How do you get someone in crisis to choose life?
Our Editor Dr Jon Sutton hosts the launch of a new book, ‘Crisis Talk: Negotiating with Individuals in Crisis’ (Routledge).
14 March 2023
With ‘permacrisis’ recently chosen as Collins Dictionary word of the year, it was refreshing to launch a book that considers ‘crisis’ on an individual level, and actually seeks to do something practical about it. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation, beginning with the book authors introducing themselves.
Professor Elizabeth Stokoe (now London School of Economics): I’m Professor of Social Interaction at Loughborough University, and also visiting professor at the University of Southeastern Norway. I’m also on an industry fellowship at a software start-up called Deployed. That’s the way my research has gone for the last 15 years or so: taking the findings of my research in conversation analysis outside academia to the public and to industry partners. Conversation analysts work with real conversations – not simulations, not experimentally-produced laboratory conversations, not role-plays, and we don’t ask people about their conversations on surveys or in interviews. Just real talk, as it happens, in the wild. I’m particularly interested in discovering what is effective and less effective in these conversations, as well as challenging communication myths – of which there are many. I’ve worked with Jon and The Psychologist over the years as part of his role of bringing psychology to the public, at science festivals for example [https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/psychologist-presents-how-talk-so-people-listen].
Dr Rein Ove Sikveland: I’m an Associate Professor working at the Centre for academic and professional communication (SEKOM), at NTNU in Trondheim, Norway. I have researched language and interaction in different workplace contexts. Back in 2014 I began to co-lead a project on police hostage and crisis negotiations.
What excites me about researching conversations is that I can show that people really listen to words, phrasing and phonetic details when they interact. There’s a lot about real-life interactions that we don’t know unless we study them systematically. That very detailed analytic lens can really support the professionals in doing their job, in high stakes situations involving conflict and crisis.
Dr Heidi Kevoe-Feldman: I’m an Associate Professor of Communications Studies Department at Northeastern University in Boston. My background is in customer service and communication, and I started working with emergency communication centres about 10 years ago. Initially I was brought into a University police dispatch centre to look at how to improve the communication in one type of call, then I started working with State Police a few years later doing the same kind of thing. Blair Sutherland gave me the active silent caller project, where people held against their will called 911, and there was a problem in trying to help these people and connect with them. We found some systematic things in those calls, and I helped with the policy, around the ‘four second rule’.
After going through all the telecommunicator training, including APCO’s crisis negotiation for telecommunicator training, I now help quality assurance supervisors see how call takers take training into practice by looking at what actually happens – and I work on identifying what communication practices work well, or identify problematic areas to help make the interaction between callers and call takers more efficient.
Elizabeth Stokoe: From the UK side of the research, it all really started with Duncan Jarrett from the Metropolitan Police Hostage Negotiation Unit, who attended one of our CARM training session for mediators and conflict resolution professionals. He came up to me at the end and suggested that a Conversation Analysis project might reveal insights about the world of crisis negotiation. Duncan and his colleague Chula Rupasinha started a pathway towards being granted access to recordings of negotiation and some funding. Right from the start, we worked with negotiators as our findings emerged, and developed training sessions for the Metropolitan Police and, later, Police Scotland.
By the time we started to look at the materials, Rein was working with me at Loughborough. As the findings started to emerge, we were able to work directly with Chula and Duncan, but also with other colleagues that they introduced us to at the hostage and crisis unit. We could kind of say, ‘these are the kinds of things we're finding, do these seem interesting to you?’ We evolved our focus on things that we were interested in, and ultimately produced a training workshop. That led, later down the line, to meeting Inspector Laura Burns (previous Training Lead for Hostage and Crisis Negotiation for Police Scotland), and Colin Harper (former Operational Lead for the Police Scotland Hostage Negotiation Unit).
Dr Rein Ove Sikveland: I joined the two-week training course with Police Scotland, as an observer, back in 2018. The book wouldn’t have been possible if Colin and Laura hadn’t invited me to take part, to witness first-hand what takes place there. It’s an excellent example of what can happen if researchers and professionals come together. We’ve got such rich data, rich collaborations, and it became a natural next step to publish a book to reach a wider audience.
Liz and I got to know Heidi and her research on first party suicide callers. We met in Ireland… she’s an excellent conversation analyst, the best dancer, such fun! That’s vital for this book: a positive, focused and engaged approach to this research.
Dr Heidi Kevoe-Feldman: I’m just going to qualify: I’m not the best dancer!
First party suicide callers are relatively rare as compared to other types of emergency calls… they are high stakes and the training is limited when call takers first start out. There are different categories: those calling for help that want somebody to come and get them, and then some calling to report their own body… those are really difficult calls. How do you get someone to choose life? Our work as conversation analysts isn’t to go around and show everybody what they’re not doing right, it’s to draw out and share best practices. Whenever you talk to call takers, they always tell you about the best call – if you could systematically present that to other people, that’s phenomenal.
Chula Rupasinha: I was volunteering as a mediator for neighbour disputes. Liz had been working with call handlers there, and Duncan went to one of her talks. He rang me up and said ‘You should have been there’, so we went to a workshop. As soon as it started, and I began to see an evidence-based approach, I was sold.
We have been fortunate enough to do the national negotiator training, or the equivalent for the FBI, it's very common for us to say it's the best course we ever did, and it is. But privately I would say to myself, ‘where was the psychology?’ I was hungry for that, for the basis of why they said, ‘Do this, don't do that’. Sitting in that workshop, it just appealed to me to have somebody say, ‘if you say this, it’s is the end of the call – they hang up. If you say this, they say yes, please’. That's got to be interesting. It's all very well hearing personal testimony – ‘I did this and that’ – but the generic lesson is what counts, especially if you want to introduce it into training. Suffice to say, I went to Liz and said, ‘Why don't you look at our tapes?’
Matthew Barstow (Director of Telecommunications at Massachusetts State Police): It was 2013, and I was serving in the role of director of dispatch services for the Mass State Police. My boss, Blair Sutherland, said he’d been approached by Heidi from Northeastern University. We have an expression around our place – we are 150 years of tradition, unimpeded by progress! In the law enforcement community, we like to believe that we are the best at what we do, and only we know what we do. So it was interesting to have someone from the outside coming in saying that they wanted to look at how we do things. She piqued my interest with a very quick example of how silence is an important piece of how we all communicate with each other. When you're on the phone with a caller, all you have is verbal communication. Those moments of silence, the pregnant pauses, are that much more important. We thought, maybe we're teaching our people what to say, but we're not necessarily teaching them how to say it, or why they're saying it. She came in with us and that was a start of this whole journey.
Inspector Laura Burns (previous Training Lead for Hostage and Crisis Negotiation for Police Scotland): It’s about someone coming in to look at our world with really fresh eyes, to challenge a lot of our traditions around ‘theory goes into training goes into practice’… what about practice feeding back into training?
We have quite a tight selection process for our courses, and there's always that element of ‘they've just got it’, whatever ‘it’ is, that's probably the bit we'd never really questioned. We'd never properly armed our officers with the ability to anticipate and hopefully prevent resistance; certain words, certain phrases, at certain times, that can increase resistance. So here's an idea, try something else and see if it works: try ‘speak’ instead of ‘talk’, try ‘sort’ instead of ‘help’. Tangible, practical options for officers to give it a go and report back. It made us sit back and question our training, but in a positive, collaborative, supportive and safe way.
It was one of those moments in time, we were starting to get down to the nuts and bolts of what we do. It’s a blue light drive, conversation. You don't know what's around the next corner, you don't know how to react. What Liz and Rein and Heidi’s work does is break it down to the second, to the millisecond. We've never looked at it in that detail, and it was a game changer for us. One of those moments where you go, ‘right, open your ears and shut your mouth and hear what's going to be said here'. A great experience.
Colin Harper (former Operational Lead for the Police Scotland Hostage Negotiation Unit): Our drive is always to develop and enhance the course. But sometimes you don't know what you don't know. It would be those very analytical specifics that were lightbulb moments. That change from ‘talk’ to ‘speak’… we started to introduce this to our negotiators, and I had a call from a negotiator in the East of Scotland who had been engaged in a barricaded siege. He used ‘you and I speaking about what's happened’, and there just wasn't the resistance. That's just one instance, but certainly for me it was a justification for just looking with clarity at these things in a way we hadn’t before.
Chula Rupasinha: I'm now a commercial and workplace mediator: helping people negotiate their way out of a dispute rather than going to court. The book authors talk about a ‘conversational racetrack’, and also about how everyone has a ‘project’ in a conversation. So I'll tell you a small anecdote…
When I was working with the police as a negotiator, there was an armed siege, domestic. The local officers had done all the right things: I listened to them for a bit, they were doing a grand job saying all the logical good stuff in a good tone. There was nothing wrong with what they were saying. But they had got nowhere. All the time it took to work through Scotland Yard, for me to be called, to get there, to listen, to take over… still no progress.
I walked up to him. I could tell from his nonverbals we were getting on well, even before I started. His first words were, ‘You're from the Home Office, aren't you? You're the negotiator.’ I didn't say yes or no to this, but let him carry on. I thought ‘we've got rapport, that's great’. I probably allowed myself a little pat on the back. But I knew I had done nothing. I was just there. And in moments, it wasn't whether he would come out, it would when. And sure enough, he came out.
I wouldn't have taken that any further until I heard the word ‘project’. I saw the similarity with what happens when people are making deals: ‘I won't work with that surgeon because she's useless’, ‘I won't pay more than 5 million because they don't deserve it’. Absolute positions. And I think the project that the hostage taker was involved in – and it's the same for parties in a mediation – is looking for an excuse to change their mind. ‘How can I save face?’ Maybe they’re not thinking about this consciously. But I looked different from all the other police he’d said ‘no’ to. I only had lightweight body armour, hidden under my suit. Of course I'm the colour I am, so I didn’t look like a cop did 20 years ago. I don't sound like the stereotype of a cop. So another way to think about my project in the conversation is ‘Can I offer them a way to elegantly change their mind?’
That’s what conversation analysis gives us… yes, the chance to think about individual words, but also to think about this at a different level. Before I was a hostage negotiator, I would have said their job is to persuade them to come out and not harm anyone. Well, it is at some level, but that's not a good way for the practitioner to think about it.
Inspector Laura Burns: Negotiators teach new negotiators, who then go on to become the teachers of the future on the same course. That can create a culture and assumptions that need to be challenged. We used to hammer into our students, ‘Never forget the person's name’. But actually, the research was suggesting that the person in crisis isn’t that hung up on that. ‘Only use open questions’: that was challenged by Rein saying maybe some closed questions would be okay. It’s about the negotiator having confidence to use questions at the right time when it feels natural… a person in crisis is not picking up going ‘that's three closed questions back-to-back you've asked me’. It's the same with labelling emotions – it’s about it being at the right point in the conversation to bring in a challenge or clarify.
There’s also the ‘behavioural change staircase’, where you get up to ‘influence and change’. You're not going to change their behaviour. They are going to change their behaviour, they are going to make the decision. While you want that person to come down off that bridge or come out of that house, you're never going to make them do that. All you can do is open up the options and let them see that it is an option. I remember a female on a bridge in Dundee… values and beliefs are very big in her world, and we explored her values and beliefs. She had a really caring streak, she was a natural carer. I would love to say it was planned, but it wasn't… the bridge was closed, and we needed to stop what we were doing to allow an ambulance to get across. We had to build this into the negotiation: ‘can we just stop here, a chap has had a heart attack, an ambulance is going to pass us really fast, it's dark, the lights are going to be flashing. Don't be afraid. But can I ask you to just step back onto the side of the railings until it's passed. And then we'll continue. This has got nothing to do with me and you right now, this has to do with saving someone's life.’ And she stepped off and walked off the bridge.
It was one of those moments where it was complete fate. It tied into her values and beliefs of helping. When she realised she had the opportunity to help somebody, she took that dignified out, giving her the option and the reason to come back over.
Matthew Barstow: Our typical training talks about what to say, what not to say. This was really more about how to say it, and when to say it. A lot of this research came from Heidi being embedded into our call centre for almost a year. We did about 2 million calls a year, at the time. The largest public safety answering point in the in the northeast, other than New York City. When we first put Heidi in there, she was just overwhelmed with the chaos that goes on. Over time, she really got her sea legs as far as listening to what's going on. Some of her work is now reflected in statewide policy for answering silent 911 calls, just recognising the importance of pauses in the dialogue and in the conversation, and where those need to be and why they need to be there. It may sound numb to say this when you're talking about somebody's life in your hands, but when you're doing two million calls a year, it becomes a mechanism, a machine. If you’re training someone to recite a script, they're doing it verbatim, they don't often think about what they're saying… they're just going through the motions. To have that insight, which we wouldn't normally get in a training programme, was important.
Colin Harper: There’s also the ‘backstage’ work that's mentioned in the book. We had a person in crisis on a bridge. I was the negotiation team leader. There was conversation back and forth, no real progression, the dialogue broke down and the two negotiators came over and spoke to me. There had been a threat from the person in crisis: ‘If you mention my Mom, one more time, I'm going to jump.’ So they asked me, ‘what do we do, clearly we can't mention his Mom again’. I said ‘quite the contrary, we have to grab the nettle. His Mom's important to him, that's the elephant in the room.’ My assessment, based on the dialogue up until that point, was that this was an opportunity, as long as it was said correctly, in the right tone. Not to just go up and blurt that out… it had to be sewn into the negotiation. But relatively quickly, the number one negotiator said to the person in crisis, ‘it sounds like your Mom's really important to you’.
Then it was back to that use of silence, a gap to assess that he was actually comfortable talking about his Mom, which was the hook to get the dialogue going. They came off the bridge relatively quickly after that. That backstage development time had allowed us to discuss the tactics for how to address that threat and how we can overcome it. That's where the skills of experienced negotiators will come into their own.
Elizabeth Stokoe: Typically, academic researchers have written about crisis negotiation in a quite ‘model driven’ way: you hardly ever get to see what's actually going on. You have people reporting what they did, which may be reported with the best of intentions, but it's just not what's actually happening. So it's seeing what the professionals are doing, seeing what that colleague who everyone thinks is amazing is actually doing, and being able to describe it.
Anything we’ve ever put into the training is not something that we as academics think should be happening on the basis of some model. It's actually showing what the negotiators themselves are either doing immediately, or are feeling their way towards as a strategy, and describing it… handing it back. We're not suggesting ‘try speak’: what we're saying is ‘look at when your colleagues do this’. We are working with negotiators who we massively respect, we’re in awe of. So we're not coming to tell them what to do, we want to show them what isn't yet described in the literature, but it is what the experts are doing.
Rein Ove Sikveland: The job that professionals already do, that's the starting point for the research. Of course, the crisis negotiator wants to help someone in crisis. And of course, they want to talk to them. And of course, it's all resolved through talk, because that's the negotiation. But how is ‘help’, how is ‘can we talk about this?’, how is that implemented in the negotiation? That's so important, especially when you're dealing with someone who doesn't want to talk to you to start with.
Heidi Kevoe-Feldman: One of the most fascinating things as a conversation analyst shadowing dispatchers all day and night is that they are such great interactors. They are insightful, they know exactly what's going to work or what's not going to work, they can recognise things. Anything that I've published is because they've given me the idea, and I just run with it.
When Laura said about giving the person a reason to come back over… I saw it in the crisis negotiation training, there was a caller who had talked about his daughter. Instead of being afraid of engaging in conversation about this, the call taker asked what would she think, how would she feel if you ended your life. While that might seem very risky in terms of what the training tells you to do, it got him off the bridge. The same thing happened in the call that we presented in the book: the caller reported that his girlfriend was going to have a baby, and the call taker said ‘Isn't that a reason to not jump?’ Don't be afraid to ask those challenging questions. If the person is already calling because they're feeling suicidal, you're not going to be the one to kill them by asking that question.
So we hear it in the data, and it’s about being able to then give back and show how these things work. Not necessarily the psychological account for it, but the communicative account: how language functions, and how it can get people from point A to point B to the point where they choose independently that they want to live.
Chula: One thing that all the academics are at pains to say, is ‘we're not here to criticise you’. They are like a broken record on it, probably with good cause. Because professionals are likely to think that they are experts. So it's really important that the threat is kept low, and it is inherently a threat. If the academic work is any good, there's going to be change, it's going to be better. It's important not to understate that point, to say ‘we respect what you're doing’ and so forth. I need to take the message to my constituency, so if I can be reassuring… I think that was part of the winning formula.
I would like to make a separate point. Colleagues are looking at what we're doing through a lens about how we work effectively with this individual in crisis, because that's what it appears to be about. But from an organisation's point of view, it's about far more. A police officer is talking for the Police Service… perhaps on a public address system, out of a helicopter, the whole world can hear it. It's bound to be recorded by umpteen different people, half of whom I don't know.
So I'm doing far more than trying to save this person's life, or persuade this person to put down the gun. One of the things I'm doing is I'm protecting the organisation. If someone is threatening to kill themselves, and I don't say ‘don't do it’, and he jumps… Mum and Dad are never going to forgive me. And they are going to sue the police force. ‘Look, your officer didn't even tell him not to do it.’ So the training is doing an awful lot more than it appears to be doing. There might be other agendas at work here, some of which aren't disclosed, some of which aren't even known, but they're in the organisational psyche.
Heidi: When you're interacting with somebody, you're not just interacting with them, you have to orient to the liability, for the institution itself. If that call taker doesn't sound empathetic on the phone, it'll end up on the nightly news. You are a presentation of your organisation, so you have to worry about a lot of different things. Given those multiple constraints, plus the interactional thing going on here in front of you, it's a lot to sort out in one high stakes call that you might have once in a while. Working with the practitioners, we've been able to meet in the middle and unpack all of those things that are swirling around their heads.
Inspector Laura Burns: I had an incident on another bridge, chap threatening to jump, two officers there. I walked on, he asked if I was Laura, and said that he wanted to speak to me. Normally we never get that intro. It turned out one of his best friends had been called Laura and she had died; it was near the anniversary of her death.
During the conversation, one of the things I picked up was that this gentleman felt that he used to have quite a lot of status. That had gone from him. He was suffering PTSD. I took the decision fairly early on to say, ‘I don't know you well, but I have a huge respect for everything you've told me’. I aligned myself with (an) aspect of his life. And I said, ‘I don't know why, but I'm going to say it, I just want to shake your hand’. He walked towards me. We're taught never to shake someone's hand because of the risks… but I put my hand out and shook his hand and he walked off the bridge. It was one of those moments that you go with your gut. And it felt right. It was about respect. I tried to show him respect as a very British thing to shake someone's hand. But actually, just vocalising that to see how it landed with him. He walked towards me, the right thing to do is put my hand out. And that was it was done and dusted. So never is that going to appear in a guidance manual. I certainly never taught it, but sometimes you just have to go with your gut and what feels right in the moment.
Chula: One day, my pager went off to go out to a call. My son said ‘Do they ever jump?’ I said ‘No, probably be cancelled before I get there’. You already know the end of the story. 18-year-old. Thought she'd failed her first-year university exam. She was sitting on the ledge. She didn't say anything for the next five hours, and then jumped.
- Watch the launch and read papers in a special issue of the Journal of Pragmatics on 'Social interaction in high stakes crisis communication', edited by Pentti Haddington and Elizabeth Stokoe.
- Crisis Talk: Negotiating with Individuals in Crisis, by Rein Ove Sikveland, Heidi Kevoe-Feldman and Elizabeth Stokoe was published by Routledge in 2022.