This episode is a great opportunity for listeners to learn from an expert negotiator and behavior expert, Gary Noesner. Gary is an amazing storyteller and has knowledge that transcends industries. Gary’s work and book, Stalling for Time was the inspiration for the Netflix mini-series WACO.
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How Relationships Can Mitigate The Risks Of Toxic Behavior? An Interview With Retired FBI Negotiator Gary Noesner
This episode is with Gary Noesner, Retired Chief of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit. He was heavily involved in numerous crisis incidents, from prison riots to airplane hijacking. This episode gives readers the opportunity to hear Gary’s very in-depth perspective as we analyze various leadership behaviors and provide solutions and tactics throughout. His insights were spot on. Everybody needs to check out his book, Stalling for Time, which served as the basis for the Waco mini-series on Netflix. Let’s get to it.
I’m excited to have Gary Noesner, Retired Chief of the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit. How are you, Gary?
I’m great. Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
I ran across your book, Stalling for Time. To be honest, throughout my career in human resources and in particular, I did some courses in negotiation. I’ve talked to people about your book. I’ve read through it a little bit. I have it on Amazon right now. I’m excited to know about your experiences and how we can dig into toxic leadership a little deeper in the workplace. Before we jump into the topic at hand, I want to give you time to share with readers a little bit about yourself.
I spent 30 years in the FBI. I joke with people that my parents gave me to the FBI at a young age. Shortly after I joined the FBI, a new discipline called hostage negotiation emerged out of New York City Police Department. The FBI quickly recognized it as a very effective way to resolve crises in a more peaceful manner and prevent police officers from having to enter very dangerous situations, getting people to comply and surrender peacefully.
Something about this new discipline had a great deal of appeal to me. I began the process of getting trained as a negotiator. For many years, it was a part-time auxiliary function for me as it is for most FBI negotiators. Eventually, in the last decade of my career, I became the Chief Negotiator for the FBI and Head of the Crisis Negotiation Unit.
We work prison riots, airplane hijackings, right-wing militia standoffs, religious zealot sieges like Waco, overseas terrorists, embassy situations like Peru and over 120 kidnappings of American citizens. I had an opportunity to learn a lot of interesting things about human behavior in critical situations and how to create relationships of trust.
Obviously, if the skills and techniques have an extremely high success rate in very life-threatening and tense situations, then most assuredly, they could be as effective or more in less tense situations, not involving the loss of lives. Those are the lessons that I like to share with audiences and how to become a better communicator.
Thank you for sharing that. I started smiling a little bit because a lot of times in the workplace, people try to act like it’s a tense situation. I’m like, “Calm down. It’s just a report.”
We create stressors in our lives as part of the human condition. But there’s an awful lot of what we do that isn’t worth getting worked up over.
It’s human nature. I have an acquaintance that every time you talk to him, he is like, “I’m so busy. I’m so swamped.” You look at what they’re doing and you go like, “Dude, that’s nothing.” It’s not that big a deal, but we create those stressors in our lives as part of the human condition. When you get to be an older guy like me, you realize that there’s an awful lot of what we do that isn’t worth getting worked up over.
You mentioned learning more about human behavior as a part of your work as a hostage negotiator. As we talk about toxic leadership, it is very behavior-based. I’m not saying a toxic person, I’m saying toxic behavior that people perpetuate. Talk to me about your experience with toxic behavior traits and how they’ve manifested through your career.
I’ve seen it throughout my career throughout my life. The FBI is a bureaucracy. It’s a great organization, great people, but it’s a bureaucracy. You observe different leadership styles. Certainly, I had some great bosses who were very open and supportive. They promoted their subordinates, sought out their ideas, collaborated, encouraged, recognized good inputs and shared accomplishments.
I had bosses who were on the other end of the spectrum. I think particularly in a male-dominated environment like law enforcement, there seemed to be a compelling need in some to show that they know everything and they’re in charge. Those kinds of leaders tend to be a little bit over the top and they end up discouraging good ideas and inputs. It creates a difficult environment.
I always tell a story that during the infamous 1993 Waco siege, as the team leader of the FBI negotiators, after every conversation, I would sit down with my team of 6, 7, 8 negotiators and I’d say, “What did everybody think? What did you hear? What are your ideas? Any suggestions?” On one occasion, we had this brand-new negotiator.
Everyone else was quite experienced and encouraged everyone to speak up. It apparently worked because this young fellow came up with the idea that was absolutely brilliant. At the time, I joked and said, “I was going to say that.” Everybody laughed, but it always taught me a lesson and reinforced in my mind to leverage the collective ability, skills and training of a larger team to your advantage.
There comes the point where you get analysis paralysis and the leader has to make a decision, but that should rarely be taken until we’ve had a chance to create an atmosphere where people are comfortable saying, “Boss, I need to speak up and tell you. I think what we’re doing here is going to lead to a tragic problem.” I want to hear that. I want to know that. I may say, “I don’t agree with you on that, but I sure am glad you spoke up and told me that.” If you, in turn, slap someone’s hand for doing that, it doesn’t take very long before they’re not going to offer any suggestions. I was in a predicament, Kevin, for the last part of my career.
I had done this for a long and had developed a certain reputation, I suppose that when I went on a scene of a situation, I have had to be very careful about not offering my ideas too early because then you get the group thinking. I’d walked into a situation. I remember going to a prison riot once and everybody stops in the room. They look at me and say, “What do we do?”
I had a pretty good idea of what they needed to do that they weren’t doing, but that wasn’t the way to make that happen. I said, “I think I might have some ideas, but I want to hear about what you think. What have you done? What do you feel is working? What is not working? In these areas where it’s not working well, what do you think you might do? Are there other alternatives?”
You get much more out of people and you learn more from people when you do it in that manner. I’ve worked with a corporation once. When I retired from the FBI and I was doing corporate consulting in a very large, huge food manufacturing company. It’s one of the biggest. We helped them create a crisis management plan because they have operations all over the world.
It was a beautiful plan. We spent time, and the company spent a fortune on this plan. At the very end, we had an exercise and they said it was wonderful. They said, “Is this going to help you? Frankly, it’s a waste of time, and I’m shocked. I said, ‘The problem is our CEO thinks he knows everything and he won’t pay attention to any of this.’”
We wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars, organizational time, paperwork and things that make sense and everybody should follow as a template, but he’s going to make his own decisions. It’s a shame that kind of leadership. We just had that. The last administration left a plan for the vaccine distribution or whatever and then the new administration decided, “We’re going to do it our own way.” Not to suggest you should absolutely embrace what someone else has done, but build on whatever’s happened before you.
If there’s a reason somebody hasn’t done something, you at least want to explore what that was. “What were your concerns? What were the problems that you saw? Maybe we can overcome those and maybe we can’t, but I want to know what your thinking was.” It’s great for a boss to keep that in mind and to acknowledge someone else as having made a big contribution doesn’t detract from you.
Your employees will feel that in a positive way. If you’re the boss that takes credit for everything and doesn’t share the success or the fault, I used to deploy negotiators overseas for kidnappings. Some of the recommendations they were making to the victim’s family or the company, whatever it was or to the embassy, would be difficult ones.
I would make them brief me in the middle of the night. They’re in South America. I’m up in my home in Virginia. I’d say, “I’ve heard the pros and cons. I’ve heard your recommendation. I agree with it. I stand with it. If you do it and get criticized, you send them to me. I’ve approved it.” I heard from negotiators later on the freedom that gave them, the confidence that their boss wasn’t going to sell them down the river, “I never said he could do that. I didn’t approve that.”
Some of the most successful people in life are those who can connect with other people, function well in a team context, and understand emotions.
They knew no matter what happened. I would say, “He briefed me on that plan. I’m the one that approved it. Do you want to take somebody down, come after me? It’s my responsibility.” It’s liberating for an employee to know that they’re going to get backed up and supported. It doesn’t prevent mistakes from happening, but it gives you the confidence that you’re going to have that administrative support you need.
I liked the fact that you’re putting yourself in that position is giving them the agency to make decisions on their own.
I want you to run it by me because I think, as a matter of principle and practice, it’s good to have a check and balance. It’s a second opinion. If you’re going to have a major medical operation, it’s not that you don’t trust your doctor, but it’s wise to have somebody else take a look at it and say, “Your doctor is absolute. You need to have this done. Here are the consequences.” If that other doctor says, “I don’t think this is a good idea,” you want to know that too. There seems to be particularly on what we used to call blue flamers. People who are trying to move up very rapidly in an organization.
For whatever reason, they seem to embrace this concept that they have to know everything and be seen as knowing everything and being overly decisive. I think it’s a mistake. There’s a great book out called Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing. I’m one of the people they profiled in the book, but it’s a study that very successful people in life are comfortable in gray. We don’t always have to have absolute answers, “Yes or no. It depends. Maybe. I don’t know.” Those are perfectly legitimate responses. That’s a tough question. I’m not sure how that will work out. I think we need to study it and think about it, but this is how I feel about it. I’m not saying it’s the only way.
What you’re doing and what it sounds like as a leader is you’re creating environments where people know their role very clearly. They know your role as a leader very clearly. That tends to create trust because now I have trust in the system due to the clarity. Talk to me about what you have learned in the field as it relates to building trust between two people?
I think I touched on a bit of it already. Maybe a better example would be the adversarial relationship, the person we’re negotiating with, the anti-government group, the prison faction or whatever it might be. You don’t automatically get their respect and their cooperation because of your rank or your title or the demands you make on them. You do it by creating a relationship with trust.
I’ve even said to people, “Let’s take some small steps. I want to demonstrate to you that when I tell you something, you can rely on me. You’ve asked me to do this. I’ve done it. Am I doing that to manipulate you? I’m doing it to show you that I will follow through on what I say I will do.” In turn, I expect when you make a representation and I go to my boss and I tell him, “This group says they’ll do this or that if we do the following.” I’m counting on you to follow through on what you said.
That way, we learn to work and trust with each other. It takes effort. It takes demonstrations. It’s always best not to say you feel something or you have trust, but you demonstrate it. A demonstration is a powerful thing. It’s like if I’m listening to someone and I can say, “I understand you, Kevin.” That’s one thing you can say, but if I say, “Here’s what happened to you? Here’s why you were upset about it. Here’s the issue that’s important to you.” If I get that right, I’ve not just said I understand you. I’ve proven it by repeating back in my words what issues, problems and concerns that you have. It’s probably the simplest and most powerful form of human communication and a lot of us don’t do it very well.
That’s why Emotional Intelligence is important.
It’s a great book and a great concept. Some of the most successful people in life have not been road scholars. It’s the people that can connect with other people, function well in a team context and understand emotions. That’s why it’s so important for a president to be seen as compassionate. Whether it’s visiting a soldier in a hospital and I’m not being political. I’m saying any president to go and show that, “It’s important to me to visit you, thank you for what you did and to offer my support for you.” Also, to go to a funeral or whatever it might be. That’s what we do as human beings to demonstrate that we care. It’s very important.
I’m glad that you brought up the word compassion and care because it seems a lot of leaders throw that out the window when they become leaders. They view that as like the weaker tools to utilize. Instead, they utilize what you described before. I know the answer to everything as their main tool, as a leader so I’m happy that you’ve lifted up and shown the difference.
As a leader and having lead people, it is difficult. It takes discipline because there are times when there is a problem that you’re confronting or one that’s been brought into your office. Because of your experience, you know exactly what needs to be done and how it needs to be done. You have other things on your agenda, your plate and other demands upon your time.
There’s a real strong compulsion to say, “Just do this. I’ve done this 100 times. This is how this works,” but you have to put the brakes on that a bit, give this person their due and spend the time. I found very often, as a manager, you’d be surprised how little you have to solve a problem but what you do have to do is listen.
One of your employees comes in, and they’ve got a gripe, a beef or an issue that’s important to them. Very rarely would the meeting end with you saying, “I heard what you said, I’m going to do this, that or whatever.” It’s more like they want a chance to get off their chest, whatever it is that’s eating at them and bothering them. If you give them that opportunity, it goes a long way to settling things down.
We talked about emotional intelligence and we hit on empathy. Another part of emotional intelligence, which they say is more important, is self-management and managing your own emotions as a leader. I’m sure you’ve had to deal with that in negotiations. Talk to me about lessons learned in that area.
Kevin, the very first thing, if I’m teaching a negotiation course and I don’t do that much anymore, but for all the years I did that, the very first words out of my mouth are, “You have to have self-control.” If you can’t control your own emotions, how can you begin to think that you’re going to be able to influence somebody else? It’s the old partial quote from Rudyard Kipling, “If you can keep your head about you when all else are losing theirs and blaming you.”
Ask open-ended questions. Do things to encourage the other party to share more information because the more you know, the better you understand, which improves your ability to respond effectively.
I believe that human beings, almost in all instances, make better decisions when they’re made in a calm manner. It’s the reason you can kick out of a contract in 24 hours or they make you wait to buy a gun because there’s essentially a legal recognition that high emotion can lead to bad decisions. Your readers won’t be able to see this if you imagine a teeter-totter, a childhood schoolyard apparatus. When one kid’s down, the other is up in the air and that’s the law of physics. The other one comes down and the other one goes up.
If you think of a teeter-totter in the context of emotion and rationality, the argument is that when emotions are high up in the air, rational thinking and behavior are on the ground low. What we want to do is before we can get into subsequent problem solving and addressing issues, we have to first lower that emotional content. As you can envision, when that emotional side of the teeter-totter comes down, what comes up? Rational thinking and behavior. That whole piece about self-control and being a positive, calming influence on a discussion is absolutely critical.
In the teeter-totter analogy, it’s like, “How can we find balance in emotion and logical-rational thinking?”
It is, but the first task is not to come up with a brilliant solution. The first task in an emotionally charged situation is to lower the emotional concept. As long as that’s high, you’re destined to fail. It’s not going to happen. That’s the problem. I gave some presentations to some groups that are coalitions for vaccinations. They’re dealing with people that have very strong feelings about not supporting vaccination.
They have some very challenging discussions. I said, “You’re not going to argue a person into dropping their ideas and embracing yours.” The only thing you can do is be respectful, listen and keep the emotional content low. At some point in time, after you’ve demonstrated the willingness to listen to their perspective, you may get to the point where they are open to hearing what you have to say. That may change some ideas. The prognosis is never high when people hold very polarized viewpoints on key issues, however, if you are going to have success, that’s the pathway. That’s what you should strive for.
We’re going into this with a low probability of changing minds, but at least we’re going to be respectful. We’re going to try to create a relationship that maybe may take us several meetings to build upon. We don’t want to create a problem. During the Freeman siege in 1996, an 85-day siege with anti-government people, early on in the incident, there were some militia members from the state of Montana that came out and were all in a tizzy.
They wanted to meet with the government and wanted to complain about all the things we were doing. I was sent to talk with them. They said, “I know you’re using army tanks and you’re doing this.” I said, “We’re not. Would you like to go up and look? I’ll drive you up there myself. We heard about this. No, that’s not true, but I’ll be glad to show it to you.”
In every issue they came up with, we said, “Yeah, sure. We can do that.” It was like watching a sailboat with the wind stopped. They left. They shook our hands. They were happy. They had been treated respectfully. I didn’t yell at them and say, “I’m a federal officer. You better not cause problems, or we’ll arrest you.” I said, “Tell me what your concerns are. What issues do you want to know about? How can I provide you with the information you need?” It’s very hard to argue with somebody that’s responding to you in that manner.
I think a lot of these tools that you’re listing out would definitely benefit leaders who may be in environments that are toxic or leaders that have toxic traits themselves, demonstrating you understand, showing your empathy and maintaining your own self-control. I agree that those will help. Are there any other tools you’d share related to how leaders can build more rapport with people?
Obviously, there are active listening skills. You paraphrase. You ask open-ended questions. You do things to encourage the other party to share more information because the more you know, the better you understand. It improves your ability to respond effectively. It’s not manipulation. It’s good communication skills. That’s all-important.
There’s body language. How you sit vis-a-vis the other individual, your facial gestures and I think very importantly, tone of voice is terribly important. It conveys a great deal. There are some people that are natural at this. There are some people that probably will never be effective at it, but most of us can improve if we work on it. If I track my many years in negotiations, I’m sure I was a far more effective negotiator at the end of my career than I was at the beginning.
We can all learn and make an effort. I’m going to sit down with these people with whom I have disagreements and I’m going to be a study in patience and understanding. When I hear an issue that’s important to them, I’m going to paraphrase it. It sounds like this is one of the major problems we’re going to have to address. I didn’t say I agreed with them.
I didn’t say I disagreed with them. I’m acknowledging that I’ve heard what it is that’s important to them. It’s such a simple technique. It’s not manipulation. It’s good communication. People want to be heard. They want to be listened to and work with people that they respect and they feel are genuine and sincere. These are all things that are within our grasp. We can do these things.
People look for the magic bullet or the magic words.
I sometimes laughed, Kevin. I have a lot of friends in that business, but there are a lot of folks that teach business negotiations. It’s the win-win or the win-lose, the best alternative to this and all this stuff. That’s great stuff and I’m not belittling it. I think there’s value in a lot of that. For me, it’s all about relationship building. It’s all about trust and confidence. That’s what sells products. That’s what maintains clients. It’s what resolves conflict. It’s what promotes lifelong friendships.
I used to tell the negotiators. You get on that phone with Kevin, your best friend from high school, and he calls you and he says, “I lost my job and my wife’s leaving me.” You don’t say, “Kevin, this is not a convenient time for me. It’s late at night. I got to get up early in the morning. Let’s talk next week.” No, if Kevin is a dear friend, as you think he is, you do what a good friend does right then. You listen, you acknowledge. You don’t necessarily tell him what to do, but you’re there for him in all the ways that we support ourselves or each other.
Don’t worry about making little mistakes. Nobody’s going to kill themselves because you said one phrase wrong. Just get people to do what you hope they do.
If you can treat a complete stranger that same way or subordinate in your company, you’re going to be fine. The other issue is you talk about tips. Don’t worry about making little mistakes. I used to tell negotiators, nobody’s going to kill themselves because you said one phrase wrong. What’s going to carry the day and get people to do what you hope they do is your overall demeanor. What do you project in a general way about your openness, your willingness, your flexibility and your sincerity?
That’s what sells. Don’t worry about it. Once you’re free from not worrying about that misstatement, it relaxes you and allows you to be much better if you go into a negotiation or a discussion and you’re trying to parse every single phrase to say the right way, the right time. I think you’re putting an undue burden on yourself, but that’s me.
It’s creating a heightened stress response already because you’re trying to memorize. You’re trying to figure out the framework.
You hit a stumbling block in your mind about the best way for you. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “We’ve talked about a lot of stuff, Kevin.” I think I could use a break to think about some of this. I’d like to talk to some of my associates back at headquarters and see if we can come up with some other ideas or maybe a different approach to solve this problem. It’s okay. It’s a timeout. It’s fun. There’s nothing wrong with that.
I want to lift up the readers. You’re hearing it here from an individual who’s had to deal with hostage negotiations and kidnappings. It’s about relationships. Thank you for listing that out. You’ve left us with a lot of things to think about that are useful, especially as we think about how to detoxify organizational structures and the way we lead. What parting gifts do you want to leave us with as it relates to words of wisdom?
That’s a tougher question than it sounds. I’d be reluctant to say, “I’m a wise person, listen to what I say.” Just try to be a good person. Think about the world is full of wonderfully different people with different ideas and thoughts. Take the time to learn. I have this little thing I do when I travel and give speeches. I don’t like to have dinner by myself and I don’t like room service. I’ll go to the hotel bar and I’ll sit down. I’ll have a glass of wine, a steak, talk to the bartender and watch the basketball game, but I always have a target de jure. That is, whoever the person is that sits next to me, old, young, male or female. It doesn’t matter.
I engage them in a conversation and try to learn things about them. I was in Texas once on a business trip and there’s a young man next to me. We struck up a conversation. He is a nice fellow. We get around to the point where his hobby is tight roping. He has this rope tied across two trees and he’s out there with the balancing bar. I had never met anybody remotely familiar with that stuff. I’m asking him questions. I’m learning. He showed me pictures on his phone of him doing this.
We’re going to be old pals. We corresponded after that a little bit. Here’s a person that if I hadn’t made an effort to engage and talk with, I would have missed out on this opportunity to learn something interesting and to be exposed to something that I found fascinating. Let’s face it. There are times you’re on an airplane, “I want to fly across the country and get where I’m going. I don’t want to talk to anybody. I want to read my book. Leave me alone.”
There are other times where the situation is right and the opportunity to talk with somebody. Listen to their story. I live on this beautiful lake in Virginia. There are some people who are quite successful in their lives before they retired. I sometimes said, “I think I could write a book by sitting down with twenty of them and saying, ‘Tell me about your life. How’d you get here? What was your journey? Your family, where’d you come from? How did you choose your career?’” That stuff fascinates me. It should fascinate us.
I want to give you time to share with readers how they can reach you and share any other initiatives you’re working on?
I have a website www.GaryNoesner.com that has podcasts, links, interviews written and otherwise, presentations I’ve given. It’s got a lot of information on there. My schedule obviously has been curtailed as everyone’s because of COVID. I do more webinars now than I do in-person corporate speaking, but that’s been my focus lately.
I was heavily involved in the six-part Waco mini-series that came out a couple of years ago. It was on Netflix in 2020 and I’m going to be involved in some additional projects coming up that are interesting. All that’s kept up-to-date on my website. There’s a contact button there if somebody wants to reach out to me for whatever reason.
Stalling for Time is available at multiple booksellers across the nation and in the world, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Random House. Feel free to pick up that book if you all are very interested in the topic like I am. Gary, I want to thank you for your time. I appreciate the conversation we’ve had.
It was my pleasure, Kevin. You had good questions and a good topic that I think we can all benefit from. It was a pleasure being with you.
Thank you all for reading.
- Stalling for Time
- Amazon – Stalling for Time
- Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing
- Emotional Intelligence
- Barnes & Noble – Stalling for Time
- Random House – Stalling for Time
- @ToxicLeadershipPodcast – Instagram
- @ToxicLeaderShow – Twitter
- KEVRA: The Culture Company – Linkedin
About Gary Noesner
Gary Noesner retired from the FBI in 2003 following a 30-year career as an investigator, instructor, and negotiator. A significant focus of his career was directed toward investigating Middle East hijackings in which American citizens were victimized. In addition, he was an FBI hostage negotiator for 23 years of his career, retiring as the Chief of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit, Critical Incident Response Group, the first person to hold that position. In that capacity, he was heavily involved in numerous crisis incidents covering prison riots, right-wing militia standoffs, religious zealot sieges, terrorist embassy takeovers, airplane hijackings, and over 120 overseas kidnapping cases involving American citizens.
Following his retirement from the FBI, he became a Senior Vice President with Control Risks, an international risk consultancy, assisting clients in managing overseas kidnap incidents. He continues to consult independently and speaks at law enforcement conferences and corporate gatherings around the world.
He has appeared in numerous television documentaries about hostage negotiation, terrorism, and kidnapping produced by the History Channel, Nat Geo, WE, Discovery, TLC, A&E, CNN, CBS, BBC, American Heroes Network, and others. He has been interviewed in Time, Forbes, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Roll Call, the Washingtonian Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. He has given speeches at major universities, done interviews on numerous radio and television programs, and was the subject of an hour-long interview on NPR’s Fresh Air in 2010.
He has written a book about his FBI negotiation career which was published by Penguin Random House in 2010, entitled: Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator. The book is being used in part as the basis for a six-part mini-series on Waco that will air on the Paramount Network on January 24, 2018. Gary has three grown children and resides in Virginia with his wife, Carol.