May 26, 2020

The Waco siege and lessons for business negotiation

Posted in Negotiation by Gene Killian |

Well, it’s been an interesting couple of months, anyway. I feel like we’ve been under siege in our own homes, so it’s probably appropriate that I’ve had the time to watch the Netflix mini-series “Waco,” about the tragic 1993 standoff between the FBI and cult members at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. The well-done show vividly depicts the breakdown of communications between FBI negotiators and cult leaders, and between FBI negotiators and their tactical counterparts, that ultimately led to a bad outcome. Interested in the difficult negotiation, I also bought and read Gary Noesner’s 2010 book, “Stalling for Time,” in which he discusses his career as an FBI hostage negotiator, providing detailed accounts of numerous negotiations in which he took part, including the negotiation at Waco. Noesner spent 23 years as an FBI hostage negotiator, including 10 years as the FBI’s chief negotiator.

Can some of the lessons from Waco help us to become better business negotiators? The dynamic in a hostage negotiation is a little different than in a business negotiation, since hostage takers sometimes aren’t interested in a give-and-take, but may be looking to attract publicity or to go out in a blaze of glory, so to speak. But the interesting thing is, most FBI hostage negotiations take place virtually; that is to say, the negotiators are seldom in the same place at the same time, and they’re usually forced to conduct their negotiations via cell phone. That aspect of FBI negotiation translates directly to the world we live in now; many face-to-face meetings and negotiations have morphed into phone calls and Zoom meetings.

Here’s a brief reminder of how the Waco situation happened. A religious sect called the Branch Davidians, led by a Messiah-wannabe named David Koresh, had its “headquarters” at a ranch in Axtell, Texas, just outside of Waco. Suspecting the group of stockpiling illegal weapons and potential child abuse, the ATF obtained a search warrant for the compound, and arrest warrants for Koresh and some of the group's members.  

The incident began when the ATF attacked the ranch, contending that they were there to serve the warrants. A gunfight erupted, and four government agents and six Branch Davidians were killed. The FBI then surrounded the compound, and negotiators were brought in, including Noesner. Tension quickly developed between the FBI negotiators and the FBI tactical personnel. While Noesner painstakingly tried to develop rapport over the telephone with Koresh and Koresh’s lieutenant Steve Schneider, and to negotiate a peaceful resolution, the FBI tactical officers quickly lost patience for the discussions and wanted to attack the compound and end the standoff with force.  

After 51 days, the “muscle” proponents won the argument, and the FBI launched an assault, deploying a tear gas attack to try to force the Branch Davidians out of the ranch. A fire erupted, killing 76 Branch Davidians, including 25 children and two pregnant women. Koresh, who had been wounded earlier by FBI gunfire, died in the attack, but may have asked Schneider to shoot him and put him out of his misery. Schneider also died, possibly by his own hand. The source of the fire has been the subject of much argument. A government investigation concluded that the Branch Davidians had started the fire themselves. Others, including surviving Branch Davidians, contend that the FBI’s tear gas canisters caused fires to erupt.

So, why were the Waco negotiations ultimately unsuccessful? The truth is, the negotiations between Noesner’s team and the cult leaders were successful. Noesner’s patient efforts to buy time, build trust, and make concessions where possible (such as arranging for a delivery of milk), led to 44 cult members choosing to leave the ranch alive before the fire started.

Noesner describes his strategy as “trickle, flow, and gush”: “I told [FBI commanders] we were aiming not at a grand resolution strategy that would bring everyone out at once, but rather at a steadily increasing attrition of individuals leaving the compound.” In other words, Noesner was focused on building momentum through small steps toward a final negotiated resolution, a technique often employed by experienced negotiators.

On the other hand, the negotiations between Noesner’s team and FBI leadership weren’t as successful. The leaders didn’t fully trust the process of negotiation, and couldn’t understand why Noesner was engaging in discussions with cult leaders when four government agents were already dead. Some in management also believed that every day the siege continued was a waste of taxpayer dollars. That belief led to the abandonment of negotiation and the final, deadly attack.

I can’t do the complicated situation justice in a short blog post, but I wanted to focus on three areas to consider about Waco that relate to business negotiations.

First, throughout his book, Noesner emphasizes the need for patience, and sometimes extreme patience, in any complex negotiation. Americans are not, by nature, a patient people, especially in this world of 30-second soundbytes. But negotiation is a kind of courtship, and if you try to rush through it and pop the ultimate question too early, you run a high risk of derailing the conversation, because you haven’t taken sufficient time to establish rapport, empathy, and credibility.

In preparing for any negotiation, here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • How can I slow the process down so I can look for opportunities to pursue?
  • What questions will I ask to position this negotiation as a joint problem-solving exercise and not as a confrontation? (Such questions are called “calibrated questions” by former FBI negotiator and best-selling author Chris Voss. They should be open-ended: “What” and “how,” and, very sparingly, “why.”)
  • How can I play to the other side’s ego?

Remember also that “no” may not be the end. It may be a beginning. When the other side says “no,” you now know with more certainty what the obstacles to a negotiated agreement are. You can always come back later and try again, after a suitable break.

Second, don’t neglect the value of rapport and chemistry, especially when negotiating remotely, where the temptation may exist to get down to business right away. Think carefully about what you can say or do to begin establishing trust and rapport with the other side. Do you have any common personal interests, or a similar personal background to chat about? Research your negotiating partner carefully before the negotiations begin and try to find out. Also, are there minor initial concessions you can make to begin “building the bridge”?

Consider Noesner’s opening gambit with Koresh. Noesner didn’t deliver ultimatums or threats, despite the insistence of FBI tactical personnel.  Instead, here’s what Noesner said in his first conversation with Koresh: “I understand you were hit by a bullet…You know, we can get you some medical attention right away, David. You just need to come out of there…[and] if you come out, I assure you that every one of your people will be treated with dignity and respect.”

This empathetic approach is part of one of Noesner’s core philosophies, expressed in the book as follows: “Never confuse getting even with getting what you want.”

Here’s a tangentially related pro tip: Avoid e-mail, in which communications can easily be misunderstood, or statements can become too aggressive too quickly. Opt for the phone or Zoom (or a similar service). It’s harder to tell someone to pound sand when you’re actually talking with them as opposed to sending electronic missives. If you want to see how quickly electronic messages can go awry, scroll through Twitter for fifteen minutes.

Third, in a complex negotiation, there may be a need for alignment. That is to say, there could be diverging points of view on your team as to the best approach. I often see this when representing corporations. In-house counsel, concerned about job security should something go wrong, won’t always let you do your job without interference, even though they might not have your level of expertise when it comes to negotiation or trial work. You may become frustrated by some of the questions they ask, or the comments they make.

So:  What will you do to improve communication and decision-making internally, so that you aren’t derailed by bickering among team members? How will you explain to them why you’re doing what you’re doing, so that you have management buy-in? Think about this carefully before you get involved in any complex negotiation. The last thing you need is unnecessary friendly fire when you’re trying to focus on reading the signs from the other side.

At the end of Noesner’s book, he offers some additional excellent advice: “Each is us is called upon to negotiate stressful situations in business, social encounters, and family life time and again. From what I’ve observed, the happiest and most successful people tend to be those who are able to remain calm at these difficult times and put aside emotions such as pride or anger that stop them from finding common ground. We all need to be good listeners and learn to demonstrate our empathy and understanding of the problems, needs and issues of others. Only then can we hope to influence their behavior in a positive way. You might even say that all of life is a negotiation.”

Yes. You might.