As the field of crisis/hostage negation has advanced over almost five decades from its inception by the NYPD in 1973 until present, many things have remained the same; however, many concepts have developed and advanced in this field. As negotiators learn and develop the old tried and true tactics and learn new ones developed through research, statistics, and advancements in psychology, there is still one area that many of even the most well-trained and experienced negotiators are unaware and unfamiliar with. This often unknown and un-trained skill is in negotiator wellness and resilience.

It is understandable that the concept of wellness and resiliency is unknown. The concept is just now starting to become mainstream in the first responder community. Since the beginning, law enforcement officers have often been expected to “suck it up” when dealing with the emotional trauma that comes from working in this career field. In fact, it was not until the latter part of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that discussing emotional trauma was acceptable.

As negotiation teams hone their existing skills and learn new ones these concepts in negotiation wellness and resiliency should be considered essential training topics. Negotiators are called to some of the highest risk and emotionally charged scenes, including threatened suicide, barricaded suspects, and, of course, hostage situations. In these situations, the negotiator’s job is to get up close and personal with these emotionally charged subjects in some instances, even in a face-to-face situation. Although nationally, negotiators have a high success rate, nothing works every time. Negotiators who stay in this field long enough will likely encounter the call that ends in death. It is one thing as law enforcement to arrive on a scene where death has already occurred; it is quite often a different feeling to have talked with and even gotten to know and build some degree of rapport with an individual before the incident takes a turn and a death(s) occur. Negotiators may start taking on responsibility for negative outcomes that, in fact, were not their fault and beyond their control. This is the reason negotiator wellness and resiliency are as important now as ever. In addition to the one or two “bad ones,” there is also the issue of ongoing exposure negotiators have with the type of work they are often called to do.

Vicarious trauma is an occupational challenge for negotiators due to their continuous exposure to victims of trauma and violence. This negotiation-related trauma exposure can occur from such experiences as listening to individual subjects, particularly suicidal subjects, recount their victimization. For example, listening to a suicidal individual recount an incident of child abuse or rape as the basis for their current suicidal ideations. Many hostage situations involve suspects with expressive emotions who may be mentally ill or highly emotional in telling of their life experiences and past trauma. Or hearing about or responding to the aftermath of violence and other traumatic events day after day, as well as responding to negotiation incidents that have resulted in numerous injuries and deaths. While individuals respond to vicarious trauma in several ways, a change in their worldview is likely. Negotiators can become more cynical or apprehensive. Responses to vicarious trauma can be negative or neutral. They can change over time and can vary from individual to individual, particularly with a prolonged negotiation/law enforcement career.

Each negotiator may experience the effects of vicarious trauma differently. Some of the potentially negative reactions include, but are not limited to:

  • Difficulty managing emotions.
  • Feeling emotionally numb or shut down.
  • Fatigue, sleepiness, or difficulty falling asleep.
  • Loss of a sense of meaning in life and/or feeling hopeless about the future.
  • Relationship problems (e.g., withdrawing from friends and family, increased interpersonal conflicts, avoiding intimacy).
  • Increased irritability; aggressive, explosive, or violent outbursts and behavior.
  • Destructive coping or addictive behaviors (e.g., over/under eating, substance abuse, gambling, taking undue risks).
  • Lack of or decreased participation in activities that used to be enjoyable.
  • Avoiding work and interactions with other officers.
  • A combination of symptoms that comprise a diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Negotiators might not be familiar with the term compassion fatigue, but they probably recognize the concept. Compassion fatigue simply means you have no more empathy left to give. Compassion fatigue is similar to burnout; however, there is a key difference. Burnout can come from simply having too much work or responsibility. Compassion fatigue comes from helping others. You want to keep helping but you are now becoming overwhelmed from being exposed to the trauma of others. It can also happen with a negotiator who seems to always be on the call that does not resolve well.

Like burnout, compassion fatigue can be a process. It may take time to develop and keep building slowly to a point where the negotiator no longer cares about themselves or others in their life. This often takes place in negotiators with a high volume of call outs. In some cases, compassion fatigue may develop more quickly. An example could be a negotiator that has dealt with multiple suicidal subjects within a short span of time or simply in multiple back-to-back call outs. In any event, the negotiator may end up overusing their active listening and empathy skills to a point where they no longer have much left to give. Negotiators, team leaders, and coaches need to be on the lookout for compassion fatigue. Some signs are:

  • Negotiator is exhausted physically and mentally.
  • Negotiator may start blaming themselves or having thoughts of not having done a good enough job helping suicidal subjects or hostages who are suffering (cudda, wudda, shudda).
  • Negotiators may continue to think, or even seem to obsess about the suffering of hostages and victims and have feelings of anger towards suspects, or individuals and events that caused the suffering for an unreasonable amount of time post incident.
  • Negotiator may start to feel useless and powerless in effecting a successful dialog in negotiations.
  • Negotiator may have a sense of decreased accomplishment and may even consider quitting the team.

All first responders are, of course subject to these issues; but, with negotiators having an assignment to respond to critical incidents in-progress and make direct contact with those involved, the above-mentioned issues certainly can develop even more so than “normal” first responders.

SO, WHAT DO WE DO? All negotiation team members should be made aware of these dynamics. In particular, the negotiation team leader and the coach during and immediately after an incident need to be aware of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. In fact, negotiation team members in general should receive training on these issues. These topics could easily and effectively be included in a negotiator in-service training session.

Things that may also help are Peer support teams, especially ones with some members made up of negotiators, can be highly effective. And finally, it should be stressed to negotiators, as well as all first responders, that it is ok to seek professional guidance through a mental health professional trained in dealing with first responder trauma. All first responders, and especially well-trained crisis negotiators, are an asset to the agency and should be treated as such.

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