NEGOTIATING WITH FOREIGN LANGUAGE-SPEAKING SUBJECTS
By Peter DiVasto
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.
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.
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