"We need to calm fears of loss first before we can have more logical conversations about gains."

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It Takes a Family


Addict in the Family

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Episode 106 -- April 19, 2021

Get Your Loved One Back: Intervention as Hostage Negotiation

Over the last twenty years, Love First: A Family's Guide to Intervention has become the go-to intervention guide for tens of thousands of families. Writing and working as a team, Jeff and Debra Jay empower and equip families and friends to use the strength of unwavering support and unflinching honesty to give their addicted loved ones a chance to reach out for help. In this excerpt from the completely revised third edition of their groundbreaking guide, the authors apply insights from the science of hostage negotiation to the love-based art of family intervention, teaching us how to consider the competing pulls of loss and gain that color every interaction with a person trapped in active addiction.

While written primarily for family members, can those of us in recovery relate to the idea of being hostage to our own alcoholism or addiction? Can you remember what it was like to feel like we were negotiating for our own lives? Do you remember when you were given some bottom lines that were boundaries drawn by people who were negotiating for your freedom? Or maybe this excerpt can help your family understand the complexities you've faced in your own recovery, that you have overcome so much to get yourself back. However you use it, whether you are looking to help someone you love or you've reclaimed yourself from your substance use disorder, Jeff and Debra Jay are here to give you framework and guidance.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

For the last several years, we've been intrigued with the idea of learning about hostage negotiation techniques, looking at how they compare to intervention negotiation. After all, addiction is a hostage situation. Addiction holds both the addicted person and the family hostage. Hostage negotiation was developed to deal with extreme crisis situations that demand to be resolved as quickly as possible. These negotiations are not only urgent; they can mean the difference between life or death. We anticipated some of the skills involved in hostage negotiation would apply well to intervention.

Studying hostage negotiation, we quickly understood the advantages we have with structured family intervention. A hostage negotiator may be called in at a moment's notice to deal with a terrorist situation, a kidnapping, or a violent domestic situation. They don't have time to plan, prepare, or rehearse. They get thrown into the deep end of the pool. Negotiators often don't even know the names of the person they are negotiating with—and the clock is ticking. We, on the other hand, know the person we will be negotiating with very well. We have time to prepare even the smallest details, plan for every objection, and rehearse what we are going to say. We have identified the influence and leverage we bring to the negotiation. Plus, our person cares about us. Hostage negotiators have no such advantage.

Now although it is true that our addicted loved ones care about us, they have split loyalties. Addiction is very demanding. It controls much of the addicted person's thinking. We long ago discovered a very important fact: the addiction owns the brain, so we have to go for the heart. This is why logic and evidence alone will not do the job. If that worked, getting people into treatment would be easy.

Former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss, in his book Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It, describes the FBI coming to similar conclusions. He explains that FBI agents never found problem-solving to be the best technique. Most of what they dealt with was emotionally driven, not rational bargaining. According to Voss, "What were needed were simple psychological tactics and strategies that worked in the field to calm people down, establish rapport, gain trust, elicit the verbalization of needs, and persuade the other guy of our empathy."

Negotiating with an alcoholic or addict isn't anything new for the family. They have long been engaged in negotiations with the addiction. Families don't see themselves as negotiators, however. They see themselves as simply talking sense to their beloved addicts, in hopes of changing their behavior. Of course, it doesn't work. Chris Voss warns, "The most dangerous negotiation is the one you don't know you are in." While families are talking and pleading with their loved ones, the disease of addiction is always negotiating for what it wants. The family members just don't know it.

In an intervention, it's helpful to understand what's driving the addict in the first place. When we ask our loved ones to accept help and enter treatment, they feel as if we are taking away something they desperately need. While we see the drug as the problem, they see it as the solution. While we see treatment as a gain, they see it as a loss.

Human beings react much more powerfully to losing something than to gaining something. As a result, people are less likely to choose options that offer them the greatest benefit (treatment) because their fear of loss seems greater (I can never drink again). Addiction's grip on the brain magnifies what alcoholics and addicts have to lose. Giving up alcohol and other drugs feels like the biggest loss in their lives. If that seems like an overstatement, think of the things people suffering from addiction give up in order to keep drinking or using drugs: careers, education, marriages, children, friendships, financial security, self-respect, health—and sometimes their very lives.

Our loved ones experience loss aversion in multiple ways during an intervention. I'm not going to be able to drink anymore? Not able to get high? There is also a fear of loss regarding self-determination. How long will I have to stay there? Will I like it? What if I want to leave? We are asking alcoholics and addicts to step into a great unknown: the world of treatment. What will this place look like? What will they make me do? What kinds of people will I be with? We need to calm fears of loss first before we can have more logical conversations about gains.

The fear of losing can work in our favor during an intervention. For example, our alcoholics may fear losing the practical things that make addiction more comfortable, such as a place to live. They may fear the loss of their enablers. All alcoholics and addicts rely on some form of enabling to make addiction work in their lives—from people who cover up for them to people who provide cars, money, cell phones, etc. These losses are being computed in the minds of alcoholics and addicts as the intervention is taking place. They also know they've been successful at manipulating family in the past and are calculating their chance of manipulating them again.

In the various sections of our intervention letters that we read to the addict during the actual intervention, we share a clear picture of how addiction has caused the loss of many important things in our addict's life. We talk about addiction as a disease. We replace the addict's fear of losing the drug with a strong narrative of family love and belonging, which addicts also fear losing. We alleviate fear of loss by having well-thought-out plans in place for all possible objections.

If our loved one still can't accept help, we share our bottom lines to communicate the losses that will come by choosing addiction over treatment. Bottom lines create a powerful and competing sense of loss, as compared to the benefits that come with being a trusted member of a family:

  • You can no longer have the grandchildren for weekends.
  • Living in the house with our children is no longer an option.
  • I will no longer lend you money.
  • I can no longer lie or cover up for you.
  • You need to get your own apartment.
  • I can't be around you when you've been drinking.
  • We won't pay your tuition.
  • I have to call the police if I see you get behind the wheel intoxicated.
  • I won't pretend the addiction doesn't exist.

In the words of author and leadership expert John C. Maxwell, "The experience of pain or loss can be a formidable motivating force." We need to understand this motivating force and how addiction wields it. Then we can see more clearly why we must plan and prepare for the most effective intervention.

About the Author:
Jeff Jay, CIP, is a professional interventionist, educator, and author who has worked full-time in the substance abuse treatment field since 1986. A graduate of the University of Minnesota, he worked as a clinician with Hazelden Foundation and Sacred Heart Rehabilitation Center. He has served as president of the Terry McGovern Foundation in Washington, DC, and on the boards of directors for several professional organizations. Jeff has appeared as an expert on CNN, PBS, and The Jane Pauley Show. He and Debra Jay head a national private practice that provides intervention and crisis management services.

Debra Jay is a noted author, speaker, and trainer for addiction professionals. She was a guest lecturer for Wayne State University graduate studies on addiction for fourteen years. She has written a newspaper advice column on families and addiction since 1996 and served as a board member for Brighton Hospital, St. John Providence Health System, and Dawn Farm. She is a recipient of the 2012 Letitia M. Close BVM Award in recognition of a significant ministry in helping women with the disease of addiction. Debra was the addiction expert on The Oprah Winfrey Show for three seasons and has appeared on The Dr. Oz Show. She is a graduate of Ohio State University and the Hazelden Addiction Professionals Training Program.

© 2000, 2008, 2021 by Jeff Jay and Debra Jay
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