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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What can I do?

I started thinking. What are my options?  In fact, I could only think of binary choices, life or death. While for them, I guess, it was also binary, to get money or not. All that could change was the degree. I may remain alive but with some pain or lot of pain while they may receive some money or lot of money.

It was at this point that I focused on gaining their trust. I started thinking, “What are our best case scenarios?”. For me, it was simple. My best case scenario was to stay alive and keep my family safe. For them, there was no limit. Is there any limit to one’s greed? I don’t think so. This realisation scared me. Understanding the difference and their needs, my main driver was to build a relationship with them.


Who is the leader?

From the point that they agreed to let me try and get them money, I decided to try and build contact and in turn some form of relationship that was based on trust. So, we left the car park I just drove and listened to their conversations and absorbed whatever I could so to remember any key bits of information if I needed it later. I was instructed to drive to the first bank by person A. As a complicit captive, I did as I was told. It was also at this point that I had established that this was the clear leader of the gang (and ironically the smallest in stature) – so now I knew who the Chief Negotiator was and whom I had to convince first for the rest to follow. This was the person whose trust I needed to gain. Person A would be the person I had to deal with and to establish respect with and it would be him that I would focus on to fill in the gaps in the mapping of our respective expectations.


Academic Break III – Avoid a play of positions

Be it a business negotiation or a negotiation in dire straits, trust is essential. How can one gain trust in a situation like this? Generally, in any negotiation, the conflict arises from opposite positions. For example, in a typical bargaining situation, where the only objective of the buyer is to pay as less as possible and the only objective of the seller is to get as much as possible, there is no trust and as a result the negotiation is dominated by counter arguments focusing on positions and doesn’t generate trust. In order to generate trust a negotiator needs to find a shared space. What could this shared space be? There are several possible options. First of all is to show that you are trying to solve the same problem as them. Another one, could be to highlight similarities. The third one could be to focus on future and avoid the conflicting positions.

In case of a negotiation with a team, establishing trust is even more difficult. This happens mainly because there are many members of the team. In this case, it is important to win the trust of the decision maker. That’s why it is important to identify the decision maker. As we see in this case our protagonist identifies a leader and tries to establish a connection with them. Back to the story now!


Exploring options

My first option was to offer closing the bank accounts and giving them however much I could. This option extended my time. However, when the family home suggestion was introduced (around 2:30pm), I knew something more had to be offered AWAY from the home. It was at this point that I remembered that as we were waiting for person B & C to come back from a cash machine, that person A & D were talking in the car about going to a party that person A was hosting at 6pm that evening (I figured out that they would need time to get ready and calculated that the latest they could be with me would be around 5pm) – so when they enquired more about where the house exactly was (they recognised the area but did not know the layout or exact location), I told them that it was at least an hours’ drive each way without traffic (in reality it was approx. 30 minutes) and that we had men working at our site and in our home. I gave them time to think and time to reflect myself on if they still decided to go – then, how would I make my escape out of the car – bearing in mind that the knife was held behind my car seat. However, I would rather risk my life than let these delinquent misguided nasty men near my family. Luckily, person A and B spoke out their thoughts and calculation of times. I sat and listened and in my mind was making various options that I could offer to divert their attention from our home now and potentially in the future (as they were also holding our house keys). In fact, I was working towards two scenarios very actively – firstly to keep them away from the home and secondly to get myself to safety.

I sensed that time was a key factor. They didn’t have enough time because it would expose them to the risk of getting caught. At the same time, they would like to feel that smooth texture of currency notes in their sweaty palms. So I started mentioning names of some banks and its branches. This brought their attention. I suggested some branches of the banks and gave them options to think about. They were thinking as to where to go first.

They decided to not go to the family home, so luckily our situation reverted to focus only on me. However, through this discussion, I was gaining a better relationship and fostering trust – I could sense this as they were now speaking more openly between them and revealing more information. I believed that they started to speak more freely for 1 of 2 reasons either (1) they felt trusted or (2) they were going to kill me at the end. For my sanity and realising that option 2 was irrelevant to 1 – so I decided to believe that they trusted me.


Academic Break IV – Analyse relative power and overcome imbalance of power

Growing up in India, Kandarp (one of the co-authors) read a story in his Gujarati (language) text book. Once a peace-loving gentleman with a very lanky constitution was forced to go and do traditional Indian wrestling. The guy, upon seeing the tall and stuffy opponent, thought this was end of his life. When the opponent came to attack the thin gentleman laid himself down gently. The counterpart went back and started the play again. The same thing happened. When this happened repeatedly the wrestler got angry and said “why do you keep lying down?”. The gentleman responded, “Isn’t that what you want? To push me down on the floor and win? I am letting you win. And keeping my bones intact.”

In every negotiation there are three primary sources of power; alternatives (Thompson, 2015), situation (Klinesmith, Kasser, & McAndrew, 2010) and time (Lim & Murnighan, 1994). Alternatives are the most important source. In a situation where a negotiator doesn’t have a stable alternative the negotiator would not be able to influence the outcome. Also quite often there are situational sources of power. For example, in this case the kidnapper obviously has more situational power because the kidnapper has the weapon and also the incentive to use it if needed. Finally, time is an important factor too. Here probably both the sides have equal power as both of them would probably like to get out of the situation quickly. (See table below)

In negotiation research we see something similar. Use of power at an inappropriate place doesn’t help. It has also been seen that having a weapon in hand increases a sense of power (Klinesmith et al, 2010) and an enhanced sense of power reduces the ability of rational decision making (Anderson & Galinsky, 2006). Especially in a position when there is an obvious imbalance of power, the one with disadvantage of power should not only avoid use of power-centered arguments but also dis-incentivise the use of the power for the other side. But how can this happen at all? First of all, with use of trust but then it should be followed with creativity. Creativity would consist in creating a common ground where the counterpart could see his objective being met and would also allow the negotiator meet his objective or avoid any unwanted outcome. Here we can see that creation of a new variable and how it avoids further conflict. The protagonist’s offer to take the kidnappers to the banks and close bank accounts creates a new common ground. It is important generate such options in any negotiation. There are two clear advantages of such a strategy. First, it helps create a common ground and helps avoid conflict. Second, even in case it would not create a common ground, it would give a better insight into the mindset of the counterpart and in understanding what the other side really wants.


Growing Trust

As time went by, their trust and respect for me grew.  – we visited 3 banks. Each time, I was escorted in with person D (he was physically huge) and in each bank I tried to close the accounts. What was interesting was that as person D and I were left alone for the first time and we were walking into the first bank, person D apologised and said that he didn’t realise what they were doing – he thought that they knew me and that was the reason why he unlocked the back door. I did not know whether to trust him or not – as he was the man with the knife, the huge scar and an obvious affinity for fighting. I said that it didn’t matter and that I wanted to do whatever I could to get them their money. Ironically, the banks realised what was going on and refused to close the accounts as they could see what was happening but they were also afraid to raise an alarm for my safety.

After visiting the 3 banks, I gained more trust in person D – and he also gained trust in me. Luckily, he relayed the message to the gang in the car that I was complying, doing what they wanted and that I was genuinely trying to close the accounts – the situation was changing and could see that they were becoming more relaxed. Their attention became less on the money and realised that I was a normal person (a human) who was just on his way to the library. When I came back to the car from the third bank, their faces were more relaxed. The frown and scowl on the face of the leader had disappeared now. For a moment that evil in the eye that was the main feature of his face, was slightly vanishing. Our conversation turned to more personal issues now. He started opening up to me. I was also genuinely interested in knowing these people a bit more. Why were they doing all this? What was the purpose? He started talking about his life and how he enjoyed being a DJ and why he and his gang did such criminal acts. In fact, it turned into an interview where he revealed a lot about him and the gang. He also revealed that the major driver was boredom and lack of recognition in life. I started agreeing how lack of recognition is an ordeal in such a competitive and diverse society. How being from a tough neighborhood deprives us of good options in life. They started looking at me as someone who understood them.

All this chit-chat did not change the fact that they were criminals who had kidnapped me and would not mind killing me if needed. For example, there was one incident that was quite revealing – we were waiting at a traffic light and I asked him/them what kind of people do they target? And just that moment, a young lady in a newish convertible BMW pulled up next to us – he looked at her in the car and said – ‘she deserves it!’. I realised that these immature men (if you can call them that) were just scandalous, disgusting and lacked any human morality. I just had to focus on reaching an agreement and getting out.


Academic Break V – Trust and Empathy

Once a common ground is established, it is very important to reinforce the trust. The best way to reinforce trust is through actions. Also, it is important not to take the trust for granted and be very diligent with the implementation.

Once a common ground is established, it is very important to reinforce the trust. The best way to reinforce trust is through actions. Also, it is important not to take the trust for granted and be very diligent with the implementation. That is what our protagonist is doing here. He is reinforcing trust through his actions. In the process he is getting to know the other side better. Most importantly he is establishing a relationship of empathy. He is changing the way the other side perceives him. In case of an extreme negotiation it is important that the counterpart stops seeing us as an adversary and start seeing us as a partner.


Creating an Agreement

I focused on the relationship and thought that eventually an informal agreement would be reached. I was cognizant that a turning point in the relationship had happened when person A said ‘you know – you are kind of cool – it’s a shame that we met this way, we could have hung out’ – I replied that I thought so too and we could still do if he wanted too…. (knowing that I never wanted to see any of them ever again!). The gang then discussed about what a shame it was and then asked me to drive each of them home!

The ironic part of this scary true story is that despite how this despicable and horrifying situation began, I built enough trust with them to the point, that around 5pm I did drive person A & B home and dropped C & D off where they first got into my car.

Thankfully, there was no follow up with them – but I was interviewed by Leicestershire Police for 4-5 hours and the car was analysed (fingerprints & DNA) a day later. I was told to stay out of the city for at least 3-4 months (also keeping the car out of the city – it was distinct color). My family were extremely shocked about what had happened – bearing in mind that the whole time when this situation happened, they believed I was studying quietly in the library.


Epilogue – Process of Negotiation

When English playwright John Heywood (The Phrase Finder, 2018) coined the expression, “All’s well that ends well” in mid 16th century, little he knew that he was coining one of the most popular proverbs in English language. However, in context of negotiation, it is not always true. Quite often a negotiation may have ended in an agreement but that agreement may not be stable or feasible in the long run. Interesting thing about this negotiation story is that by staying focused on the negotiation, without losing patience, without losing control over emotions; a young man escaped his way out of a very tough situation.

If we have to identify the factors that made this negotiation in dire straits conclude positively, we can mention the following.

1. Focusing on the objective: In a situation where the possible outcome could be as fatal as losing life, it is important not to lose focus on the objectives. Tense negotiation situations quite often create a great degree of emotional stress which creates distractions. Here, as we can see, despite being felt threatened for life, our protagonists did not lose focus on the objective. 

2. Trust and empathy: Another very important factor in this entire exercise is that of trust and empathy. As we have already discussed, it is important in such occasions to create trust. Trust comes from credibility. One must look like someone who would do what he says. Trust also comes from consistency. Being consistent between speech and action, for example is essential to generate trust. Also in order to be trustworthy it is important to empathise and communicate one’s empathy. For example, in this case, when the captive shares the opinion of the kidnappers and recognises their emotion of having suffered in tough neighborhoods, it shows that he is trying to see the situation from the other side’s perspective. That conversation of empathy played a very crucial role in the entire process. 

3. Process is Paramount: Last but not the least, the focus of the process. Negotiation is a skill and like any skill one needs to practice and polish your skills. If you are a professional player of any sport, you don’t play for the result, you play to win by doing better than the counterpart. Similarly, in a negotiation, it is important to stay focused and to negotiate better than the counterpart. However, for that it is important to manage the negotiation process well. The steps of the negotiation process followed here by the captive are really effective. If we have to summarise the negotiation process in dire straits, this is how we can summarise it.

a. Identify the objectives – yours and your counterparts

As we saw the captive identified at the beginning that choices for both the sides were binary. Which made negotiation very important. 

b. Analyse power. Study power from three sources.

1. Alternatives
2. Situation
3. Time

In a situation where the counterpart has lot more power, it is important for the negotiator to keep negotiating and avoid any power games.

c. Generate creative options

The best way to avoid power games is by generating creative options. In order to generate creative options one needs the following.

1. identification of interests of the other side
2. control over emotions
3. identification of self-interest (and how they can be aligned with the interests of the other side)

d. Establish a common ground

Once we know clearly what options the other side prefers, we can easily see the common ground. Now the focus should be on not allowing the negotiation get out of that common ground.

e. Keep reinforcing trust

The best way to make sure that common ground is maintained is by reinforcing trust throughout the negotiation. It is important not to take for granted the initial trust. This can also happen through constant realisation of the objective we are working on.

f. Close an agreement

Last but not the least, it is important to close the conversation. It is important to conclude. It is important to bring the other side to agree on what we want by showing them what we are offering.

In the end, negotiating in dire straits is a challenge that can be overcome through focus on goals and process. Sun Tzu (771 BC)  writes in Art of War, “Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.”, thus a good negotiator should be prepared for each circumstance and in each situation, should be able to mold his negotiation style to achieve a victory. 


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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