Post Event Review: Negotiating for life ... and for lives... read what we learned from Sue Williams

Post Event Review: Negotiating for life ... and for lives... read what we learned from Sue Williams

It’s not every day that you get to meet a hostage negotiator in the City – hence this event sold out quickly and filled the room at the stylish Brand Exchange. Suzanne (Sue) Williams started out her career as a police woman in London rising to Detective Inspector in charge of murders. She had to give it up in the end because people were “basically getting away with murder’’ said Sue sharing her wry humour and quick fire style. An admitted adrenaline junkie and having retired from the police force a number of years ago she has developed a career as hostage negotiator, knowing she can make a difference. Hostage scenarios can arise for many different reasons - from domestic barricades to political kidnaps. Sue says regardless of the reason she ‘just does what she does… just keep them talking’. She says she can now look people, who have had a family member kidnapped, in the eye, and tell them that she will be able to help. Although she doesn’t make promises like this to hostages’ families, she surprised us by sharing the fact that 94-96% of negotiated hostages are freed. Another surprise was to hear that her longest negotiation was 5 years and the shortest...a mere 45 minutes. The first involved governments and well organised terrorists and the latter involved a family situation and too much alcohol. 

Sue shared some fascinating insights gleaned over the years as well as mantras that guide the processes she uses. It was incredible how relevant and useful they are for corporate – and family life:

  • Don’t tie yourself into unnecessary deadlines - causes stress all round
  • Change what you can control; influence what you can’t
  • Develop your active listening skills - the “infantry” of successful negotiating
  • be mindful of discovery, without any judgement
  • be the listener and accept the knowledge
  • be interested and not interesting
  • seek first to understand before being understood
  • creating empathy can lower the emotion
  • No deal is better than a bad deal (cue guffaws of Brexit induced laughter)
  • Remember your open ended questions- who, what, why, where, how and tell me?
  • Positive body language is required even on the phone. It translates. 
  • First impressions count. So think about what impression you want to create. 


There were a few watch outs too- 

  • Failure to invest in the relationship is a big mistake and lack of preparation is another classic error
  • Remember we can make matters worse by what we say
  • Limit the emotion. Don’t make it personal
  • There’s no point in getting to yes if “how” doesn’t follow
  • Use intermediaries and find common ground- apparently lots of baddies support Manchester United. Who knew?


In addition to these great tips we were regaled with fascinating stories of hostage situations and little observations relevant to daily life eg:

‘Airline staff are not lining up to greet you as you board a plane for entirely altruistic reasons: they’re sizing you up ie ‘she’s the fit, tall one who may help if we need a strong physical support’.

It certainly was a very worthwhile and entertaining evening – thank-you to event organisers Geraldine Gallagher and Helen Bunker and to Sally Todd who had read about Suzanne in the FT.