A Lesson In Extreme Negotiation: Negotiating With Kidnappers

By Kandarp Mehta and Guido Stein

This article is a case analysis based on real events. The case analyses how a young British man who was kidnapped by four delinquents, negotiated his way out of the situation. The article is written in an innovative style, mixing the first-person account of the protagonist of the story and the academic analysis of what the protagonist says. The article outlines strategies that work in case of a negotiation situation as critical as a kidnapping. 


What do you do when you have to negotiate in dire straits? How do you get out? Can negotiating skills help? In this article we want to address these issues and understand how negotiation skills can actually help you when you are in such a situation. This article is based on a real story and no characters are fictitious or imaginary. A young Britisher from English midlands underwent an ordeal of a kidnap. This article is about how he survived through sheer negotiating acumen. This article is a dual-voice article. It has been written like a documentary movie. We will see what happens to our protagonist through the first person account (italicised) and at different stages we will have an academic ‘background’ voice analysing our protagonist’s negotiation skill. The objective of this exercise is to purely focus on the negotiation process and not to draw any conclusion on governance, politics, or ethnicities of individuals involved in the incident.


The Kidnap

It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon on 20th April 1993, and I was planning to go to the library to study for my upcoming A ‘Level exams. However, at 12:45pm on the way to the library in the center of Leicester city, UK, I was kidnapped (abducted in my car). I was standing at traffic lights in heavy traffic and out of nowhere there was a black man knocking on my passenger window, he asked me to unlock the door and let him in. I said ‘no’ and suddenly another man reached in my window (which was half open) and unlocked the rear door of the car – within 2 seconds three big men climbed into the back seat of the car – they quickly unlocked the front passenger door and the last gang member got into the front passenger seat. My door was locked by the man sitting behind me and I was told just to drive and immediately take a side road. In a panic and state of confusion – I just did what I was told…within a mile I ended up in a rough estate and was told to park the car. So now, within 2 minutes of these men (all about 17-19 years old) jumping into the car, I was in parking lot in a rough area that I did not know with 4 fairly large men in the car – 2 of African descent (one of them clearly the gang leader (person A) and the other person B), 1 of Indian-subcontinent origin (person C) and 1 Caucasian (person D). They then pulled out a sharp long knife and said that person D would hurt me with it if I did not comply (person A also highlighted a large wound on person D’s shoulder that occurred a few nights before from a previous altercation with 5 men in which he was injured by a large machete, but yet he still survived and won the fight!) – so now they had established absolute fear and highlighted that these young men lived in a completely differently world from me. They wanted money and I said I would give them anything they wanted, but to just let me go. They asked me to empty my pockets and, in the wallet, they found a few bank cards on which I wrote the respective PIN codes on the back of each. They also ransacked the car (it was a standard 4 door Volkswagen Golf) and in the glove box, they found the family house keys, my driving license which had our home address (which was a remote farmhouse approximately 30 minutes outside Leicester). They also found a credit card statement for my father – they immediately recognised his company’s name (which was well recognised in the middle of the UK) and realised that our address was in an affluent part of Leicestershire – so now they wanted more from each account (if not all). They now said that they knew my address and would find me if I tried to escape. They reiterated that they would let me go once they had the money that was in the accounts. Two of the men (person B & C) then walked off to a cash machine to get the money whilst I sat in the car with A & D.


ACADEMIC BREAK I – Where there is no negotiation, create one

I know that you are already hooked. Is this a negotiation situation? Let’s try to understand. When does negotiation happen? Negotiation happens when there is an exchange, where there is a possibility of a give and take. The first lesson is of course, ‘Don’t carry your father’s credit card statement around, especially he is a respected entrepreneur’ or ‘Don’t give your credit card statement to your young children, if you are a respected entrepreneur’. But other than that we see a simple exchange. The protagonist gives his cards so that the kidnappers get money and let him free. In a situation like this, it is important to create a negotiation. It is important to be able to demand something by offering something. Let’s see if our protagonist is able to do that.



However, when the two guys came back from the cash machine, they said the cards didn’t work (in the confusion, I gave incorrect codes). They thought that I was lying and hiding money from them (I honestly wasn’t). It was at this point that person A & B decided to step out of the car and stood at the front near my side and I overhead them saying that they should just take what they can and kill me. My senses cleared more, and I realised that they were serious about the threat and that I had to do something. I considered running but realised that this was their area and that they knew people here – I was a stranger in their area and that action would not bode well for me. I then realised that I should shake any emotions off and negotiate my way out of this situation. When person A & B got back into the car – I decided to begin the negotiation by offering to do whatever it takes to get them the money, even close the accounts if I had to – surprisingly, I did not mention saving my life – as I realised that their main focus was the money and actually harming me is a byproduct of what they were after. They took some time to discuss my offer outside and realised that from my voice and facial expressions that I was genuine and really wanting to ensure we reached an amicable agreement. They all got back into the car and agreed.

I had to constantly adjust my position as I was still exploring the relationship and at every turn, I was discovering new pieces of information. However, our respective options also rapidly changed as we left the car park – because as we left the car park, person A took another look at my driving license (with my home address on) and now inquired about who was at our family home. It was at this point that I realised that their intentions were changing (for the worse) and I could see that they were now intending to take this situation to a far more severe and dangerous situation – my father was alone at home and our home was in a remote location. My mind suddenly sharpened and knew that I had to step up the negotiation tactics and offer more alternatives to prevent this. It was also at this point, that I thought, if they reject the next option, then it is better to escape and pray that I get away – and risk getting hurt without them reaching my family home. I now focused on giving options to them in the hope I could avoid a situation that could be dangerous for my family.


ACADEMIC BREAK II – Determine Alternatives and Agreements

In every negotiation the negotiator needs to ask the question to oneself, ‘what is the best alternative if this negotiation doesn’t succeed?’ The BATNA establishes quite often a reference for you.

Let’s try to understand, what happened. the worst alternative. In fact, negotiating became all the more relevant and important because the protagonist has to now fight for his life. In negotiations, the concept of BATNA (Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement) is very important. In every negotiation the negotiator needs to ask the question to oneself, ‘what is the best alternative if this negotiation doesn’t succeed?’ The BATNA establishes quite often a reference for you. However, in case of extreme situations, the negotiator should also consider the WATNA (Worst Alternative to Negotiated Agreement). Quite often, thinking of the worst alternative creates a strong incentive for a dialogue or a negotiation. In his book ‘Power of a Positive No’, acclaimed mediator William Ury (2007) describes his negotiation experience in Venezuela in the year 2003. He states that in one of the meetings between two quarrelling factions (pro and anti-establishment), he started the mediation by asking from both the groups to first imagine a person that each one present truly loved or cared for. Then he asked each one to imagine what is the worst that could happen to this individual they cared for, if they did not resolve the conflict and went ahead with the conflict. Here also the worst alternative to the negotiation (and the most likely one) is that of death. This immediately enhances the value of a negotiation. However, to look at one’s own worst alternative would be a mistake. In any negotiation one must also focus on the value one could create for the other side. One tool for such analysis is Zone of Possible Agreements or simply known as ZOPA (Sabenius, 1992). ZOPA delineates all the possible agreements that can happen. Let’s try to understand the zone of possible agreements (ZOPA) for both the sides and see how it has changed.

In a situation of negotiation, before entering the conflict situation, one needs to look at the relative power one may have over the other side.

So, as we can see that the best possible outcome for the captive is to stay alive and for the kidnappers it’s important to get money. We don’t really see any conflict there. However, if the captive focuses on saving money or not paying them, he enters in a direct conflict. In a situation of negotiation, before entering the conflict situation, one needs to look at the relative power one may have over the other side. Who is powerful here? Needless to say, the person with the gun. However, if we concentrate on the need, i.e. (How I can help you get what you want – here money), we avoid the power struggle and the unnecessary temptation of using power. Let’s go back to our protagonist. So what can he do?  Let’s look at the facts.

1. He has been kidnapped by a group of four.
2. They could not get money from him at the first instance.
3. Now they are discussing that they want to kill him.

As we can see it is not actually in kidnappers’ interest to kill him. However, it is also a bit too much to expect them to be perfectly rational human beings (especially in the middle of a very irrational kidnapping). The best option for our captive is to start the conversation. The most important objective here is to create an exchange and allure the other side to engage. in extreme situation, what really matters is, to bring the other side to the negotiation table.   

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About the Authors

Kandarp Mehta is a PhD from IESE Business School, Barcelona. He has been with the Entrepreneurship Department at IESE since October 2009. His research has focused on creativity in organisations and negotiations. He frequently works as consultant with startups on issues related to Innovation and Creativity. His doctoral thesis was about the process of creativity in the context of motion picture industry. He has conducted several Negotiation and Creativity Workshops for corporate executives and management students in Europe, USA and India. Before coming to Spain, he was at ICFAI Business School in India where he taught Corporate Finance. He is also actively involved with Creative Industries. He has been actively involved with theatre, as a director, script writer as well as a performer. Several movies and short films where he participated during his PhD dissertation have been exhibited at prestigious film festivals.

Guido Stein is Professor in the Department of Managing People in Organisations and Director of Negotiation Unit. He is partner of Inicia Corporate (M&A and Corporate Finance). Prof. Stein is a consultant to owners and management committees of companies. Member of The International Academy of Management and the International Advisory Board MCC (Budapest) and is a collaborator with People and Strategy Journal, Corporate Ownership & Control , Harvard Deusto Business Review, The European Business Review and Expansion. Prof. Stein’s books in English include “Managing People and Organisations: Peter Drucker’s Legacy”, “Now What? Leadership and Taking Charge” and co-author of “Keys to Leadership Success”. He is now working on a book, “Ambidextrous Negotiator” with Kandarp Mehta. 

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