How to Talk a Suicidal Person Off the Ledge, According to the Israeli Police's Chief Negotiator

How do you deter someone who wants to commit suicide? What do you say to an armed burglar who’s holding a hostage? A conversation with Ofer Shahar, the head of the Israel Police Crisis Negotiation Unit

Ayelett Shani
An man who had been fired from his job threatens suicide in Be’er Sheva, in 2013. “Our motto is: Keep talking – no shooting; keep talking – no suicide.
An man who had been fired from his job threatens suicide in Be’er Sheva, in 2013. “Our motto is: Keep talking – no shooting; keep talking – no suicide. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Can you explain what the Israel Police Crisis Negotiation Unit does?

The unit was established in 1978, following a worldwide wave of hostage-taking and terrorist activity – Munich, Ma’alot and so forth. Criminal activities were also a motivating factor behind creation of the unit. At the time there was a rash of bank robberies in New York that spun out of control and ended with hostages being taken. A psychologist working with the New York Police Department noticed that when they could keep up a dialogue with the people who had taken the hostages, the incident usually did not deteriorate into violence and the use of weapons. That’s our motto to this day is: Keep talking – no shooting; keep talking – no suicide.

Who serves in the unit? Psychologists?

We have a permanent core of about 10 officers, male and female – professionals from the field of psychology, veteran police investigators and technological experts. They are all categorized as “full-time negotiators.” In addition, we also have a team of 250 police officers and volunteers around the country, whom we tapped for their exceptional interpersonal communication skills, and who undergo training in the unit. If there’s a crisis in a remote place that takes time to get to, they will be the first responders. Our goal is to resolve conflicts peacefully.

We always try to achieve a solution to the crisis without entering into a physical confrontation, and without the person we are negotiating with injuring anyone. Including himself.

In other words, putting an end to his life. I understand that the critical mass of people you deal with consists of would-be suicides.

That is usually the bulk of our activity, on a routine basis: [dealing with] the painful subject of suicide. There are more than 500 documented cases of suicide a year in Israel. And those are only the numbers we know about.

Are you referring to suicides alone, or also attempted suicides?

Actual suicides. With attempted suicides the numbers are far higher, and are increasing year by year. We work with many organizations and with top professionals, and deal with hundreds of such cases a year. There are also incidents that involve [suicidal or other people who take] hostages. And we deal with kidnappings – that happens in certain sectors of the population, where you kidnap someone to use as a bargaining chip. You kidnap someone to finalize a deal.

In addition to the experience we accumulate in the field, our work is also based on academic research. We have many scholars among our volunteers: sociologists, psychologists, researchers of religions and cultures. We all work together to improve and upgrade our capabilities and our insight, and also advise similar units abroad.

Ofer Shahar, the head of the Israel Police Crisis Negotiation Unit.

For example, the negotiation unit of the Swiss police is in close touch with us. They have a unique problem. Many Swiss nationals volunteer internationally for various humanitarian groups or other NGOs, and some of them find themselves in dangerous African countries, where they are kidnapped. They are not sufficiently familiar with the culture there, especially in Muslim countries. We try to assist them to create a profile – to understand the background, to know what can be useful when you’re talking with a kidnapper.

‘Nothing is all right’

How do things proceed when someone threatens suicide? What happens when your unit arrives on the scene?

It starts as a police event in every respect. We might get a call about a person who is standing on the roof of a building, and the officers who take the call will go to the scene and manage the crisis initially. Every police officer is trained to cope at a basic level with people in distress – about what to say to them.

What do you say?

What you don’t say is that everything will be all right. Nothing is all right for a person who wants to jump off a building. You don’t promise him anything. Let’s say he says, “Give me a million shekels to cover what I owe the bank and I’ll come down.” You must not say, “All right.” That will only aggravate his condition. In the next stage, more officers arrive at the scene – those whom we have trained. Their job is to contain the situation, to understand it and to work toward behavioral modification. But slowly.

How does that play out? How do you persuade a person who has nothing to lose that he does have something to lose?

Imagine you’re entering a dark tunnel. The farther you get from the entrance the darker it becomes, and at a certain point, when you look back you won’t see any light at all, because you’re already deep inside. That’s how he feels. All is lost and he’s in the darkness. I want to show him that there is light, even at the other end of the tunnel. We will move together toward that light. And we will do it slowly, and with small steps. We will not lead him to it directly. First we need to build trust.

How do you present yourself to that person?

I introduce myself by name; my first goal is to hear the person’s name. When I remember the name and use it during the conversation, I am sending him a message that he is important to me. Even if he gives me a fictitious name, I will respect it. If he wants me to call himself Captain Nemo, I will call him Captain Nemo.

Where are you, physically? Do you usually see the person you are talking to? Does he see you?

If he’s standing on a balcony or on a roof, we will get as close as possible. I will go up to the roof, stand on an adjacent balcony – I just want him to see me, hear me, feel that I have come to help him and that I am there for him. I want to see him. To see his body language. There are many nuances that I am mindful of. In cases where a family member calls to report that a relative is threatening to put an end to his life, then we will conduct the negotiation by phone.

We also conduct negotiations online, especially with adolescents. That is extremely challenging. You have no idea whom you’re actually talking to; your toolbox ranges from limited to nonexistent. You don’t know if the girl you’re talking to is really a teenager; if the photo [i.e., her profile or another image] in which she’s seen, let’s say, cutting herself is authentic.

Police officers trying to keep a man from jumping off a building in New York’s Time Square.

‘There is life’

What do you know when you reach the scene? Do you know something about what happened to the person? What the trigger was?

We understand that there is a background – although in the first stage we have no idea what that is; and that there was a trigger, which we also have to discover. What pushed this person, at this specific time, into this event? Someone who is in economic distress has probably experienced prolonged hardship, but if the bank blocked his account just that morning – that’s the trigger. So, first we will try to find a response to the initial trigger.

The conversation will be along the lines of: Is it worth losing your life over a bank account? I will try to convey a clear message to the person: There is life. There are people who love him. There are children. There are friends. There is always something important to live for. When we understand more thoroughly what’s going on, we can try to tap that, too.

It’s important to make it clear that we are not therapists. I’m married to a clinical psychologist. She takes a problem and breaks it down into its constituent elements, going back to a client’s early childhood. I have no time for that. A person is standing on the roof and wants to jump. I need to get him down from there.

And while you are talking to him, others are working to collect additional information. To understand what’s happening.

When I get to an event, we set up a command post. The intelligence desk provides me with information relevant to the event. Let’s say a person is barricading himself in his bedroom. There’s tactical intelligence – which floor, type of door, etc. – but that doesn’t interest me. I’m much more interested in whether the person ate recently, because a hungry person behaves differently in extreme situations. I need intelligence that will help me create a connection with him.

We had one teenager who climbed a cellular antenna and said he was going to kill himself. The intelligence we collected indicated that he was really interested in soccer, a fan of a particular team and a particular player. We built up the conversation on the basis of that information.

We talked about the team and about the players and how he felt about them, and about how much fun it is to win and how it feels to lose. About how there’s disappointment, yes, but you don’t commit suicide because of a loss, because tomorrow there’s another game and maybe you’ll win that, and if this was a bad year, you could still win the championship next season.

At a certain point the person in the negotiating team that was in charge of the case asked the teenager what he thought the team’s captain would say if he were there, and how difficult and sad it would be for him to see his fan, who is so important to him, in this situation. Little by little we succeeded in moving him to a place where we wanted him, and fortunately he came down safe and sound.

Not only is what you say very important, but also what you are careful not to say. Could you talk a little about this?

In our terminology, we call it anchors and land mines. If I want to get you to like me, and I know you like chocolate cake, I will talk to you about chocolate and recipes. But if an hour ago you were slapped with a fine for talking on the phone while driving, and you’re irritated with the police officer, it would be stupid of me to tell you that the police officer was right, or to start talking about how dangerous it is to speak on the phone while driving.

Not even white lies

Are there other concrete examples?

We had a case of a person who was about to go abroad with friends, and at the airport discovered there was a stay-of-exit order against him, because of a conflict with his wife. He returned home, barricaded himself inside with a weapon and threatened to shoot the people around him. It was a very complex episode. In such a situation you have to be very judicious, very relaxed, and provide the person with an emotionally stable base. You mustn’t get carried away. If he curses the courts and the judges, you can’t say, “You’re right, they’re lowlifes.” We also don’t lie.

People stand outside a Beer Sheva bank where four people were killed during a robbery that escalated into a hostage situation, May 20, 2013.

At all? Ever? Not even white lies?

Never. Lying is forbidden. In the case of that person, I noted that he frequently mentioned his relationship with his parents in our conversation. At a certain stage they arrived at the scene. One of the officers with me said, “Listen, his mother says that if she can speak to him, he will be persuaded immediately.” My gut instinct was that we shouldn’t bring in the mother – something in the conversation with him, about the way he kept mentioning his parents, turned on a red light.

In the end, it turned out that the rift with his wife was related to his parents’ involvement in his life, that there had been some property dispute and he was trapped between his wife and his parents.

That incident ended peacefully, but when we analyzed it afterward we realized that the mother in that situation was a land mine: If she had entered the arena, she would have tipped the scales – in the wrong direction.

Let’s talk for a moment about what’s known as stalling for time. Many times your dialogue with a person in distress is aimed at doing just that.

I don’t really like that term. Time is something relative. If someone barricades himself in his house, doesn’t have a weapon, is not threatening anyone and his psychological state is really bad, I’ll take as much time as necessary to calm him down. But if he’s standing on a bridge over the Ayalon [Freeway in Tel Aviv] and blocking traffic for half the country, then time is a completely different element.

During one kidnapping incident we started to talk to a person who presented himself as a go-between on behalf of the kidnappers. At one stage he said something like, “There’s no problem, then – the person we took will die from diabetes.” Suddenly the whole dimension of time took on a completely different meaning: We understood that if the person who’d been kidnapped didn’t get their medication, things would get really complicated.

I read an interview with someone who locates and recruits negotiators for the NYPD unit. He said something interesting: that he was looking for people who had experienced serious trauma – loss, a formative event that had changed the course of their life. His working assumption was that these traits would make it easier for them to establish contact with people in distress.

I don’t have a definitive answer to that. Naturally, if I have experienced such distress, it might prove to be a certain advantage, but on the other hand we also hear about negotiators who have been forced to cope with situations that were indeed related to their personal world and experience – and they paid a price for it. Listen, we see rough things. It’s no joke. These situations confront you with harsh realities, with your own inner, emotional world.

What about sharing, which is one of the fastest ways to gain trust? Do you share from your world?

Of course. For example, we had an event where I spoke with a soldier who was deeply troubled. Listening to him – and I listened very attentively – I understood exactly why things were so hard for him. His relations with his commanding officer were absolutely terrible. I really got it. All of us did army service and had difficulties. I told him that in talking to him I was reminded of my son, who was also in the army, and I was thinking about the difficulties he was experiencing. I intimated to the soldier that he was at least as important to me as my son.

You said earlier that your unit doesn’t lie. That is truly important, because the temptation surely exists – due to the situation, the time pressure, the fear that things will escalate – to make a promise of something. To resolve it in some way. Even to say something like, “I understand you, this has happened to me, too.”

Shahar.

You don’t lie. Anyone who lies will be removed from the unit. Period. That is an ironclad rule. Furthermore, people who are under mental stress are an amazing polygraph. They spot a lie immediately. The more relaxed you are, the better I can tell you stories and, in street lingo, "play with your mind." But when you are under great tension you are very sensitive to fluctuations.

Let’s talk a little about listening as a tool – specifically, what’s known as “active listening.”

We teach [members of the unit] how to get people to talk and how to encourage the person opposite you to enter into a conversation. There are all kinds of techniques of mirroring, aimed at giving the interlocutor the feeling that others are listening to him and taking an interest in him. If I don’t truly take an interest in what you are telling me, no nodding of the head or murmuring will help. You will know I am faking.

If my people are incapable of displaying genuine, deep compassion, if they do not succeed in connecting authentically with the immense pain someone feels in a crisis, I can teach them active listening forever, for all the good it would do. I do not make light of theories. We teach theories all the time. But learning theory doesn’t make you a negotiator. If I come to the scene and am unable to feel or show compassion, it’s worthless.

I read an interview with Gary Noesnor, the expert who conducted the initial, successful negotiations with the David Koresh cult in 1993 in Waco, Texas. He says that the primary condition is self-control. The negotiator must not lose his cool, not even for a second.

I think that a person who is in absolute control, who doesn’t betray or externalize any emotion, is actually likely to be less effective. You need to be in control, but you can’t be a robot. It’s perfectly all right, and it also definitely happens, that negotiators cry on the job. I find nothing wrong with that. We have never replaced a negotiator because he cried.

We are driven by emotions. What I look for is the ability to connect to that emotion without falling apart, to address the person and offer him a different reality. For example, we had a situation involving a woman who was incurably ill. What could I possibly say to her? That tomorrow she would wake up and everything would disappear? My role now, in that crisis, is to let her know that tools exist that can help her cope. I reiterate that I am not a therapist, I arrive at the point of crisis and want to help.

If I behave like a robot, I can’t help. If I am not capable of showing a basic ability to deal with reality, I will not be able to help. The event with that woman moved me deeply. Around the same time, we were dealing with a similar illness in my close milieu, and I couldn’t help thinking about how we were doing, how we were coping.

What happens when you don’t succeed?

It’s rough. Again, fortunately, I am married to a psychologist; when I come home there is someone to talk to, I can unburden myself. But it is unbearably difficult. At the scene, when we see we are not succeeding, we constantly look for a new approach. Everything is very fluid. Very volatile. We can take all kinds of steps – switch negotiators, change the atmosphere – we have all manner of tools to use. But there is one thing we do not do: We do not give up. Ever. We have never yet given up.

A few years ago, a person entered a bank in Be’er Sheva after he had already shot and killed a number of people. He locked himself in the washroom with a woman hostage. For almost an hour our negotiator stood next to the door and spoke to him. The person didn’t respond even once. But for a whole hour [the negotiator] stood outside the door. We do not give up. We will talk to locked doors. And we will speak with people who don’t listen to us. And we will also talk on the phone, if there is no other choice. We will never give up.

In that case, what did he say to him? What can you say to someone who committed robbery and murder? Didn’t he understand that he would not be returning home that day?

In that particular case, the negotiator introduced himself and explained that he was there because he was concerned, both for the kidnapper and for the person who was with him. That expression of concern is meaningful, because that person, too, the one who crossed a very critical line of shooting and murder – understands that he is still important to someone, and that we are there because he is important to us.

From our point of view, there is no difference between that harsh case and the case of a girl who wants to commit suicide because her friends are boycotting her. My role is to intervene in the crisis and bring about a small, minor change. I do not solve the problem; I cannot solve the problem. I tell them there is another way. There are other possibilities, other people who have been in this spot.

To the person with the incurable disease, I said that there were many other patients in her situation. Do they all take their life? If you are sick, aren’t you more important than other people? Does your family no longer love you? Do your friends no longer call you? Doesn’t your dog wait for you next to the door? People are waiting for you, love you. There is always something to talk about.

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