Ask a Negotiator: Chula Rupasinha

In April 2017, CEDR launched its flagship negotiation training for individuals, Advanced Negotiation skills. In this Ask an Expert session, we spoke to Chula Rupasinha, one of our lead negotiation trainers.

As a senior Police Officer, Chula was the UK’s longest serving hostage negotiator, successfully resolving sieges and kidnaps of Britons held overseas. He led significant change management projects and was twice seconded to Government, specialising in negotiations with the Ministry of Defence ultimately leading the team to integrate the military’s support for the London Olympic Games. Chula is a full-time mediator and qualified trainer with extensive international experience.

Why do you like being a negotiator?

It’s exciting. Negotiating is stimulating from an almost infinite number of perspectives, but the essential ingredient is that it matters – something (important) is at stake. This might be evident by the number of zeros but often it’s far more important – a sense of “self”, a personal reputation or a career and once at risk, the stakes are high indeed. High stakes often generate an unpredictable and dynamic environment which brings us back to “it’s a thrill”.

How did you get into negotiation?

As we are all negotiating all the time, there are any number of answers to this questions, but in a formal sense, my story began while working at the Police College. I returned to work one evening to find some very serious Sweeney-like characters deeply engrossed in a tense and rather aggressive dialogue. It was one of those situations where one somehow knew asking “what are you up to guys?” wouldn’t be well received so I kept walking.  Subsequently, I learned that I had stumbled across a hostage negotiator assessment – my appetite was whetted and with the arrogance of youth thought, “I can do that” and made it my central career ambition. It took a few years, but I got there!

What has been your hardest negotiation?

As part of a team we were negotiating with a heavily armed criminal who demonstrated his willingness to use force and who had a hostage. This overarching circumstance is not what made it difficult, rather, as a suspected paedophile he feared prison and was barricaded in his own home where he was perfectly comfortable. This created a dynamic where his desire to negotiate was limited, we had seemingly little to offer and therefore had to think around the situation.  In the end he chose suicide rather than the inevitable custodial sentence. Negotiations did, however, create the opportunity for the escape of the hostage who, trauma aside, was unharmed.

What has been your biggest success in negotiation?

Another team effort, and something that grew beyond my pay grade, but nevertheless I was tasked with starting the negotiation with the military to draw them into providing security assistance for the London Olympic Games. There were well-rehearsed constitutional, financial, legal and political arguments for respecting the status quo that domestic security is a matter for the Police and should be funded by the Home Office. The task was fairly described as the biggest security operation since World War Two (the brief included an instruction not to let it appear like that) and the fact was that the Police Service could not have managed without extensive support from the armed services.

I started (and saw through until delivery), a four-year process of trust building and careful exploring so that we the Police knew what the military could provide and where they increasingly saw the attractions of taking part. The result was a huge behind-the-scenes military component which was seamlessly and almost invisibly integrated into the wider civilian provision. Then, when the unexpected “guarding crisis” (shortfall of uniform security guards) broke in Spring 2012 and the military were asked to redouble their input, we were able to work with the Ministry of Defence as a team – “negotiation interlocutors” had become “security partners”.

Has the way people negotiate changed in the course of your career?

Without doubt it has through the recognition of the part “listening” plays. Perhaps unfairly to great negotiators of the past, there has been a clear shift from valuing above all else, a firm unyielding approach to one that now includes, and likely starts with, an attitude of respect and inquiry.

What do you think makes a great negotiator?

A willingness to listen and the ability to retain their composure, untroubled by time or other pressures. No matter what happens to these negotiators, they always seem to be operating within their comfort zone. When I think about the world-class negotiators I know, the one characteristic they share apart from their calm, unflustered demenanour is that their manner never fails them and they treat everybody with courtesy throughout.

What tip would you give to someone wanting to improve their negotiation skills?

Practice, whether that be by simulations or real world experience. If ‘real world’, then engage in reflective practice either or alone or with a coach and then critically … be sure to implement the learning. In other words, it is not enough to realise that one needs to do more of/less of, one has to have the self-discipline to remember to do it differently next time.

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Chula is one of the lead trainers on CEDR’s Advanced Negotiation Skills Programme, teaching Module 1.

For more information on these courses and to book your place, visit our website.

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