d ask me where I’m going, right?
And whose agenda is it, yours or mine?
I don’t know.
It’s your agenda, because you ask where I’m going. I’m off on holiday because I’m stressed, you’ve changed the subject. If I said “I’m off on holiday,” and you said “And?” I’d say, “Well its because I’m stressed.” And you say “Stressed?” All of a sudden, you’re starting to get answers without asking questions. It’s no longer about your agenda, it’s about my agenda, which is what you need to know. There comes a point when you listen to their agenda, understand how they feel and if you’ve managed that, you can then start to persuade them. And that’s how hostage negotiation works, as simple as that.
I think our readers will now feel confident in being able to talk someone down from a bridge.
Well don’t talk them down, listen them down.
Rebellion, is available now on Blu-ray and DVD, courtesy of Lionsgate Home Entertainment
Words: John Sharp