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Negotiating with foreign language-speaking subjects.

To resolve critical incidents, negotiators rely on their ability to communicate with subjects. Skill in the art of communication, when combined with tactical presence, intelligence gathering, psychological acumen, and a bit of luck, contributes significantly to the enviable track record of negotiators in the United States.

Negotiators rely on conversation to build rapport with subjects. As the primary tools of conversation, words represent the key ingredient - but not the only component - of communication. Voice inflection, tone, and speed of delivery all play an important part in the communication and negotiation processes.(1)

Likewise, in negotiations, establishing a "hook" - a topic of emotional meaning to the subject - depends on good listening skills, coupled with understanding and sincerity.(2) Simply put, lives may depend on the ability of negotiators to converse with and listen to hostage takers or barricaded individuals.(3)

Even when negotiators and subjects speak the same language, a great deal of room for error still exists. Criminal offenders may express themselves in unfamiliar idioms. Subjects suffering from extreme forms of mental illness may be so idiosyncratic in their speech as to make verbal communication nearly impossible. Prisoners in revolt may become so focused on real or imagined grievances that they resist meaningful dialogue for days.(4) Yet, even in these types of situations, a skilled negotiation team, in concert with tactical units, usually can help bring a crisis to a peaceful conclusion.

A more significant challenge awaits negotiators who arrive at the scene of a critical incident only to be informed that the subject does not speak English. Such scenarios are occurring more frequently with the ebb and flow of events in central America, southeast Asia, eastern Europe, and other regions of the world. Once again, the United States is attracting large numbers of immigrants to its shores.

Across America, as Little Saigons and Borscht Beaches join Chinatowns and Little Italys, the recently arrived Americans living in these districts must deal with the stresses of a strange culture, as well as those of their personal lives. When the stress becomes too great, crisis incidents often develop.

Negotiators who confront these situations face a number of challenges in addition to those that normally accompany critical incidents. Because of the increasing likelihood of encountering suspects who speak only a foreign language, negotiators and their agencies should prepare to address the unique issues presented by critical incidents involving those who cannot communicate in English.


The first priority for negotiators attempting to establish dialogue with a subject is to gauge the individual's level of fluency in English. To accomplish this, negotiators can use the same sources they use for conventional aspects of intelligence gathering. Significant others, neighbors, employers, and friends can provide information regarding the subject's ability to converse in English.

Confirmation that the subject speaks some English indicates that negotiators can communicate sufficiently with the subject without an interpreter. In the absence of precipitous behavior on the part of the subject, negotiators should initiate dialogue in English, working on the assumption that the subject might take the opportunity to talk. The time allotted to pursue this line of communication depends on the negotiation team's patience and resources, as well as the tactical situation and the subject's English-speaking ability.


After determining that the subject possesses some English language capabilities, negotiators must decide whether to conduct negotiations in English or in the subject's native language. Although negotiating in English presents some minor problems - most notably, a loss of idiomatic nuance in the verbal exchange and diminished opportunities for negotiators to express empathy-several advantages of negotiating in English generally outweigh these drawbacks.

First, forcing a subject to wrestle with formulating thoughts in an unfamiliar language greatly reduces the opportunity for over-animated displays of emotion. Second, the mechanics of translating thoughts into English keeps the subject's mind working and thereby increases fatigue. Third, the continued use of English by negotiators sends a subliminal message to the subject that law enforcement is in control of the situation.

However, law enforcement agencies increasingly find themselves confronting subjects who possess very limited or no ability to communicate in English. In these cases, negotiators must establish communication in the subject's native language.


A telephone survey of 14 major negotiation teams revealed that one-half of the teams possess experience in conducting foreign language negotiation.(5) Each of the seven had negotiated in Spanish, and three teams had conducted negotiation in a language other than English or Spanish. The FBI negotiated with a Russian speaker; the King County Police Department in Seattle, Washington, dealt with a subject in Laotian; and the Houston, Texas, Police Department negotiated with a subject in Vietnamese.(6)

During the initial stages of a critical incident, responding officers automatically begin to assess the language abilities of the subject. Once field commanders decide to negotiate in a language other than English, the negotiation team faces an important decision: Whether to use a negotiator who speaks the language or use an interpreter to relay information between the negotiation team and the subject. Each option harbors advantages and potential disadvantages.

Using a Foreign Language Negotiator

Ideally, the negotiation team will include a negotiator who is fluent in the subject's language and can negotiate directly with the individual. Under less-than-optimal conditions, a bilingual law enforcement officer trained in the negotiation process might be available to assist the negotiation team. In either of these scenarios, the negotiation process will closely resemble that of a standard negotiation conducted in English. The negotiator will be familiar with the tension of the interplay.

Unfortunately, agencies may have difficulty locating a trained negotiator who can communicate with subjects in a given language. While a number of negotiators - specially in southwestern states - may be fluent in Spanish, the ranks thin when the language in question becomes Laotian, Farsi, or Chinese.

Agencies that cannot locate a fluent negotiator typically cast about for a an officer who speaks the subject's language. While this approach may solve the language problem, it introduces into the negotiation picture an actor with little practical knowledge of the process, a person whom the negotiation team constantly must monitor and support.

This approach can lead to feelings of isolation for the negotiator who converses with the subject in a foreign language. The negotiator must translate for other team members, who find themselves in the un-enviable position of being spectators to the negotiations. Not being able to understand the subject's words may diminish the rich fabric of suggestions, brainstorming, stress-relieving humor, and mutual support that normally help negotiation teams move smoothly toward a peaceful resolution. The multiple roles required of the foreign language negotiator also lead to heightened levels of fatigue.

Using an Interpreter

As an alternative to using a negotiator who speaks the subject's language, agencies may choose to engage an interpreter to assist in the negotiation process. This option offers several advantages. First, the choice of languages is limited only by the number of available interpreters. Agencies can, in fact, develop a pool of qualified interpreters to be available in case of critical incidents.

In Texas, for example, the court system retains interpreters for every commonly encountered foreign language. While the courts do not certify the interpreters' level of proficiency, the public safety agencies that employ the language experts test them to determine their level of competence.

As the Texas example demonstrates, public safety agencies can look to local or state courts to identify foreign language experts. Developing such a pool gives negotiators and interpreters an opportunity to polish select words and phrases for maximum impact before an incident occurs.

An additional advantage of using interpreters rests with the pacing of the negotiation. Translation typically slows the pace considerably. This not only promotes reflection on the part of the subject, but it also gives the negotiation team all of the advantages that time brings. Finally, being highly attuned to the nuances of language, a trained interpreter can provide the team with useful information that a bilingual officer or negotiator may miss.

During the negotiation process, the interpreter should use short, concise, and precisely worded sentences designed by the negotiation team. Negotiators should provide their instructions via handwritten notes to ensure the accuracy of the thoughts to be expressed. The interpreter must refrain from undertaking any dialogue not expressly delineated by the negotiators. The interpreter must provide negotiators with a precise translation of all dialogue with the subject.

However, the use of interpreters presents its own set of potential drawbacks. Interpreters untrained in police negotiations may find the trappings of a crisis scene, such as police vehicles, lights, and heavily armed tactical officers, unsettling. In addition, interpreters may overestimate their roles and begin to believe that the success of the negotiation process lies with them. Combined, these factors may cause such stress that they render an interpreter incapable of assisting the negotiation team.

Another potential drawback may emerge as the negotiations proceed. Interpreters may grow impatient and come to believe that they have a better approach to resolving the situation.

Having an interpreter influence negotiations is tantamount to allowing a third party intermediary to become personally involved with the negotiation process. Either scenario compounds the danger because the negotiation team may be unaware of new turns that the negotiations have taken. Such dangers intensify if an interpreter begins to identify with the subject's cause. A remote possibility exists that such an interpreter may intentionally work to sabotage the negotiations.

To counteract these potential problems, the negotiation team should instruct interpreters to convey only the team's comments and act solely as a conduit of prescribed information. Such guidelines were developed and are now taught by the London Metropolitan Police Department in its negotiations course. Under no circumstances should interpreters be allowed to editorialize. Likewise, they should be told to refrain from expressing personal sentiments or revealing any show of emotions to the subject. One way to ensure additional problems do not arise involves the use of a second interpreter.

Adding Another Interpreter

Agencies should make every effort to have a second interpreter on the scene for quality control. Two interpreters provide a more fluid course for the conversations. The second interpreter also provides instantaneous translation for the negotiation team. This running account allows the negotiators to write notes and design specific phrases for the initial interpreter to use in the upcoming contacts. The continuous flow of the negotiation keeps pressure on the subject without placing undue pressure on either interpreter.


The identity and nationality of interpreters must remain anonymous. A subject who learns the nationality of an interpreter may create additional barriers that prolong the entire process. Other issues, such as the interpreters' religion, political affiliation, and past residences also may arise from the nationality issue. Therefore, negotiators should make every effort to maintain the interpreter's anonymity. Accordingly, interpreters should not use their own names, but instead, should indicate that they are serving only as the voice of the police negotiators.

Negotiation teams also should include interpreters in post-incident debriefings. Because the stress that interpreters experience may mirror that of negotiators, negotiation team leaders should check on them in the weeks following an incident.


As an open and dynamic society, the United States continues to attract people from all over the world. Like their predecessors, these newcomers face the daunting task of adjusting to a strange culture that offers a bewildering array of cultural norms and social pressures.

The growing number of recent immigrants, foreign nationals, and illegal aliens residing in the United States who possess limited abilities to communicate in English has led to an increase in the number of critical incidents involving subjects who speak only foreign languages. Public safety agencies in every part of the United States face the possibility of negotiating with hostage takers or barricaded subjects who cannot communicate effectively in English.

To ensure that their negotiation teams are prepared, agency administrators must develop a response strategy. The most important consideration in preplanning is to identify bilingual negotiators or interpreters who can act as the voice and ears of the negotiation team. For, although the language may be different, the key component to successful negotiation remains the same - communication.


1 M. G. Wargo, "Communication Skills for Hostage Negotiators," Police Marksman, March/April 1990, 52.

2 J.P. Fuda, Trigger Point: The Moment of Truth (Seattle, WA: Crisis Management Associates, 1988), 1-5.

3 P.V. DiVasto and S.L. Newman, "The Four Cs of Hostage Negotiation," Law and Order, May 1993, 82-87; P.V. DiVasto, F.J. Lanceley, and A. Gruy, "Critical Issues in Suicide Intervention," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, August 1992, 13-16; R. McCarthy, "The Command Decision to Shoot a Hostage Taker: How Do We Make It?" The Tactical Edge, Winter 1989, 10-13.

4 G.D. Fuselier, C.R. VanZandt, and F.J. Lanceley, "Negotiating the Protracted Incident," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, July 1989, 1-7.

5 P. DiVasto and Michelle Medley (1994), Telephone survey of hostage negotiators. Unpublished raw data.

6 In addition, police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, communicated with a deaf subject by using sign language.

RELATED ARTICLE: Suggestions for Choosing Interpreters

To avert potential problems, agencies that elect to employ or retain an interpreter or a pool of language experts should:

* Select only those interpreters whose proficiency is guaranteed by a recognized authority

* Conduct a background check of each interpreter

* Teach interpreters the principles of negotiations and instruct them on the limitations and restrictions of their roles

* Emphasize that interpreters must act as a conduit to provide precise translations of the communication of both sides

* Include interpreters in real-life exercises at least semiannually.

Dr. DiVasto is the psychologist for the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Federal Bureau of Investigation
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Author:Divasto, Peter V.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Jun 1, 1996
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