6 lockdown survival lessons from a Hostage and Crisis Negotiator

Phillip Williams

Philip Williams is a member of our hostage negotiator cell and a Practitioner, Trainer and Coach for the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR), London.

Feeling under siege during coronavirus lockdown?

Feeling under siege? Based on my former experience as Director of the UK’s Hostage and Crisis Negotiation programme, here are some simple, practical ways to cope with isolation during the COVID-19 lockdown. These are ‘back to basics‘ tips that fellow hostage negotiators and I have learnt from debriefing real hostages. Over the years I’ve discovered that they’re core ‘Skills for Life’ and I’m constantly amazed at how they really make a difference.

Six tested methods to help get you through this crisis:

1. You will be rescued

The most important thing to set your mind to is that this is temporary. You will be set ‘free’ and when that happens, life will feel awesome.

Never forget this, if the going gets tough, hang on to this thought and plan the things that you always wanted to do for when that time comes – go large!


2. Basic human needs

Once taken and held hostage, the temptation is to let go of everyday basic standards of cleanliness, hygiene, physical and mental well-being.

Whether you live with someone or not, set yourself a fixed routine with minimal daily standards. The key elements are:

  • Regular sleep pattern – now is your chance to get the recommended 8 hours per day!
  • Daily wash and spruce up whether you are seeing anyone or not.
  • Some form of exercise routine – however small.
  • Eat and drink regularly, smaller and varied meals – now is your time to learn to cook fresh food and try a new recipe once a week.
  • Clean your home – however, not all at once. One cupboard at a time, one small area at a time – only 30 minutes maximum per day.


3.  ‘Proof of life’

This is a term used by hostage negotiators to discover whether the hostage is alive!

If you are reading this the good news is, you are alive, but remote working and isolation does some strange stuff to us for we are a ‘social species.’

In our particular hostage situation, we are experiencing the reverse of what kidnapped hostages endure. We have unlimited access to social media and live in a global community. Many are now discovering the drain of being constantly ‘besieged’ at all times of the day by worried friends, family and colleagues from all over the world.

Suggested ways to handle ‘proof of life’:

  • Build in and negotiate structure to your ‘proof of life’ times, i.e. only work colleagues can contact you within your defined working day. Friends and family have their own times slots, and don’t forget your own ‘me time’ period.
  • If you live with people – build in ‘me time’ for everyone – at least an hour of no contact.
  • Create a routine whereby once a day you have one conversation with one close friend or family member. Do not try to talk to everyone every day! In that once a day, one-person conversation, spend up to 45 minutes talking with them and no-one else. It may seem as if this is too little for everyone you know; trust me I’m a negotiator, this siege is longer than you think and this practice will bring a whole new dimension to your relationships.


4. Be creative

Fun and humour need to be built into each day and there are some amazing creative stories of how hostages did this:

  • Playing made up games
  • Learn a new skill – one hostage learnt to be a formidable juggler of all manner of objects, another replayed classical music in his head and decide to take up conducting – I often wonder what the hostage takers thought!
  • Almost without exception, every hostage I ever dealt with said they started some form of daily meditation. In a very simple way, for maybe only 10 minutes at a time, sitting and being conscious of their breathing; it brought them so much personal resolve.
  • Start that ‘hobby’ you always wanted to.


5. How to tackle fear and loss

On the surface, people often express anger, fear or some other related emotion, but underneath what drives behaviour is the perceived risk of loss. Current research tells us that we are at least twice as sensitive to loss as opposed to gain.

This ‘loss’ trigger is one of nature’s greatest gifts to ensure our survival, however, it operates in the subconscious. So more often than not, we only become aware the moment when we say, ‘I wish I hadn’t done that/said that!’

Today we are living through a siege where all we see in the news and talk about, revolves around loss. No wonder we become, angry, fearful, panicky, dismissive and depressed; compounded by our isolation as hostages of Covid 19.

The cure…for every loss, balance it with two gains!

  • New rule. From now on – every time you are in conversation and something triggers the ‘loss’ feeling, your collective mission is to re-frame that lost into at least two other alternative gains.
  • You have absolute permission to introduce humour – I always recall when parachuting someone said, what happens if it doesn’t open – we replied, ‘that will be an opportunity to discover the afterlife!’


6. Staying in control

Being taken hostage feels like a complete loss of control.

I learnt the most important lesson in life from the experience and wisdom of real hostages.

“You can learn from the past, but you influence the future by how you behave in the present”

Even though it feels as if so much has been taken from you, no-one can take away your choice about how you are going to behave in the here and now.

All of the above suggestions are choices and there are probably many more.

I know they work, because I have seen hostages who have been kept for up to 2 years in the most nerve racking, frightening circumstances, come out alive and strong in character, body, mind, soul and spirit. This is what you absolutely do have control over; the here and now.

My tip – every day you wake up, say “I have control” and start taking charge of you and the life you want to lead; the rest will fall into place……that is ‘crisis management.’


Philip specialises in Negotiation, Mediation, Conflict Resolution, Investigation, Intelligence and Safety and Crisis Management He delivers negotiation training and negotiation courses for The Listening Institute. He also heads up the negotiation offering for the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR),