How Antoinette Tuff Talked Down the Georgia School Gunman
What Professional Communicators Can Learn from Hostage Negotiation Tactics
This week I was absolutely captivated by Antoinette Tuff, the heroic bookkeeper who persuaded the Georgia school gunman to surrender to the police. I was also overwhelmed by curiosity: how was she able to talk him down? What communication techniques made her an effective unintentional hostage negotiator?
I asked Officer Joe Saluke – a 34 year veteran of the Dayton Police Department who spent 20 of those years on the Hostage Negotiation Team (HNT) – to provide his analysis. (Officer Saluke is also my father, so I have sought his opinion many times before.) He was so impressed by Ms. Tuff that he emailed the 9-11 audio to his HNT colleague to make sure it’s included in upcoming training. He had seen her tactics before – when he studied the work of NYC-based hostage negotiation pioneers Dr. Harvey Schlossberg and Capt. Frank Bolz. My dad broke it down:
She humanized herself to connect with the suspect and bring credibility. She intuitively recognized that she was dealing with a person who was experiencing a sudden and severe emotional crisis and related to him through her own experience caring for her special needs child. By demonstrating her ability to understand him, she quickly built a rapport. Officer Saluke noted that this was critical; she used empathy to not only save her own life but to transition herself from potential first victim to negotiator.
She guided him to make decisions rationally instead of emotionally. “He may or may not have a plan, but he’s emotional and irrational,” said Officer Saluke. “The only way you can restore rationality is by engaging his reasoning.” The suspect made a relatively simple request: contact the media. Ms. Tuff then calmly asked a series of questions that forced him to think about facts and logistics. She presented options for him to consider. She countered his belief that there was no peaceful resolution by pointing to facts: he had not shot anyone.
She partnered with him to achieve a mutual goal. Antoinette Tuff became the gunman’s teammate, with both of them working toward a shared goal: unarmed surrender so that he could get to the hospital. She offered to help him take critical actions, like disarming himself and lying down in the hallway.
She brought everyone into the loop. According to Officer Saluke, this entire sequence of events occurred during the most dangerous time period in any hostage or mass shooting situation. A sudden wrong move by a hostage or officer could have agitated the mentally disturbed gunman. She used the school intercom system to keep the students and faculty calm. She used the phone to maintain open communication with the dispatcher, who could then coordinate police movements.
Antoinette Tuff enabled the gun man to see, and persuaded him to adopt, her point of view. Though untrained in hostage negotiations, she used effective communication to save the day. We should certainly admire this woman as the hero she is. But we should also consider how her techniques can be applied to other types of serious communication.
Image courtesy of Facebook.