Crisis negotiators know that changing someone's behaviour takes both time and an established rapport. Even in the best of situations, few people will yield to the will of complete strangers.
And when someone has barricaded themselves or taken others hostage, negotiators can't simply pick up the phone and tell them to come out. These things take both time and specific skills.
At the Canadian Police College (CPC), members of various police forces across Canada gather to both learn and refresh those crucial skills that help ensure a crisis comes to a peaceful conclusion.
"Sometimes people in crisis end up in situations they didn't plan and sometimes all they want is someone to listen to them," says Sgt. Suzanne Wannamaker, who co-ordinates the Crisis Negotiator Refresher course at the CPC. "At the end of the day, we all just want to go home. They have a right to that, too."
According to Wannamaker, 95 to 98 per cent of crisis situations in Canada are resolved peacefully. And to ensure those statistics stay high, maintaining those skills isn't only important, it's a requirement of the job.
Wannamaker, who has been with the college for five years and on a negotiation team for four, says most Canadian teams have it in their policies that members must refresh their skills every few years.
At the CPC, the course is five days long with three days of instruction and two of scenario-based training. For the scenarios, the college brings in professional actors who work off predetermined scripts, and are also instructed in real-time by the trainers to react realistically to cues.
"Very early on in my service, I realized the strongest asset a police officer has is their power of communication," says Sgt. Brigdit Leger, who attended a refresher course this past November.
Leger has been with the RCMP for 25 years and negotiating for 10. She found the scenarios particularly helpful, especially with the professional actors, because it gave her the chance to realistically practise those powers of communication.
Standard of skills
One of the other strengths of the crisis negotiator training is that it's consistent across the country – even amongst Canada's various policing agencies. For Cst. David Caron, from the Guelph Police Service, it was from his peers that he learned the most.
"Interacting with police officers from different agencies across the country and talking about calls that they go on, what they do in their service, that was probably one of the best things about the course," says Caron. "Because then you bring a little bit back to your own service."
That consistency also helped the two days of hands-on training run smoothly. The CPC operates in a best-case scenario, assuming four negotiators are available to work on a team. Each person is assigned one of four tasks: primary negotiator, secondary negotiator, situational boards/intelligence and team leader, or liaison to the incident commander.
"It was amazing how we could have members we'd never worked with from different parts of the country and have a seamless transition," says Leger. "To me, it was very clear the value of having a training standard."
Conversations and compassion
Leger and Caron were pleased to bring new techniques back to their teams, for example, having answers on hand before the questions are asked. Wannamaker explains that subjects often have the same questions, so having answers prepared in advance for the negotiator on the phone will help the conversation flow more naturally.
But in the end, Wannamaker says the most important skills for negotiators are ones that can't be taught – patience and compassion. The best negotiators are ones that know good people sometimes have bad days and that no matter who they are or what they've done, it's a negotiator's job to offer them a different way out.
"We can't just put someone in the category of bad guy: they're a person, they might not have planned for this to happen," says Wannamaker. "And even if they are one of the few people that you can't find one good thing about, then do it for the ones that care about them. Everyone has someone and sometimes we find compassion for their sake."