Interview: Simon Wells, Terrorist Negotiator, HM Government

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Simon Wells has spent the past 13 years as a crisis negotiator in the UK and overseas, including on behalf of the UK government with terrorist groups. He has 30 years' experience with the Metropolitan Police including 20 years specialising in using behavioural science to benefit law enforcement, the military and special forces units across the world.

1) What role will behavioural science play in shaping workforce strategy and how we handle 'people' in the workplace over the next 10 years?

This will depend on how creative people are, particularly people in HR. There is so much valid and reliable behavioural science out there that could have an impact. Unfortunately some people are more persuaded to behave in ways by anecdote and presentation than science.  For example, some people still teach and then expect their students to use eye movement as an indication of deception, when the science is clear that this has no validity. Similarly some brands claim they can teach a person to be a psychological counsellor within a week, when a valid and reliable course which has actually shown changes in mental health can take four years to teach. I know who I would rather be treated by. In short there is a need for more scientific research, not pop psychology, to be translated into practice.

2) What are the fundamental lessons about human nature that you now know implicitly but that organisations fail to address or acknowledge in the workplace?

That people need to be listened to and understood. Not just how they present but what their underlying motivations and needs are. People make organisations, and without working to better understand their needs we will not create functioning progressive organisations. Unfortunately we sometimes underestimate how little we know about each other, and this can result in misunderstandings, mismanagement and poor leadership.

3) What do you think is the most important communication skill?

Listening. There is so much research that shows that by listening, we can create an atmosphere of respect, dignity and productivity. Listening has been shown to increase liking, reduce stereotypical behaviour and increase empathy. This does not only help those who may have issues, but allows teams to communicate more effectively, giving those who have something to say the space to do so.

4) One of your books focus on negotiating with antagonistic people - which often comes up in the workplace. What do most people do wrong?

This may sound like I am repeating myself but people fail to listen, observe and actively engage. Furthermore, we spend too little time considering the other person’s position. Even those we label as terrorists (which is a verb not a noun) have a message and by failing to listen (whilst not necessarily agreeing with what they are saying) we create antagonism.

The other issue is the time we spend planning and preparing for encounters, considering how we approach meetings, and separating facts from rumour, or innuendo. Just by spending more time doing this we can create a more positive first impression and opening dialogue which should lead to less antagonism.

5) What are a few easy ways people can improve their listening skills?

Sounds simple, but practise. Most people think they are good listeners, I would say that at times we can be, but it is more a non-conscious reaction, by practicing on actually listening to people’s words we can better understand them.  A simple exercise is just to ask someone ‘how is your day going?’ then actually do nothing and listen as opposed to ask questions.  Just nod and use minimal encouragers (‘uh ha’, ‘go on’, ‘and then’).

6) As more and more people learn about communication and the normative skills needed, e.g. building trust and connection, is there a risk these will become less effective as the person will 'know what you're trying to do?'

If we use our use communication skills to better understand each other and work together more effectively I cannot see a negative side. As a parent of two grown women I have spent many hours listening to them and at times they have stated ‘don’t use that negotiation stuff on me’. I then admit I have been BUT point out I only want to learn more about them. As long as the other party trusts your motivation then admitting that you have been concentrating more on them and their needs is unlikely to cause any issues.

7) In conversations with antagonistic people, what is a significant cue - either visual or language - that most people miss?

What a person says has been shown to be much more significant than non-verbal behaviour, and I feel that people miss more verbal cues.

In fact we are very good at the visual cues. I spent thirty years as a police officer and my personal safety training included sessions on assessing physical risk. In short we were taught that if faced with someone who you perceive as a threat, you are probably right that they are, so step back.

If they step forward you were right, if they remain, you were wrong, thus we constantly hypothesis-test our observations and get feedback and learn thereby improving our ability. 

As a footnote the only times I was hurt was by drunks and people with mental health issues. Why? They tend not to have the same patterns of physical threat that we have evolved to recognise. 

About Jamie Lawrence

Jamie Lawrence, HRZone

Jamie Lawrence is editor of global online HR publication and community HRZone.com. He is committed to driving forward the HR agenda and making sure that HR directors have the knowledge and insight necessary to make HR felt across the whole organisation. He regularly speaks to audiences of 250+ and has interviewed key HR industry names, including Daniel H. Pink. He has worked previously as a small business journalist and a copywriter and has published non-fiction that reached #2 on the NYT Children's Bestseller List. In his spare time Jamie likes writing fiction, films, fitness and eating out.

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