Ask a Negotiator: Philip Williams

In this Ask an Expert session, we spoke to Philip Williams, one of our lead negotiation trainers for CEDR’s flagship negotiation training for individuals, Advanced Negotiation Skills and one of the UK’s former leading Hostage and Crisis Negotiators.

Phil’s experience spans decades, with deployments in some of the tensest, most hostile, high-stake environments across four continents. As a specialist advisor to successive UK governments and global organisations, he has gained unparalleled skills within the high-pressure world of crisis leadership, critical decision-making and life-at-risk negotiation.

How did you get into negotiation?

In one sense I was born into it…… indeed we all are! From birth, life is a constant series of negotiations – the ‘joy of people. After all, if we always agreed with each other I suspect the world would be a duller place. My earliest recollection of being in the world of negotiation, was when, as a young sergeant in policing, I was called to a block of flats where a severely depressed, heavyweight boxer was threatening to kill himself. Naively, I was so engrossed by his pain, that I sat side by side with one of the most powerfully built men I have ever met. He was holding the smallest penknife I have ever seen, digging into his throat. And so we remained for the next few hours, whilst I thought I was doing a wonderful job trying to convince him to put the knife down and come out safely. Little did I appreciate just how much potential danger I had placed myself, my colleagues and him in, should things have gone wrong. We all lived thankfully and as always, it is through our mistakes, that the greatest learning occurs. For me, it was the inner feeling of so wanting to help someone in their desperation that led me to the door of the UK’s Hostage and Crisis Negotiation Cadre.

What has been your hardest negotiation?

Iraq – into the vacuum left by the demise of Saddam Hussein began a series of hostage-takings that shocked the world. Negotiators were up against their most challenging, cruel and committed adversary. Yet, I was humbled to work amongst some of the most committed, passionate, unrelenting team players I could ever hope to be with. During those months, I learnt some of my most valuable lessons in life; success is being there despite all the odds, it is refusing to give up on what is right and trusting in the power of a team.

What has been your biggest success in negotiation?

Curiously, back where it all began. Towards the end of my 20 years in Hostage and Crisis Negotiation, I was back in London with an individual threatening to kill himself. This time I was leading a team of negotiators, people who I had nurtured, encouraged and trained. Eight hours passed and the man was holding an enormous carving knife to his chest, threatening to throw himself against a wall. My internal dilemma was for the two negotiators for whom this was one of their first operational deployment; I realised they could imminently be witnessing a death. I desperately wanted to protect them from the inevitable feelings of doubt, guilt and ‘what ifs’ that commonly haunt such experiences. Success, was the belief in our training, the skills we honed over countless hours, the power of the team and the refusal to give up on this man. We saved his life – my team saved his life. I was so proud of them. As I drove off at 3.30am that morning, I realised that the world was safe in the hands of a new generation of negotiators, I could hand the baton over.

For me, a new dawn was breaking, the desire to pass on those skills, acquired at the edge of life, to a wider world, for these skills truly are, ‘skills for life.’

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

Yes and no, it depends – a good negotiators answer!

Yes, because negotiation has been subject to a wave of research and writing; we now have a greater grasp of this noble art. I have seen the very best of negotiation, but for every ‘two steps forward’ there is  ‘one step backwards’.

No, because of course we are human and prone to falling short. As learning and understanding move forward, so too does the environment in which we live. Instant communication, accompanies expectations of instant response. Despite all the benefits of our developing world, it goes hand in hand with the risk of misinterpretation, perceived slights, misuse, abuse and  spiral into the spectrum of conflict

What do you think makes a great negotiator?

‘Listen and Learn’. For me, ‘active listening skills’ are the foundation of not only a great negotiator, but a great person. If you concentrated on nothing else, mastering this skill will change your life and the lives of others around you. It is through this ability to truly listen, that we truly learn what is really going on in any given situation. Armed with such information, you become far more powerful and effective with whatever you want to achieve.

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

Be curious – understand their story!

Typically, it starts with that email I sent. Of course, I knew what I meant, what I intended to convey. What comes back,  seems to me, rather rude and uncalled for. My disappointment leaks into my reply, which of course prompts, in my view, a rather ignorant reply from them……..and so begins the spiral of misinterpretation and the journey to yet another conflict whether at home, work or between nations. We, of course, are always right, because we know what we said and why, and they, of course, are always wrong and clearly doing this deliberately to upset me. What if we could pause this disaster movie and for a moment step into the shoes of the other party. Then, as them, we would know what they know, how they interpreted my message, how it made them feel and why they said what they did. I wonder whether that would change things?

Advanced, sophisticated negotiators do this. In the heat of the negotiation they can recognise, if they are at risk of being hijacked by the human tendency to assume and misinterpret. They have learnt to be curious, to pause use skills, explore the story from the others’ perspective. What they learn can more often than not, change the course of history – so hand in hand with active listening, my ‘top tip’ is, learn to be curious.



For more information on CEDR’s Negotiation and Conflict Mangement Training, please visit our website.

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