When I (Chip) trained to become a hostage negotiator, I was taught an interrogation technique known as Active Listening. The goal of Active Listening is to de-escalate a disagreement and make the other person feel heard and understood in the moment.
While I had great success utilizing Active Listening as a hostage negotiator, I realized the technique had a significant limitation—it didn’t provide a methodology to analyze the information people leave behind after the conversation is over. I felt I had to take the technique of Active Listening to the next level. To do that, I drew upon my previous career. Before joining the FBI, I served as pastor for two churches. As a minister, I guided families and individuals through life’s most emotional events, from weddings to funerals. In transitioning from Rev. Massey to Agent Massey, I brought along a finely tuned sensitivity to human emotions. This ability to listen to and empathize with people in high-stakes, high-stress situations helped me understand the mindsets of hostage takers, spies, and violent felons as a hostage negotiator in the FBI’s New York City Field Office.
By combining my approach with Adele’s entrepreneurial skills, we created a technique anyone can use to better understand people. We call it Forensic Listening™. While Active Listening is done in the moment, Forensic Listening happens after the interaction is over (see Table 1.1). It is the art of reexamining what the other person said after they’ve said it, because words and behaviors leave clues. Forensic Listening is the art of finding and analyzing those clues. When and how people pause, what they emphasize, and what the tone of their voice communicates can be every bit as revealing as the words they use. By deconstructing these aspects of a conversation, the Forensic Listener can play back what was said to reveal a hidden narrative others may have missed.
Most of us don’t have a dedicated listening strategy. We just focus on the words, nod our heads, and hope for a good outcome. We play it safe, using convincing strategies that have worked for us in the past. Then we wonder why we couldn’t achieve the results we had hoped for.
In my FBI days, I was sent to interrogate a drug cartel enforcer—let’s call him Marco. Marco was in his early thirties and already serving multiple life sentences for eight murders, with no hope of being released. Knowing he would never leave prison, he had little incentive to talk.
My task was to get Marco’s take on the operations of a rival drug cartel. There was no way to get the convict’s well-deserved prison sentence reduced, so I tried other incentives—things like getting Marco a better cell, moving him to a prison closer to his family, or helping relatives of his who were already in the prison system. None of these options worked. Marco just stared blankly into the distance with a bored look on his face. Finally, I tried a different convincing tactic: getting to Marco’s unstated narrative.
Before the next interrogation session, I researched Marco’s criminal career by listening to tapes and reviewing informant interviews. While Marco was a man of few words, when he did speak, he was meticulous in his word choice and seemed to demonstrate a great deal of business acumen. He helped decide who was to be eliminated by managing a portfolio of risk. He measured risk for the criminal enterprise, risk of getting caught, and risk of being targeted himself. He also analyzed the potential upside. Year after year, Marco’s analysis resulted in multimillion-dollar gains for the cartel. Marco was a businessman, albeit a murderous one.
Once I concluded that Marco saw himself as a successful businessman, I adjusted my interrogation tactic to fit Marco’s self-image. “Marco,” I began, “We’re stuck. We could really use your insight. We’re here because we’re investigating another cartel, and we think you could help us better understand their operations and how these guys think. We’ve studied how you moved and the people you targeted and eliminated. I can’t say that I approve, but your actions made good business sense. I must admit you were great at your job. Do you have any thoughts on what’s happening with this other crew? What’s my team missing?”
That’s when Marco finally met my gaze. He offered up information on the rival cartel’s possible next moves and motivations. I had identified Marco’s unstated narrative—he wanted to be seen as an accomplished businessperson and earn the respect and admiration of his peers. Marco’s knowledge was his legacy, vitally important to his self-esteem and the image he wanted to project.
If Forensic Listening can uncover the hidden motivations of a mob assassin with no hope for parole, just think what applying these methods to business and personal conversations could achieve for you! Everyone you interact with has an inner life rich with unstated aspirations and narratives that you can uncover through targeted questions and deep listening. And once you discover a person’s motivations, you can negotiate the deal you want, one that works for both parties.
While business problems may not equal the high-stakes situations of true crime stories, they can feel every bit as stressful. Forensic Listening, as described in the hostage situation and the cartel interrogation earlier in the chapter, is the art and science of reexamining conversations after they’ve occurred. This process can help you become instantly more persuasive—giving you the power to better understand your own emotions and those of others.
One of our clients—let’s call her Kristen—was a successful, smart, and capable professional, but the sharp edges of her personality were getting in the way of her promotion to senior vice president. While she was known as someone who “got things done,” she often rubbed people the wrong way. Kristen’s boss told her she would have to change her communication style before she could be considered for a promotion. When Kristen called us, she sounded defeated and defensive. She couldn’t understand what she was doing wrong or how to fix it. It was clear Kristen would benefit from Forensic Listening. We asked her if she’d be willing to change the way she was listening in the meetings at work.
When she agreed, we gave her a step-by-step overview of our process:
The first step in Forensic Listening is situational awareness. In law enforcement, situational awareness is the study of real-time threats and how things will likely unfold in hostile situations. In corporate America, situational awareness is about being able to listen to others, identify potential problems, and examine how they may affect us as well as the organization. Threats can be as simple as being marginalized in a meeting, managing a difficult boss, or dealing with an angry customer. To address these types of business issues, you must first study conversations and interactions with others in a specific way, such as examining:
These three things will also tell you how they are going to deal with conflict. When a client of ours opened up about a difficult situation with his board, you could tell he was disappointed by how they criticized his decision. The pitch, tone, and cadence of his voice changed while describing the incident. Additionally, he kept pointing out all the things he did right during his tenure and repeating three major wins. Moreover, he described how he wanted the board to perceive his mistake, noting, “They could have been more forgiving, given all I’ve done for the organization, but they were ruthless in their criticism of me.”
This process of examining a person’s emotional patterns, the stories they tell, and how they wish to be praised (as well as what they praise) will give you a quick glimpse into their possible motivations.
Perhaps of all the things to review mentioned previously, the emotional patterns are the most telling. Look for fear, anger, sadness, happiness, or any combination of these. How does the individual react to stress? When and how do they present these emotions? This is the first step in establishing a baseline of who they are and how to interact with them most effectively.
Additionally, you must consider your own possible limiting and/or self-sabotaging behaviors. That means maintaining a grip on your emotions! Be mindful of your facial expressions when you hear a bad idea. Try not to come across as listening for holes in an argument as opposed to finding opportunities to build on good ideas. Also, be cognizant of when you are being scrutinized, such as after a difficult meeting or when the pressure is on. This is when people are typically looking to make judgments about who you are and how you handle difficult people.
The success of your interactions is directly correlated to your ability to understand others. That starts with creating a sense of safety and trust rather than coercion. Rarely is there a direct match between how someone feels about you (the tape running in their head) and what they express in words, body positioning, or even actions.
Forensic Listening will allow you to ask robust questions that help you build trust by making people feel respected and understood. One example is to cite a detail from a previous conversation. For example, you might say something like: “I remember you said you like to read Harvard Business Journal articles about workplace culture. I know that is something you are passionate about and thought you might like to read this new piece that came out today.” This shows you listened, you remembered what was said, and you took something from it that was valuable.
Using Forensic Listening, you can recognize patterns of human behavior that move you to understand possible causation and responses. You will also be able to pick up on the signs of pushback before it happens and understand dysfunctional group dynamics so you can work around them. This power of understanding will give you the ability to move people to the desired outcome without making them feel cornered or manipulated.
The second step in Forensic Listening is to use the information you gathered in your initial assessment to target and validate the person you are trying to influence. Targeted validation is when you are listening for a specific area where you want to hit them with validation. It is a smart, quick way to build rapport and get others to see you as someone who thinks of them in a positive way.
What you want to do is show someone the importance and the legitimacy of what they’ve said to you. It’s one thing to validate somebody, but we’re talking about finding a very specific area to validate. So how do you identify that area? You want to identify the area where they have the most energy. It is what they like and what they value. You want to validate what they believe is the most important thing to them. Let’s look at an example of Targeted Validation Adele used in her own home:
My son Christian is eight years old, and I got a report from his teacher that he had a behavior problem in school. Like any second grader, Christian has some very good days and some very bad days. That’s just the nature of being eight. So I told my son, “Hey, listen, Christian, I understand you had a really bad day yesterday. Let’s talk about that. And he said, ‘You know, Mom, I had a really good day today. I think we should talk about that.’”
This conversation made me come to a few inevitable conclusions: The first thing is I’m raising a lawyer. My son possesses some serious convincing skills. And it made me think we may have something to learn from other second graders in general.
Second, I realized the most effective thing I could do was to practice Targeted Validation. And by saying, “Well, Christian, tell me about your day today then.” And he did. Then I said, “Well, that’s great. You should definitely have more days like today and not so many like yesterday.”
Perhaps most important, Targeted Validation must be genuine, so be sure to pick the things you truly admire about them and what they said—even if those things are difficult to identify. Focus on traits or behaviors that can help you get closer to your goals. For example, you might say, “I noticed how you wouldn’t let that client walk all over Andrew in that meeting. That was really smart, and I know it made a big impact on him.”
People need to feel believed to be motivated to take action. You can’t discount someone’s problem and expect them to be highly motivated to work with you to solve yours. In other words, you have to listen to people’s complaints, valid or not, before they are willing to accept your truth.
When people see it’s obvious you are working toward the advancement of their goal, they start to see you as an integral part of their success. Simply acknowledging that someone is taking on a challenging task shows that you respect the effort and understand the goal. This will demonstrate that you are on their side and want to help them get what they want. They will put you into their inner circle, or you can add them to yours. This combo of authority and belief is intoxicating and almost impossible to resist.
For this to become second nature, you must examine these seven things:
Now let’s return to Kristen, the competent but abrasive executive angling for a promotion. In fine-tuning her situational awareness, Kristen realized that she was so single-mindedly focused on her task list, she neglected to address her boss’s questions and concerns around those tasks. When he gave her an assignment, she would frequently push back in front of others and give reasons why the project might fail. While she was often correct in her evaluation, her criticism was neither constructive nor diplomatic. She’d often say things like: “This is a really bad idea—it just won’t work.” Kristen was great at thinking fast, but she needed to develop a filter to slow down her responses. People saw her as an argumentative doer—not a collaborative leader.
We coached Kristen to use Targeted Validation and emphasize positive behaviors in others to help further her goals. When she was given a project she had issues with, she began by validating the end goal of the assignment. She took time to analyze the assignment and craft a response outlining her issues. Instead of immediately giving in to her need to be right, she demonstrated her expertise in a thoughtful, nonconfrontational way.
Kristen also began reviewing conversations in greater depth, assessing not only what people said, but why they said it. She turned out to be as quick at picking up patterns as she had been to voice criticism, and the Forensic Listening techniques we taught her soon became second nature. That’s when things started to turn around. People on Kristen’s team began seeing her as someone they could trust. Some even started coming to her for advice. Gradually, she built strong bonds with a few key people on her team. She asked the right questions, at the right time, and in the right place. In meetings, she even began using more advanced techniques such as Predictive Statements, a technique we will teach you more about later in the book. In a meeting, she was asked how to price a project for a difficult client. Her answer displayed her new skills:
Given my experience working with this type of customer, I’ve noticed they tend to be conservative when creating a budget but understand they must boldly invest when the project is a high priority to leadership. With a company of this size, my guess is the spend for this product or service is somewhere between $60,000 and $90,000. Am I close?
Using Forensic Listening, Kristen was able to look back at her interactions with this customer and notice clear patterns of behavior. By adding “Am I close?” at the end of the question, she softened her answer so as not to seem like a know-it-all and implicitly deferred to her boss and other senior people in the room. Within six months of making these small, but significant, changes, Kristen was promoted to senior vice president.
This technique will work for all kinds of people, from all industries. Executives in some of the most respected brands are using this formula to increase sales, employee engagement, and innovation.
For instance, Fortune 500 companies like Deutsche Bank, Samsung, and SAP are teaching our methodology to teams all around the world. Facebook, now Meta, used it to change negative perceptions of their 2.89 billion active users. A small business used our methodology to go from $195,000 in sales per year to $1.2 million in just under nine months. There’s no doubt that after reading this book people will gain confidence and courage to go after their biggest goals without hesitation or self-doubt.
The techniques you will learn in Convince Me are not intended to control or manipulate people. Rather, they are ways to better understand others and tap into the levers that motivate them. It’s a power that comes from being observant, open, empathetic, and genuine. If you use these convincing tools effectively, most people will reveal more about themselves. You’ll start to understand their unstated narrative; what drives, motivates, and encourages them; and conversely, what frightens or turns them off. You’ll be able to tailor your statements and questions to make your clients, colleagues, and bosses more receptive to your ideas, attentive to your concerns, and agreeable to your terms.
As you read colorful case studies from Chip’s FBI days, you will learn how the techniques of a master hostage negotiator can be used to make everyday conversations, interactions, and situations go your way.
I will also share stories from my life in the trenches as a publicist and crisis consultant. My experiences may be less colorful and cinematic than Chip’s, but the survival of businesses, careers, and professional reputations are, in their own way, also matters of life and death. We will explain the difference between grasping for a solution while in a state of panic and making the right decision swiftly, with a focused sense of urgency.
We will discuss how being open, genuine, and even vulnerable can help you get through to a skeptical prospect and make the sale or close the deal. We will share leadership techniques that top executives can deploy to build trust and inspire unity in difficult times. As you absorb and learn to use our convincing tactics, you will discover that they are applicable to a broad swath of interactions, across every aspect of life.
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