By Luigi Carlo De Micco
Negotiation expert in special situations.
Book: "How you get what you want"
Success Case: An African Impasse
I wrote this book with a view to familiarizing you with a new communication method that I feel yields amazing results. By “amazing,” I mean that this method can totally transform a person’s life, open new horizons in the personal domain, and bring relationships to a higher level. And what’s more – and above all – this method can potentially bring about heretofore unimagined changes in the working world, and even in international relations.
On reading this, you might wonder, “Is all this really possible just by means of communication?” I think it is; I also feel that I have proven via numerous examples in this book that my proposed method actually works.
My method will empower you to get what you want, and I honestly feel that this is an absolutely reasonable and completely truthful claim. For this method provides you with the tools you need to change people’s attitudes – toward yourself for example – and ideally to convince people to adopt the attitudes that suit you. This is quite a potent instrument, as I’m sure you can imagine.
As I said, I’ve tested this method out repeatedly, including in life or death situations that I happened to find myself involved in – situations that moved me deeply and which, to tell you the truth, have remained with me to this day.
I’d now like to completely change the subject, if I may.
However, the matter I will now discuss is different in appearance only, for the central issue here is likewise communication – more precisely a specific communication method.
One of the most unforgettable and tragic events I have ever experienced, and at the same time a perfect illustration of how communication can be a weapon – an event that changed some of my most ingrained attitudes and behavior patterns – was the abduction of a close friend of mine. Please note that some details of the story that follows have been changed out of respect for my friend’s family.
My friend, whom I shall call Tom Smith, was the victim of an abduction. Normally such events are the stuff of detective novels, but I can assure you that the emotions you experience when you yourself are suddenly confronted with such a situation bear no resemblance to what you may feel when reading a fictional account of a kidnapping. Tom traveled to an African country in pursuit of a very plausible sounding and lucrative business opportunity that turned out to be fraudulent (I feel it is best to refrain from naming the country in question and shall refer to it as “Country X”). When Tom was abducted, the Smiths immediately contacted the local German consulate, which refused to provide any assistance on the grounds that, as they saw it, the abduction was a legal matter that had nothing to do with human rights.
After two weeks of anxious waiting, the Smiths made contact with Tom’s abductors, who indicated their willingness to negotiate. Tom’s captors, who demanded a 500,000 dollar ransom, also indicated their willingness to negotiate with two attorneys the Smiths had retained and who, for a very high fee, came to Africa and met with Tom’s captors. The attorneys of course advanced legal arguments, i.e. they cited international law, threatened Tom’s captors with severe legal consequences, and tried to bluff by claiming that the government was supporting their efforts to free Tom. But unfortunately, after an only 20 minute meeting with Tom’s captors or their representatives, they sent the Smith’s attorneys packing.
It wasn’t until a month later, when Tom’s wife, Anne, called to tell me what had happened, that I learned of the ensuing tragic events. At the time, Tom was suffering from a very severe medical condition – probably an acute case of tropical fever – for which his captors failed to provide adequate treatment. Anne was very worried about Tom and urgently asked for my help and had already done all she possibly could.
The last time she’d spoken to Tom on the phone, he’d mentioned my name a number of times and asked Anne to contact me. So she pleaded with me to help, and to try to negotiate with Tom’s captors. Anne told me that she was willing to pay a ransom, but that there was no way she’d ever be able to find the 500,000 dollars Tom’s captors had demanded. However, with the help of friends and family, she had managed to get together 120,000 dollars.
Notifying the authorities was not an option, since this would not yield the desired results. In fact, people in the know had warned us against involving the authorities, as they might try to get a cut of the action, which would make it even more difficult to obtain Tom’s release.
So needless to say this was a pretty horrendous situation for all concerned. There was no question in my mind that I would of course do everything I could to obtain Tom’s release. But at the same time, I unexpectedly found myself shouldering a type of responsibility that was new to me: responsibility not for a business deal, but for a human life, and the life of a close friend to boot.
First off, I reflected deeply on what had happened thus far and what missteps might perhaps have been made. Then I gathered all information I could about Country X and the type of abduction scenario we were facing here. I discussed the situation extensively with the Smith’s lawyers, which as noted Tom’s captors had sent packing. The attorneys advised me to bring this outrageous event to the attention of the competent international authorities, as well as the media, so as to focus public attention on the case and perhaps even get government officials involved. The attorneys also advised me to exert greater pressure on Tom’s captors, whom the attorneys felt were clearly supported by higher-ups.
With Tom’s captors, the two attorneys had assumed their accustomed role of prominent legal experts who clearly charged very high fees. But what they had failed to reckon with was that they might be strengthening Tom’s captors’ position, since the latter must have realized that they’d captured a big fish; for (they probably reasoned) anyone who could afford such fancy attorneys must be loaded.
But unfortunately quite the opposite was true. Tom had suffered financial and business reverses in recent years; and in all likelihood it was the need for money that had prompted him to get involved in such an obviously very risky situation that he presumably would have steered clear of under different circumstances.
In short, the situation had gotten off on the wrong track, since Tom’s captors were under the totally false impression about their victim’s financial situation – an impression that could not of course have been significantly altered by what had transpired thus far. To some extent, the structures were fossilized. And what’s more, Tom’s captors had indicated that they would only allow further contact if the ransom was paid.
The ransom being demanded by Tom’s captors was, as previously mentioned, completely unreasonable in view of Tom’s financial situation; but for his captors the demand made perfect sense, based on what they “knew” – or thought they knew; plus time was of the essence in view of Tom’s deteriorating health. And because of the way things were in Country X, normal legal channels could not be used. Thus this was genuinely a life or death situation.
So I got right down to work, as there was no time to lose. First I spent an entire night googling similar cases. Then I called every friend and acquaintance I could think of and asked them if they were familiar with such situations. In short, I gathered all information that I felt could be relevant or helpful in any manner whatsoever. I also decided to travel to Country X and have a look around in the city where Tom had been abducted.
Virtually everyone I spoke to about Tom’s abduction said that he was probably being held in the city where he’d been abducted. My plan was to get a feel for the place and the people, to plan a possible escape if I could secure Tom’s release, find hospitals or physicians, and obtain information concerning bodyguards or private security services.
But unfortunately, I was unable to carry out this plan. The first time I arrived in Country X, I was told that my visa was invalid and that this matter could not be resolved at the airport. After a very brief discussion, two officials escorted me back to the very aircraft on which I’d arrived – truly a nightmare scenario. I flew back to Spain (my base of operations at the time) and immediately went to the embassy of Country X in Madrid, where I had a very congenial conversation with the ambassador. He promised me that I would be given a new, valid visa within three days.
So I waited in Madrid for three days – needless to say, on tenterhooks the whole time. I then went back to the embassy, where I was told that I could not be issued a visa on the grounds that certain information appeared to be missing. When I asked what information that might be, I was told none too politely to submit the information in writing. Despite my insistence, the person I spoke to refused to tell me which information was missing. I was merely told to submit the missing documents. And needless to say, the congenial ambassador I’d met with previously was travelling on the day of my visit and could not be reached.
The situation seemed hopeless. So I gritted my teeth and decided to try my luck at Country X’s embassies in Paris and Berlin; but of course I ran up against the same brick wall there as I had in Madrid – presumably, I surmised, because my name had been placed on some kind of blacklist. This surmise turned out to be correct, for as I later found out one of Tom’s lawyers had mentioned my name to Tom’s abductors, thus dooming my efforts to assist him. But then fate stepped in.
TWIST OF FATE
I’d gotten to the point where I was just about ready to throw in the towel when I unexpectedly came across a newspaper article about abductions in Latin America, a region whose culture I was very familiar with thanks to my numerous trips there. In Latin America abductions are more or less a daily occurrence. The article in question was about a company which, in the event of an abduction, acts as a mediator between the abductors and the victim’s family (or the relevant company whose employee has been abducted). In other words, a kind of real estate agency for abduction.
Suddenly I felt totally energized, as this struck me as a smart approach that merited further consideration.
Of course the two attorneys had also tried to act as go-betweens but had never really assumed the role of mediators, since they were the paid representatives of one of the parties and would thus be regarded by Tom’s captors not as neutral, but rather as having aggressive intent.
The article also said that hostage situations are generally conducted by phone or radio. Prior to my attempt to enter Country X, I had thought of contacting his captors by phone to be on the safe side, but I later abandoned this idea on the grounds that there’s no substitute for face to face contact. But the fact that it is nonetheless possible to resolve such situations via phone or radio communication gave me renewed hope; and so I began imagining how such conversations might go.
This gave me the idea of making verbal contact with Tom’s captors in such a way as to broker a deal between the parties – and thus to some extent act as an advocate for the captors. I realized that in order for me to convince Tom’s captors to make a deal – which was far from being their original intention – they would have to regard me as a plausible interlocutor.
I thought about what go-betweens normally do and what’s expected of them, which made me increasingly aware of the advantages of the role of a party that acts solely as a go-between in a business setting. For such a person intervenes between two parties and normally has a stake in the outcome – namely earning as high a commission as possible. In other words, go-betweens have a vested interest in closing a deal, since their commission depends on it. Thus go-betweens, unlike attorneys (who always collect a fee even if they lose the case), need to close deals in order to earn a paycheck. This success is dependent on the go-between not being a party to the deal, while at the same time he must give both parties the impression that he’s on their side.
A few days after I had chewed this over some more and had imagined possible conversations with the abductors, I managed to make contact with them. I had instructed the attorneys to tell the abductors that they would be withdrawing from the case effective immediately due to the fact that (a) Tom’s family was in arrears on their payments to the attorneys; and (b) the family had decided to retain a professional negotiator to handle the case. This plan was greatly aided by the fact that no precise ransom for Tom’s release had been negotiated, and thus I would be able to position myself as robustly as possible as a neutral go-between.
In our first conversation, which like all subsequent conversations were conducted via Skype so as to avoid traceable local phone calls, I gave Tom’s anonymous abductors very little information about myself. I merely said that my name was John, that I was based in Latin America, and that I was a professional go-between.
Early on in the conversation, I asked my interlocutor (who amazingly spoke perfect, accent-free English) how much he wanted, and in so doing indicated that I wanted to know this for the simple reason that I was working on a commission basis. This tactic quickly established, for my interlocutor, that he could trust me to at least some extent (I gathered that he was representing Tom’s abductors but was not one of them). My interlocutor indicated that the ransom was 500,000 dollars. To this I responded that my commission was 30 percent and that I wouldn’t go any lower than that. I also made it clear that I expected payment to be effected in cash only, and at the latest by the time Tom was handed over.
My interlocutor then said that he needed to look into all this, whereupon I requested that the next conversation be held with someone with the authority to make a decision on the spot, since, I told him, any other approach would be an unfortunate waste of time, and that time, after all, is money. My interlocutor then asked me if I wanted to know how Tom was doing, to which I answered that I didn’t care one way or the other since I didn’t know him and didn’t want to meet him either. I said that all that interested me was whether Tom was still alive, since of course payment would only be effected for “live goods.” And, I added, since I assumed that he too would only get paid if “live goods” were involved, this issue was moot for both sides.
Before ending the conversation, I set up a time with him for our next Skype interaction.
This strategy worked. Clearly the other side had bought my cold-hearted go-between persona with no agenda of his own or emotional axe to grind. I had successfully created the impression in my interlocutor’s mind that all I was interested in was my commission. In my next three conversations, I made a point of only talking about my commission, the payment modality, and what would happen next. During the second conversation I talked to the same person, but he was authorized to provide an immediate response to any decision-related matters. This made me realize that there must be another person involved who had the authority to make decisions on the spot. Up to this point I had deliberately avoided any discussion of the exact amount of the ransom. But if the truth be told, at the outset I didn’t have the foggiest idea how I was going to convince Tom’s captors to reduce their demand from 500,000 to 120,000 dollars.
That being said, I had accomplished one main goal of my plan, which was that by presenting myself as a cold-hearted go-between I had wormed my way into kidnappers’ system and had clearly demonstrated to them that I was on their side. We all had the same goal – namely to make a deal as quickly as possible, and with the best possible conditions. As Tom’s abductors saw it, my sole aim was to obtain the highest possible ransom so as to guarantee myself a big fat commission, in whose regard I allowed my interlocutor to bargain me down to 20 percent, thus giving him an advantage and at the same time making him feel powerful.
The aftermath of the kidnapping I discussed at the beginning of this book revolved around the issue of communication, or rather a specific communication method, i.e. the way we see differing systems and the way differing systems see each other. But as you now know from reading this book, communication is a weapon that can modify even the most “hardened” behavior patterns. I will now take up this tragic story where I left off at the beginning of the book.
I never would have dreamed of taking responsibility for resolving this incident had I not been aware of the fact that my insights into communication and systems would be advantageous in certain respects; for I am certain, based on extensive personal and business experience, that my methods work. Although during this period I was often in a state of near despair at the thought that I was responsible for a human life, I also felt that there simply must be a way out of this impasse.
As you may recall, the original meeting between “Tom’s” attorneys and his captors lasted a mere 20 minutes, following which the kidnappers or their representative sent the attorneys packing.
Having read this book, you will now understand what went wrong. The two attorneys of course tried to make the kidnappers feel attacked, by pointing out to them the legal consequences of their illegal act. But unfortunately, this tactic only made the situation worse, for the attorneys had offended the kidnappers’ system, according to which the kidnappers were well within their rights to “practice” kidnapping, which for them was simply a kind of lucrative pastime.
It wasn’t until a month after the kidnapping, when Tom’s wife, Anne, called to ask for my assistance, that I learned of the ensuing tragic events. The situation was as follows: Notifying the local police or other authorities was not an option, since this would not yield the desired results in the country where this incident was unfolding, which I shall refer to as “Country X.” In some countries, unfortunately including Country X, the police and even high ranking government officials are part of the underworld system. We in the West should not allow ourselves to feel unduly smug in his regard, as this phenomenon is not unknown in our Euro-American cultures. For example, it is an incontrovertibly documented fact that during the Second World War, officials at the highest levels of the U.S. government had ties to the Mafia. What’s more, in some states up to 75 percent of police officers were being regularly paid off by drug bosses. All potentially incriminating paper trails of course disappeared after a few kingpins were nabbed.
But to return to our story...
I had in fact accomplished one main goal of my plan, which was that by presenting myself as a cold-hearted go-between I had wormed my way into the kidnappers’ system and was clearly on their side (or so they thought). We all had the same goal – namely to make a deal as quickly as possible, and with the best possible conditions. As Tom’s abductors saw it, my sole aim was to obtain the highest possible ransom so as to guarantee myself a big fat commission.
As regards the commission, I allowed my interlocutors to bargain me down in increments of up to 20 percent, thus giving them an advantage and at the same time enabling them to validate their power.
Thus did I worm my way into the kidnappers’ system, which completely accepted me.
During one of my conversations with the kidnappers, I suggested that we set some ground rules with a view to optimizing our communication. My interlocutors agreed to this.
What the kidnappers didn’t know, however, was that you can agree on new ground rules once you’ve been completely accepted into a system or have validated it.
The following ground rules were set: each party would only make promises it could keep; each party would be online for our meetings at the appointed time; and all communication would be conducted through me, which meant that the kidnappers would have no direct contact with Tom’s family. In exchange for this concession, I agreed that I would have no contact with Tom until he was handed over; and in order for the kidnappers to receive payment, they would have to provide a sign of life prior to the appointed handover time. I proposed this rule with a view to keeping my identity a secret, and to avoid having any third party becoming emotionally involved in the interaction, which could derail my entire strategy.
Apart from the fact that setting ground rules was advantageous for both parties, they also enabled me to not only worm myself into the kidnappers’ system but also to shape this system in consultation with them. Thus I was both inside and outside the system, which is the ideal position in such situations. The kidnappers, who truly believed that I was more or less completely on their side, accepted me as a “competent authority” for this situation.
Thus for the first time since I’d become involved in this incident, I began to breathe a little easier. But there was still one colossal problem that I needed to solve: persuading Tom’s kidnappers that the ransom they were demanding simply wasn’t available.
I then hit upon the idea of eliciting the desired response from the kidnappers directly. So I asked them if they felt that 500,000 dollars was realistic and realizable. They said they didn’t know, adding that they presumed Tom was an affluent businessman. Raising my voice considerably (something I’d never done with the kidnappers before), I asked them incredulously how they could possibly have failed to checked into Tom’s liquidity, and how they could possibly expect me to spend hours on the phone with them and do all this work if they hadn’t even bothered to see how much cash the guy they’d kidnapped was actually good for.
I could tell from the silence at the other end that I’d bowled a strike, and that someone at the other end was feeling disconcerted and unsure of himself. So my tactics were really working. My communication partner couldn’t of course give me a straight answer since he of course had not checked into Tom’s liquidity and presumably had no way of doing so. And that was exactly my goal. I wanted the kidnappers to start having doubts about their own presuppositions. So now, one of the key assumptions that formed the basis for the whole kidnapping system and the force thereof had been seriously undermined. Moreover, the strength signaled by my intimation of anger (raising my voice) indirectly conveyed the message that the kidnappers might lose me as their partner. The kidnappers, who had been sure all along that Tom had access to bundles of cash, now realized that they might have been wrong, thus leaving the door open for them to modify this assumption.
The only reason I was able to accomplish all this was that I had wormed myself into the kidnappers’ system, which meant that I could now cast doubt on and modify other ground rules. And that’s exactly what I set out to do.
I pretended to calm myself down and expressed understanding for the kidnappers’ mistaken and naïve assumption. I did this by stating that it’s of course no easy matter to check someone’s liquidity, particularly from their country. In other words, I needed to worm myself even further into their system. By way of a solution to this now completely unresolved issue, I volunteered to investigate Tom’s liquidity myself on the ground that this would be no problem for me from Europe. The kidnappers agreed to this proposal. We decided to “meet” again in three days, which is the time I said I needed to check Tom’s liquidity.
Unbeknownst to the kidnappers, I had become the decision maker in this situation.
I had frequent contact with Anne, who sometimes called me several times a day and understandably was growing increasingly impatient and anguished. All concerned were really feeling the pressure. I had a credit check done on Tom, who it turned out had debts and no cash, a circumstance that of course would help me prove that his liquidity situation was not good at all.
I planned to get to the heart of the matter during my next interaction with the kidnappers and discuss money. I was aware of the fact that regardless of what happened, I absolutely had to continue acting as though I were the kidnappers’ comrade in arms. And so I began the conversation with a provocation. I told them that I felt the whole situation appeared to be a bad joke, in view of the findings of the credit check on Tom, which I related to the kidnappers. I also e-mailed them the results of the credit check from an anonymous e-mail account. This brought the kidnappers down to earth with a crash. I had the feeling from the way they talked that they’d lost interest in the whole transaction. But on the other hand, the situation had reached an extremely critical point since it was clear to me that Tom was only valuable to the kidnappers if they knew they could get a ransom in exchange for letting him go.
I think this was when I briefly felt, for the first time, that I had lost control of the situation, which I was literally sweating out; for this was a matter of life and death. I had fought tooth and nail to become the kidnappers’ “comrade;” but now Tom had suddenly become financially worthless thanks to my latest tactical move – which had in fact put his life in danger.
So now I had to backpedal somewhat from the original (and as we have seen highly successful tactic), which had been to persuade the kidnappers that their captive was not going to bring them a huge ransom, as they’d assumed was the case. So I told them that as I’d invested a great deal of my valuable time in this project, I had no intention of coming away empty handed. I then proposed that I negotiate with the family and try to obtain the best deal I could for myself and the kidnappers, whom I told that Tom’s wife might be able to obtain some money from friends and relatives. To my relief, the kidnappers assented to this plan after I told them that I intended to wrap up the deal within three days and that otherwise they (and I) would have to simply forget the whole thing.
Here too, I needed to remain well embedded in the kidnappers’ system and see things from their standpoint, which was a simple matter, since all they wanted was a ransom.
As I realized that the kidnappers were having doubts about the whole transaction, it was all the more essential to make the actual ransom negotiation process look realistic. So on the first of the three days, I told the kidnappers that Tom’s family could get 70,000 dollars together on short notice. But I also made it clear to the kidnappers that as I felt that the 14,000 dollar commission I’d be getting out of the deal was far too low, I would pressure Tom’s family, on behalf of the kidnappers, to come up with a larger amount. By doing this, I strengthened my position within the kidnappers’ system still further.
On day two, I told the kidnappers that Tom’s family had agreed to pay 100,000 dollars, but at the same I intimated that I could probably obtain more than this.
On day three, the definitive amount became 120,000 dollars, which minus my 20 percent commission left 96,000 dollars for the kidnappers. I was hoping they’d agree to this right away, but they asked me to give them a day to think it over.
As you can imagine, that that night and the following day dragged by. And to top it all off, the kidnappers failed to appear for our 6 p.m. meeting on the following day. I ended up spending three hours waiting for them to come online, in an Internet cafe, which I used so as to conceal my identity from the kidnappers. But finally the Skype window appeared on the screen. The kidnappers logged on, and lo and behold, they agreed to the deal – at which point I almost levitated out of my chair.
Over the next few days, we made the necessary arrangements for Tom’s handover and for transferring the ransom money to the kidnappers. After Tom was handed over, thanks to the invaluable assistance of some local acquaintances of mine, he was flown to a Rome hospital, where his wife was anxiously waiting for him. Unfortunately, Tom was in a coma and in critical condition owing to the tropical fever he had contracted and the massive doses of sedatives he had been given.