1 July 2016

Resolving Conflict: Negotiating like the FBI

Daniel Gallan

Elite sport practitioners are constantly placed under immense pressure, and in the heat of the moment, tempers flare and harsh words are exchanged. Fortunately, the consequences of irrational actions are never life threatening. Not so for the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit, where one misspoken word can result in untold misery and death. Gary Noesner spent 30 years with the FBI, ten of which he was the Chief Negotiator, handling delicate and dangerous situations every day. His unique insight could help athletes and coaches remain calm under pressure while others descend into chaos. 

FBI negotiators are expected to remain calm under pressure. Elite coaches and athletes can learn a lot from them.

FBI negotiators are expected to remain calm under pressure. Elite coaches and athletes can learn a lot from them.

Jose Mourinho is the new manager of Manchester United, and fans of the most successful club in English football will expect immediate results from the man tasked with bringing back the good times to Old Trafford.

And why not? Mourinho’s record is the envy of almost every manager currently in the game. With two Champions League trophies, eight domestic league titles and twelve other cup triumphs with four different teams in as many countries, the self-anointed “Special One” is a proven winner.

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Mourinho down the years. Football fans are prone to amnesia, but United supporters would do well to remember the manner in which their new manager parted ways with his previous club.

Despite winning the league the previous season, Mourinho was sacked after just 16 games and a 2-1 loss to eventual champions, Leicester City. They were 16th on the table with just four victories. By that stage, the manager had lost his dressing room with senior players, including Diego Costa and Eden Hazard, orchestrating his downfall. He couldn’t have known it then, but Mourinho’s spiral began on the opening day of the season.

Locked at 2-2 with Swansea and with time running out, Chelsea’s push for a last minute victory was halted when team doctor, Eva Carneiro, ran on to the pitch to treat Hazard for an apparent injury. The referee blew his whistle and the match was brought to a stop.

Mourinho was furious and berated Carneiro, allegedly calling her, “Filha da Puta (daughter of a whore in Portuguese). Carneiro left Chelsea and mounted legal proceedings against both the club and her former manager, settling both cases on confidential terms.

Carneiro was a popular figure in the Chelsea dressing room. Medical staff are bound to confidentiality and players often open up to the men and women responsible for their treatment while injured. Publicly shaming Carneiro meant he placed many players in the situation where they felt they had to take sides.

Mourinho’s lack of diplomacy in his profanity riddled tirade caused a ripple effect that culminated in his sacking and the worst ever title defence in Premier League history.

How different it all could have been. Mourinho possesses many praiseworthy attributes, but restraint in the heat of the moment is not one of them. It’s not just Mourinho. Fire and brimstone are tools that managers often use to ignite their players.

Mourinho’s predecessor, Louis van Gaal, was often criticized for his lack of fire and fans won’t want to see the Portuguese coach douse his flames. He just needs to manage them better, something Gary Noesner, former Chief Negotiator for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) knows all about.

Noesner was at the helm of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit, Critical Incident Response Group for 10 years in a career that spanned three decades. During that time, he led a team of more than 50 negotiators around the United States. His most famous case, the Waco siege, ended with the deaths of 86 people including the Branch Davidian leader, David Koresh.

After witnessing so much human misery and despair for so many years, it seems almost glib to make the comparison between a hostage negotiation with lives on the line and a football manager trying to keep his cool. Noesner offers a different perspective:

Jose Mourinho, as Chelsea manager, remonstrates with his players against Tottenham Hotspur.  Image supplied by Action Images / Paul Childs. 

Jose Mourinho, as Chelsea manager, remonstrates with his players against Tottenham Hotspur. Image supplied by Action Images / Paul Childs. 

“Whatever context you’re talking about, all human interaction falls into one of two categories: conflict or cooperation,” he explains. There are very obvious differences between a man holding a gun and threatening to take someone’s life and a man scolding a member of staff for walking onto a football field, but what ties these two incidents together is an individual who is embroiled in a heightened emotional level.

When humans are highly aroused, their ability to think and behave in a rational way is greatly diminished. That is why the first thing the FBI teaches an aspiring negotiator is how to control their emotions in order to respond to the situation in a rational and calm manner.

As Noesner says, “Before you can influence a person’s behaviour in a positive manner and steer them in the direction of your choosing, you need to lower their emotional levels.” No matter the urgency of the situation self-control needs to be implemented in order to achieve the desired result.

Noesner explains that often hostage takers are surprised when the negotiator shows up and is the calmest person around. The person holding the gun is spiralling; he is angry, frustrated, terrified and irrational. He is expecting an authoritative figure to show up and make demands. The last thing he expects is a sympathetic ally.

People are more likely to respond to what you’re saying if they feel they are being heard and understood. A dressing room rollicking might be the way things have been done in the past, but the consequences have not demanded a shift in leadership strategy the way they have in hostage negotiations.

Every interaction between two team members should be for the benefit of the team. Mourinho, in his own way, was acting with the best intentions. It was his delivery that was off.

As the old adage says, it’s not what you say; it’s how you say it. Noesner extends that to, “In life, it’s not so much what happens to us that matters but rather how we feel about it.” He explains how so often in his career, once a hostage situation was defused, the perpetrator would admit that it was Noesner’s tone rather than his words that caused his surrender. Often they wouldn’t even remember what he had said.

That is not to say that the actual words used are not important in negotiations. Obviously Mourinho’s sexist remarks would still have stung had he said them in a diplomatic tone. For Noesner, language is crucial, and the way FBI negotiators appeal to the better judgement of individuals can be implemented in elite sport.

FBI negotiators do not only deal with hostage situations but also with people contemplating suicide. Talking someone down from the ledge requires a delicate touch. Instead of trying to convince the person to think of their own life, negotiators will pull on emotional strings that turn their gaze towards loved ones.

Noesner explains: “We might say something like, “Mr Smith, I understand you have a collie dog. What is going to happen to her if you hurt yourself? Who will look after her and show her the love she needs?” Or, “Did you know that children whose parents commit suicide are 50% more likely to do so themselves? I know you love your family. Do you really want your kids to do that?” People don’t think about the consequences of their actions when they’re in that heightened state. They only think about their pain.”

Extending that to sport, where two teammates or members of the coaching staff are clashing, a third party could appeal to their better judgement. “If you fight with a senior player, you’ll struggle to get the best out of him and that will reflect badly on the team,” or, “If you continue to battle with the coach, he won’t pick you and your stock as a star player will diminish.”

Gary Noesner has over 30 years' experience with the FBI and will be presenting at CONQA Sport's Elite Sport Summit. Visit his website  here . 

Gary Noesner has over 30 years' experience with the FBI and will be presenting at CONQA Sport's Elite Sport Summit. Visit his website here

It is also important not to mention particular words that might stir up negative emotions. Players know when they are experiencing a slump in form or if there is a rift within the team. Instead of addressing the negative, focus on the positive. People are more likely to be open to change if they can focus on something that is achievable and doable. Sports practitioners need challenges that they can overcome.

Noesner was involved in the 1993 Lucasville Prison Riot where 450 prisoners, including an alliance between the Aryan Brotherhood and Gangster Disciples gangs, rioted and took control of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility. After 11 gruelling days, and the death of nine inmates and one corrections officer, the prisoners finally relented.

Not once did Noesner mention the word “surrender” as that might have denoted capitulation, something no one wants to do in a confrontation. Instead, negotiators used words like “evacuation” and other more amicable sounding terms. People are more likely to comply when they feel vested in the decision making process.

It is only once the dust has settled that conflict resolution can address the cause of the pain and anger rather than the overt symptoms, which in many cases, manifest in aggressive behaviours. Noesner explains how negotiators are taught, “when in doubt, slow things down.”

It is not about prolonging the tension, but as anyone who has ever been angry knows, it is impossible to maintain that heightened state of arousal for an extended period. What is needed afterwards is a willingness to accept blame where appropriate and understand the point of view of the other person. As Noesner says, “Successful negotiations work, whether both parties realise it straight away or not, because everyone is after a similar outcome.”

It is impossible to know for certain what conversations Jose Mourinho and Eva Carneiro had in the aftermath of that infamous blowout. Judging by the consequences, it is fair to assume that both parties failed to reach an agreement.

Every elite manager needs a large dose of ego in order to succeed. However, if Mourinho wishes to create the dynasty that Manchester United fans are hoping for, he will have to work on his negotiation skills. He can ill afford to lose another dressing room. Failure at Old Trafford could be the end of the Special One. 

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town from 5 - 7 October 2016.