When the doctor and his wife came out of the house, I could finally breathe again. For two hours, they’d been held at gunpoint in the breezy foyer of a gilded golf club home. Apparently, the doctor had a receptionist with a vendetta.
Years earlier, the receptionist gave birth to a son who had developmental difficulties. I never learned exactly what they were, but they clearly concerned and upset the mom so much that she blamed the doctor who delivered him. To get even and hold the doctor accountable, she hatched a plan. She changed her name and got a job as his receptionist, never revealing her previous connection to him or her deep-rooted resentment. She waited five years. And on that steaming summer morning, she decided it was time to make him pay for what she believed he had done to her son.
When I got to the scene, SWAT hadn’t yet arrived. They were a part-time unit and had to change assignments and gear up before they could respond. A few other deputies and I were doing our best to keep the situation from getting out of control.
“Drop the gun!” I heard a deputy call out. The front door to the house was open, and we could see the receptionist waving a gun back and forth in front of the doctor and his wife. She didn’t drop the gun. She barely even acknowledged that we were there. She was entirely focused on her captives.
The receptionist was in crisis, and we needed to do what we could to de-escalate.
Crisis negotiations are high-stakes encounters. The primary goal of law enforcement is to end them safely. To do that, we have to communicate. We have to find out what the hostage-taker wants, build rapport and persuade them to end the standoff. What I’ve discovered in over 15 years of experience and as a student of conflict resolution is that in order to effectively persuade, first, we have to get strategically curious.
Being strategically curious means not only understanding the presenting situation, but trying to discover why the person in crisis is doing what they are doing. We need to expose the root of the problem if we want to position ourselves to effectively contain harm.
Conflict resolution helps us in these situations. Most hostage situations, including this one, fit squarely into the definition of conflict — an escalating encounter where individuals are defending themselves from perceived harm. That perceived harm is usually where the root of the problem lies.
In conflict, we become overwhelmed by those feelings of harm. Adrenaline and cortisol are released into our bloodstream to protect us. They activate our fight-or-flight response and focus our attention on who or what we think is responsible. We don’t think about what we are feeling or why we are feeling that way, or even how our actions are going to help us. We’re not considering the root of the problem. We’re reacting to it. We act first, apologize later.
When there are guns involved, apologizing later doesn’t work for anyone.
Our imperative with the receptionist was to get her to calm down, think clearly and let the hostages go. So, we got curious. We asked questions that would do two things. First, get her to think about her own decision-making, which would reveal the root of the problem and spark critical thinking, and second, get her to feel heard and understood.
Sparking critical thinking dissipates adrenaline and cortisol, allowing a person to consider new information and different options for acting. Feeling heard and understood activates feelings of security and relief, which reduce tunnel vision and provide the platform to change the trajectory of the conflict.
“You hurt my son!” The receptionist yelled at the doctor. “It’s your fault that he’s suffering!” We could see the fear and confusion in the doctor’s eyes. He kept stammering, “Who is your son? I don’t know who your son is.” The tension was rising. We could feel it even from our positions outside.
“What happened to your son?” I interjected, still a safe distance away but loud enough for the receptionist to hear. She looked at me. I could see a sense of relief come over her. “He’s sick. Ever since he was born, pulled out of me with forceps by this man,” she pointed to the doctor. “He’s been sick, and it’s his fault.”
I listened. “It sounds like you care a lot about your son,” I said. I had heard in what she said that while she was blaming the doctor, her real concern was her son. He was at the root of this.
“He means the world to me,” she said. “And I can’t bear the thought of him having to struggle through life.”
“It sounds like your son has had a rough time, and you’re here to help him,” I responded, linking her actions to her concern for her son.
“Yes. I’m here for him.”
Her tone was softening, and I could tell that she was relaxing and starting to trust me. I asked her more about her son. What came out of our conversation was that the receptionist cared mostly about being a good mom and doing right by her son. I used that information to get her to think about how holding the doctor and his wife hostage helped her be the good mom she wanted to be.
“When you think about it, is keeping these people from being able to leave helping your son?” I asked.
She relaxed a little more, as though she was thinking about what she was doing for the first time. She didn’t respond right away. “You’re a good mom,” I told her. “And you care so much about your son. I know you want you to be there for him. He wants that, too, and so do we. Why don’t you let them go, so you can be there for your son.”
At this point, using questions to help her talk through where she was coming from and what really mattered to her — her son — got her feeling heard, but also got her thinking about her actions and how they connected to the good mom she wanted to be. And at last, she let them go. I finally breathed. SWAT took over and apprehended the receptionist without further incident.
Dealing with crisis is part of being in law enforcement, and we never know what we are going to face. If we go in remembering that strategic curiosity can de-escalate the tension, get the suspects thinking again and reveal the root of the problem, we’ll be breathing easier every time.