top of page

In conflict you win with listening and empathy. Interview with Jack Cambria by Monica Bozzellini, founder of Humaneyes communicate positively

He inspired the character John Turturro in the film Pelham 123, Hostages on the Subway . for over thirty years he served in the New York City Police, NYPD, and for fourteen he was commander of the Elite Hostage Negotiation Team, the unit dedicated to SWAT operations, hostage negotiation and anti-terrorism actions. Jack Cambria, born in Brooklyn to a family of Sicilian origins, awarded multiple awards for his results, led missions in extreme situations, such as the collapse of the Twin Towers. He trained the US Joint Task Force at Guantanamo Military Base on hostage negotiation and is called upon as a training supervisor by federal and government law enforcement agencies. In his activity as a speaker and trainer, he also works in Italy collaborating with the International School of Negotiation. With him, who has published a book on negotiation entitled Let's talk about it , through the story of his experience we try to understand how and how important it is to 'negotiate' in a world that now struggles to dialogue.

Let's align ourselves on the meaning of the words: what does it mean to negotiate?

It means arriving at mutual understanding, resolving a conflict. In my world, hostage negotiation is about arriving at a good resolution by going from what the kidnappers want to what we want. The principles of hostage negotiations and corporate and business negotiations are similar: establish a relationship, gain trust, close the deal. Closing a business deal can mean signing a contract, for the police to convince a criminal to surrender.

Why did you choose this path?

Before joining the Negotiation Team, which I led for the last 14 years of my career, I was on the other side for 16 years, on the Tactical SWAT Teams. In policing, the theory is that you don't have to use a baton just because you have it, so when SWAT was called for hostage locations, I always tried to negotiate out the door so I wouldn't have to. enter with my agents, we could have gotten hurt. I had a good number of successes and when my predecessor in command of the Negotiation Team, who had seen me in action, retired, he asked me to do my name for that position. I had to think about it, because I loved my job in SWAT, that was also a rescue unit, the Emergency Service. Then I accepted and this is the story. The short version…

The title of his book tells the secret of the good negotiator.

In any type of negotiation, the 80/20 rule works: the negotiator should listen 80% and talk only 20%. Before you know how to solve the problem, you need to identify it but if you spend your time talking you won't be able to. Instead, by letting the other party speak, we can identify the issue and develop a strategy to follow to arrive at a good outcome for both parties. In the case of hostages, going out also benefits the kidnapper: we don't know what might happen to either party when the police walk through the door.

This leads to understanding where you are, to better choose a direction.

When I arrive at a crime scene, it's often like walking into the theater in the middle of a movie. You're with your family, you're late, there's traffic, in the end you find a parking space, you enter the theater and the film has already started a quarter of an hour ago, it's in full drama and you don't understand, so you have to try to reconstruct how it happened have reached that point in history. In the police, there are people who investigate, the detectives, who try to get an idea: for example, they interview the family members of the person who is at the center of the scene to understand the context, why we got there and how we can proceed. A little different from what happens in corporate or business negotiation, where you know beforehand all the issues at stake, who the other negotiators are, the location and you might even have good food available.

Given the singularity of each situation, is there a common methodology in negotiation?

The answer is 'yes and no'. Let me explain, we start from a methodology, the fundamental principles that I mentioned before, simplifying: relationship, trust, closing the agreement. We start by building a relationship, getting to know the person and allowing them to get to know us. We start from active listening, we try to talk and the other party tries to trust us. The problem in my world is that our interlocutors don't trust the police, they are afraid of them and I have to overcome this, I can't just leave. I try to establish a verbal contract, my part is 'I promise you that I will tell the truth about what you ask me', because the truth is the truth, the other must accept what I say, even if he doesn't like it. And I have to say, no one has ever asked me to lie. At that point, the process of reaching an agreement begins.

You talk about some key elements, including authenticity and empathy.

In this case, I interpret 'authenticity' as 'credibility': the negotiator must be credible. In my courses at ISN I usually talk about the three 'E's: starting from ethics, which plays a role in credibility. Are you frank with your counterpart? Are you trying to make him feel it and move towards a common result? The second concerns the ego: we all have an ego, it's about lowering it, if you want to put yourself on the same level as a person you can't try to dominate conservation .Then there is the last one, empathy. It is therefore a question of supporting one's credibility and at the same time understanding emotions. To give you an example, I once found myself in front of a man who wanted to jump from the Brooklyn Bridge, he was 63 years old, no job, no money, no family. and friends. Listening to him I said “I know exactly how you feel” and do you know what he replied? “You don't know exactly, otherwise you would be sitting next to me to throw yourself.” It wasn't my goal, but he sensed arrogance. It was a powerful lesson, I apologized to him and in the end we managed to save him and take him to the hospital. Since then I've been saying, “I can only imagine how you must feel,” because that's all I can do. To me, therefore, authenticity is the credibility you have to demonstrate to hope to have a person's trust.

What is the role of emotions in negotiation?

I teach that, for every negotiator, active listening and empathy are a package deal. How is the other party expressing themselves, is they very excited? Do you get tears in your eyes when you deal with a topic? Does he speak very fast? Active listening and attention to emotions are inseparable to have a complete sense of what is happening, decide on a strategy and follow it. And I add another important element: the negotiator's tone of voice.

Difficult to do if you don't know how to recognize emotions...

Let's go back to 2001, when I took charge of the Hostage Negotiation Team, I realized that there were a lot of job applications and that many candidates had only 3 or 4 years of police experience. From my point of view, we need a seniority to be seriously considered for the role of negotiator, so I changed the selection criteria and, for a couple of reasons, I included the minimum 12 years of experience in the NYPD. The first reason is that with 12 years of experience in police in a city like New York, where 8.5 million people live and 4 more arrive every day, candidates would have had a solid foundation in this job and the ability to understand people's behavior in a crisis situation. They wouldn't do something that didn't work and then think 'maybe I shouldn't say that again', but they would implement behaviors that had already worked for them. The 12-year criterion placed candidates in an age category of around 35 and this would likely have meant having experienced love-related emotions such as suffering, or success and, perhaps more importantly, what it means to fail. I believe that failure is a gateway to success, the bigger the failure, the bigger the lesson you learn.

Do you have a concrete tip for managing emotions?

It's hard for me to answer, because emotions are always powerful and often difficult to manage. There is a scale that explains how when they are high, rationality is low and when we make a decision in the grip of emotions, it is often bad. What the negotiator tries to do is balance emotion and rationality. I can tell you that emotions, like anger for example, have a duration and disappear within 90 seconds, the reason they remain is the mind, we continue to keep that message in our heads. Once, in a class in Israel, a woman of about 75 raised her hand and said to me 'you say that emotions have a shelf life, but for some this is not the case'. Obviously he was talking about something he had experienced. I replied that I understood… for some people the suffering can last a long time.

When is a negotiation definitely doomed to fail?

In hostage negotiations, and probably in corporate and sales negotiations as well, we don't assume an outcome: it may seem like the negotiation isn't going well, but you're still negotiating. Hostages can be at gunpoint and in my opinion it is always better for the kidnappers to be there talking to me rather than shooting someone. It may seem like things aren't going well, but as long as I keep them talking they aren't hurting anyone.

Are there winners and losers in a negotiation?

I like to see negotiation as a win-win proposition, even if some might say that this way a compromise is reached and neither party gets what it wants. But no one, at least the loser, wants a win-loose negotiation. So I think win-win is the best thing: no one has exactly what they want, but everyone gets something. And you have to know what the line is beyond which you don't want to go: you want something but you can accept something less. This is why, sometimes, no agreement is better than a bad agreement; I can't do it in my police work, but in business it may happen that you have to leave the negotiation or go back to it after some time.

Is there a negotiation that you didn't succeed in and in which you understood the mistake?

On the negotiation team we averaged 45 assignments per month, compared to 8 per year in the rest of the US. In New York City there were often domestic cases, or bank robberies that the police discovered before the robbers got out. A second category included people who barricaded themselves alone in their homes, criminals who did not want to hand themselves over to the police, or emotionally or mentally disturbed people. In the third category there were people who attempted suicide, perhaps from a bridge or a building . If we could get there in time, there was a very good chance of making them reconsider. But don't think of an immediate relationship, they were angry with us because we were interrupting their plans. As I was saying, however, the longer we go without violence, the more chance we have of achieving the result. We have experienced some failures, mostly in this area. Despite our best efforts, that life process or situation was so adverse that they decided they didn't want to live. Most suicidal people consider only two options, it's called 'constrictive thinking': living with the emotional trauma and pain. , or die and get rid of it.

How do we intervene in these cases?

The negotiator gets to interrupt that process by reminding them that there are other important things out there to consider. A 45-year-old woman had just discovered that her husband was thinking of leaving her for a younger girl, in a state of confusion she had driven to the Golden Bridge and seemed ready to jump. This woman had two children, a 14 year old and a 12 year old. I reminded her of her daughter, who would soon enter puberty and would need her mother and her son who would be burned for life and would think that responsibility was for that gesture of hers. In the end, she started looking into my eyes, thinking about them and not just her pain, we recovered her. It is a process in which people must be given time to work through their emotions.

When faced with a long time ahead, how do you respond to the sense of inadequacy or impotence?

The first 15-45 minutes are usually the most dangerous, because emotions are at their highest and rationality at their lowest. It's like having a teapot boiling on the stove and whistling, what would happen if we put a stopper to stifle the steam? Eventually it would explode. Same with people. Allowing them to talk and listen gives you the chance to alleviate some of those emotions, to let them fade, and hopefully, you can bring them step by step to a positive resolution.

Organizations are also inhabited by conflicts. How to get someone to say yes without imposing yourself on the relationship?

When you need someone to do something, in any field, I think the best negotiation is to put them in a position to think that it's their idea. In business negotiation, both parties have the luxury of researching the details and facts long before sitting down at the negotiating table at which point it's a push and pull. And if a question arises that you don't have the answer to, you can say, we'll get back to you and also make use of an expert on that topic.

Should the willingness to negotiate always be a priority at all levels, individual, collective, global?

This falls under the three 'E's': wanting to cooperate and negotiating. Of course, when the other party fixates on their bottom line they may not want to compromise and you may no longer be able to negotiate, or maybe you will have to remove something from the discussion, but I think you should always want to negotiate.

Do you believe in the possibility of a world of generative and non-destructive conflicts?

We all see how the world is, it's horrible. It depends on who has power at any given time and this affects decisions and consequences. If you ask me if I believe in a world where we can live without conflicts, I would like to say yes but unfortunately I don't think so.

How important is it to train on the ability to negotiate as you do for example with the ISN?

I think using words before tactical force becomes necessary is very important, and negotiators who come to the International School of Negotiation want to learn that. Among other things, I also teach communication in cases of crisis escalation, a course designed especially for police officers who are on the street: it is very difficult because they are bosses, supervisors sent for training. The negotiators, on the other hand, want to be there, they want to know more. It's a fascinating field and I deal with it with pleasure. I've been collaborating with ISN for years because the people who gravitate around this sector want to be there and I can feel all the energy.

A last question. Is there a difference between the attitude of men and women in negotiation?

Men get more to the point, towards the bottom line, while women - as I myself have noticed and research says - negotiate more from a position of closeness to emotions: matters of the heart, they want to hear what it's about. In an ideal role the negotiator should blend the two approaches, because there is something to learn from both sides.


bottom of page