Dr Richard Bolstad is Transformations Principal Trainer

Violent Crisis Mediation and Negotiation with Terrorists

(c) Dr Richard Bolstad 2016

This is a summary of a case study of the mediation which led to the Northern Ireland peace treaty in 1998.That process was largely guided by US Senator George Mitchell. This is followed by a summary of Laurent Combalbert's model for negotiating with terrorists. Both models have applications in business as well as in violent crises. We pretend that we would never negotiate with terrorists. In the end, that is however, the only way that violence ends. It is not negotiation that encourages terrorism: it is giving in to their demands. The two are entirely different - even opposed - processes. Usually, I prefer to write in extended prose. In this case, these notes are written as a manual. They presuppose the understanding of our training "Transforming Communication".

Terrorists - negotiation

Mediation in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland Story

How Mitchell Structured The Mediation

George Mitchell's approach has been described by Rushwood Kidder, founder of the Institute for Global Ethics, (Kidder, 1998) as a combination of three elements, described here with Kidder's comments:


Consensus is the name given to the use of win win conflict resolution in a group. The goal of consensus is a decision consented to by all group members. This doesn't have to mean that everyone thinks this is the very best solution (a unanimous decision). It just means that everyone can live with the decision and will agree to support the group in choosing it. This goal encourages people to work together to find solutions acceptable for everyone, instead of competing.

As with all win win decision making, the big advantages of consensus are that everyone's creativity is used to generate good solutions, and that people tend to be very committed to making decisions work. The first disadvantage is that it takes time (remember, though, that time enforcing unwanted solutions will be saved). Secondly, at least some people in the group need good communication skills to make it work (hence the advantage of having one person designated "facilitator" as George Mitchell was).

Amongst groups who use consensus regularly in New Zealand are the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), a large number of Indigenous Maori communities, cooperatives such as Women's Refuges, and many workplace teams. Such groups have devised a number of ways to break out of the stalemates which occasionally happen in consensus debates. George Mitchell used these skilfully.

How Mitchell Designed His Comments

As mediator George Mitchell's own communication skills were crucial to the success of the talks. Amongst the key skills he needed to demonstrate were:

Values-Needs: To transfer from Values to Needs you first need to let go of trying to change things that clearly do not physically affect you (eg let go of controlling whether the other person says they believe that smoking is unhealthy). You can then offer a Conditional Close statement (a type of statement developed in sales, to deal with challenges such as a customer being reluctant to buy because of price). The Conditional Close says "So if I could show you a way that you could [meet your physical need fully] then would it be OK that we agree to [meet my physical need], so that we can end this conflict and reach harmony?" Conflict partners may even be willing to invest money and energy into helping the other partner continue living with their value, if they know that this will end the conflict. The values difference becomes less significant, and safety / economic wellbeing (the Needs) become the issues being discussed.

Reframing. a) Meaning: Reframing is a whole new skill, which has two aspects. Faced by an actual increase in "terrorist" bombings while the Northern Ireland talks struggled forward, Mitchell explained "I think it is becoming increasingly obvious that as the prospect of a successful conclusion of these negotiations improved, those who do not want to see a successful conclusion have taken more drastic and extreme measures." (Mitchell, 1999, p 142). In this statement, Mitchell redefines or "reframes" the increasing violence as backhanded affirmation that the talks are on track. That is a "meaning reframe". The question he had asked himself was "What else could this situation mean, that would be useful?"

Reframing. B) Context: A related question to "What else could this mean that's useful?" is "Where or when else would this be useful?". One of the important context reframes that George Mitchell used in Northern Ireland involved accepting that certain statements are useful in certain social contexts. Sometimes, in the public situation of a negotiating room, agreement can be reached more quickly once one party feels that their sense of dignity or identity in their community is safe. At one point in the peace talks, the Sinn Fein newspaper published an interview with an IRA spokesperson. Asked about Sinn Fein's agreement to put aside violence the IRA spokesperson said "The IRA would have problems with sections of the Mitchell Principles. But then the IRA is not a participant in these talks." (Mitchell, 1999, p 115).

Mediation In Business

Eileen Carroll and Karl Mackie, in their book International Mediation: The Art of Business Diplomacy, give a number of case studies of international business mediation. One is a dispute which occurred after a 1989 conflict between a US banking association and their British professional advisers. The bank held that they had been given negligent professional advice about an important transaction, costing them millions of dollars. A formal complaint was lodged in 1994, and in 1996 court proceedings were begun, with a claim for up to US$16 million. It took the centre for Dispute Resolution one month to guide these people to a solution, including 15 hours of preparation and one day of meetings. At a cost of only US$8000, they not only settled the dispute but preserved their working relationship, worth even more long term. One of those involved in the meeting commented "I am quite sure that without your mediation the parties would have... got to -- and possibly through -- the court door.... I am a real convert to the advantages of mediation."

Hans von der Linde, Senior Legal Council for Shell Oil International, says "That eighty-five per cent of disputes referred to mediation result in settlement is surprisingly high in my opinion -- it would indicate that mediation has a significant role to play in international disputes." (in Carroll and Mackie, 2001, p 85)

Negotiating With Terrorists

Terrorism is the use of violent aggression against non-combatants in order to achieve a goal which is separate from the immediate action (e.g. to create terror in the general population, rather than simply to kill the person who is targeted). Laurent Combalbert proposes the PACIFICA model for negotiating with such people in real terrorism or in business:


Possession (of the situation)
The negotiator needs to take charge of the negotiation process, explaining that others (e.g. decision-makers) will be consulted at each step but the negotiator needs to control the negotiation itself. Emphasise patience!

Analysis (of the conflict)
Assess what aspects of conflict are conflicts of needs that can be resolved and what are simply conflicts of values. What are the basic needs and is the aim to meet these or simply to win time, and to psychologically influence the terrorists (eg to reduce emotion, prolong what was hoped to be a sudden act, and refocus them on humanitarian values)? What outside sympathisers, listening devices etc may the terrorists have and how will this affect the process?

Characterization (of the terrorist)
Assess the metaprograms (personality characteristics) of the terrorists to be able to match these. Assess their level of stress and rationality. Do the terrorists believe that it is in their interests to negotiate? Do they understand that they can get more via negotiation that by merely acting. If not, the aim will be to convince them to change their decision to act into a decision to negotiate.

Identification (of roles)
The decision-maker does not do negotiation - this is an absolute rule. Clarify the decision-making process.

Formation (of a team)
Have a backup negotiator ready in case the terrorist -negotiator relationship becomes contaminated (which may be a perfectly useful process - the terrorist pouring out all their anger on the first negotiator in a good-cop bad-cop process). Have an observer who can give objective feedback, keep careful records for review, and stop the negotiator being pulled into sudden decisions, or into a Stockholm syndrome response.

"The purpose of the negotiations is to convince the antagonist by means of influence through communications. This step involves a number of practices, such as neurolinguistic programming, transactional analysis, active listening, among others, with the aim of rapidly creating an empathic contact with the antagonist, a contact that must have credibility within the relationship and truthfulness in the communications with the negotiator." (Combalbert, 2010, p 42). You may choose the timing of revelations, but do not lie ever. Do not make unrealistic promises. Empathic neutrality is the essential approach of the negotiator. Do not use police and authorities' jargon, and do use the terminology that makes sense to the terrorists. Repeat any key phrases you want the person to focus on.

Usually the concessions granted will not coincide with the initial demands of the terrorists: they may reduce the initial goals (e.g. amount of money paid) and add additional goals (e.g. safe passage away from the hostage situation). Attention should be diverted away from hostages, and the word "hostage" not used (as it dehumanises: if possible use the names of the persons involved). Do not threaten the terrorists sense of control, and help them save face.

A negotiation must have a closure point, but negotiators do not set deadlines. Temporary closures should be short and enable each side to discuss with their decision-makers, or to put into action what has been agreed.

Debrief and update modus operandi for future events.