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Sound of silence

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Former hostage negotiator Richard Mullender teaches corporate firms the art of listening and negotiation to help them win boardroom wars

When a hostage negotiator tells you it pays to listen, you can’t argue with that. It’s why most businesses are all ears when Richard Mullender talks about the art of listening, especially when it comes to cracking deals through negotiations.

For 29 years, the 66 year-old Englishman worked with the London Metropolitan Police at Scotland Yard, most of them as a detective. A specialist in analytical interviewing techniques, listening and reading body language, he trained the London police in the art of interrogation and later became the lead trainer at the National Hostage and Crisis Negotiation Unit at Scotland Yard.

Mullender’s skills took him further afield, to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was instrumental in negotiating the release of three UN workers held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2004, and he contributed to the intelligence that led to the rescue of British peace activist Norman Kember in Iraq in 2006.

Since he retired in 2007, he has been delivering workshops and speaking at seminars all over the world on elite listening techniques designed to help organisations understand their employees and clients at a deeper, a more efficient level.

From the police force and theatres of war to corporate boardrooms, it’s a long way. Or is it? “There are parallels between business and hostage negotiations. Both require you to set emotion aside. To negotiate effectively, you have to stay a little cold. In a big business negotiation, where you’ve got an opportunity to make loads of money, you’ve got to be really careful you don’t give away stuff,” says Mullender, who has worked in an advisory capacity with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the US as well as Indian intelligence agencies.

After holding lives in the balance, how did Mullender step into the corporate world? He says it was a career that sought him out. “A friend told me there was a corporate company in England interested in the skills we used. I have since been delivering corporate training in listening and persuasion skills, and helping clients gain an edge by arming them with skills to build rapport, establish trust and exert influence,” says Mullender, who has been invited to India on numerous occasions to address the leadership teams of corporate companies and teach them the essential skills required in negotiations.

The ability to ‘read minds’ at the negotiating table is a skill investment banks, energy companies and law firms pay good money to learn. “What I find most intriguing is that most businesses are blind,” he says. “They just don’t think. It’s amazing that most people miss this fact. I’m not saying all of them are like that; yet I believe that a lot of them don’t prepare very well.”

As Mullender grew into his new shoes, he realised that analysing a business to find out what was wrong with it was exactly like an investigation. He also has an uncanny ability to think out of the box, which is what he would do when there was a life at stake. “The stakes are high and all you have are your wits and your words to convince someone to spare a life. We worked really hard and sometimes we were just unlucky. Sometimes the demands were so high or so extreme that we couldn’t match them. There is very little you can do about it, especially in a terrorist situation, but give it your best shot.”

Mullender visited India in 2016 to deliver a workshop, ‘Life or Death in ONE Day’, in Mumbai, Delhi and Hyderabad. He shares, “When you talk about listening, it isn’t really about eye contact or body language. It’s about picking out nuggets of information that you can make sense of at a later stage. Only then will you understand your customer and what you are trying to sell him. And that, in turn, can only happen when you listen.”

Offering another insight into his work, he says, “The toughest negotiations are those where someone doesn’t like you. So either you back off or find another approach. There should be no ego involved here. Being persistent is just going to annoy the person further, whether in an office or a hostage situation. If you can’t get the other person to like you, leave.” He adds, “At any given time, there should be just one person talking while the rest of the team is listening. It can make all the difference.”

He continues, “During negotiations, when you are listening, you must have an outcome in mind and break down the listening into small chunks. The problem is that most people don’t have an outcome and then, it’s just a very different conversation. You need to ask searching questions. When you have an outcome in mind, you will listen specifically for that information and further your cause.”

―Text by Shail D

May 2018