Hollywood hasn’t done us many favors when it comes to demonstrating the real art of criminal justice. Movies suggest there’s a lot of yelling. Lawyers yelling at judges. Police yelling at partners. Hostage negotiators yelling at dangerous criminals.

We know the reality is quite different but we don’t know what the reality actually is. What do these people in these professions actually do? Some of it is quite boring, of course. Some of it is utterly fascinating. The good stuff shares a common thread: persuasion.

Every profession has a necessary element of persuasion but criminal justice has its own unique approaches. Criminal lawyers develop persuasion through rhetorical argument. Police develop persuasion through soft redirection, using formal techniques like “verbal judo”. And hostage negotiators develop the most unexpected capabilities in persuasion through listening.

Proper Angst

Again, our friends in Hollywood don’t help matters much when it comes to learning the best practices in negotiation. But even without their bad influence, we still fail to understand these things on our own. Take the classic example of buying a car.

Most people hate the car-buying experience. They don’t want the conflict. They feel pressured. Manipulated. And rightfully so. For most of us, most of the time, this is stressful stuff.

We’ve seen the gimmicks, the pressure tactics. We know the popcorn and cookies might be free at the dealership but it’s just another way of keeping us hooked. And time has no bounds on the sales floor. It feels like a casino. Thirty minutes turn into three hours really fast.  

In reality, we should feel this way. We should be nervous. We should be sensitive. Buying a car is supposed to be difficult. It is one of the largest purchases we’ll make. In fact, you should only be scared if a car-buying experience isn’t stressful.

If the experience isn’t stressful, it might be due to the fact that you’re working with a master salesperson who knows how to channel your angst towards their interests.

This is the funny thing about great negotiators: you won’t know you’re dealing with one until after the fact. That’s because a great negotiator doesn’t really negotiate. They don’t wade into the fray with brass tacks and bottom lines. They don’t communicate a specific “position”.

Instead, they seek to solve your problem. With their solutions.

How do they do this? It starts with one incredibly simple, deeply rich technique that is featured in the fantastic book Never Split The Difference. This technique won’t seem mysterious or magical but it is. And it has terrific applicability to all facets of communication.

Volley and Serve  

Do you ever feel like you’re not being heard?

Every day, right?

Our inability to really hear one another is so pervasive that the better question might be this: When is the last time you actually felt heard?

I sit in a lot of meetings. I watch people talk at each other. Patterns emerge over time. After the initial pleasantries, we see some form of fact-finding from all parties. Someone sets a stage with their problem and, through that narrative, they announce their desired solution. The negotiation begins when the other party responds to that initial proposal.

And they always respond. I’ve never been in a meeting where the initial idea was accepted. It’s never happened. People want to play the game. That’s why we’re having a meeting.

So what comes next? The two parties begin a prolonged volley-and-serve of points and counterpoints that bounce like tennis balls across the conference table. Party #1 offers their logic and postulations. Party #2 returns with a bit of rhetorical topspin, restating the phrases in some semantic twist. Back and forth, back and forth.

In most cases, what I see are people engaged in selective listening. The party with the most positional authority looks to shut down the other party by listening for certain trigger words. They turtle in their position until the other side overreaches and creates an opening. Then they bludgeon their opponent with all their pre-baked leverage.

The party with the least positional authority selectively listens, too. They wait for a moment of inconsistency so they can trap the dominant player with an accusation. They ask a lot of questions. In some cases, the questions uncover flaws in the dominant party’s logic. Such flaws lead to openings.

In other cases, the questions exhaust the dominant player until they can’t explain themselves anymore. Once all the carefully-crafted party-line statements have been stripped away, the dominant player gets sloppy and the weaker opponent delivers the big blow. It’s usually a presumption of bad intent. See! We knew you wouldn’t play fair! This has been the problem all along! Suddenly, the tables are turned.

Again, I see this all day long. If meetings were a Spotify playlist, this would be its lone song. A playlist of one tune. On constant repeat.

A Reflection of Them

Selective listening is totally appropriate. Just not in the way we typically use it. As Voss explains, the great negotiators selectively listen for different things in different phases of the conversation. But they always begin the same way. As he writes:

It begins with listening, making it about the other people, validating their emotions, and creating enough trust and safety for a real conversation to begin.

I don’t know about you but that sounds delightful to me. That’s how I want to operate. None of this passive-aggressive back-and-forth rhetorical tennis.

But rhetorical tennis comes natural to us. So to break that habit, we need to use a specific technique or else we will regress. So how can we listen the way Voss describes? Through a specific kind of imitation called mirroring. Voss describes it:

It’s generally an unconscious behavior—we are rarely aware of it when it’s happening—but it’s a sign that people are bonding, in sync, and establishing the kind of rapport that leads to trust.

Mirroring is to bonding as night is to day. It gets to the old adage, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery”. So it’s necessary for creatings the trust and safety needed in a real conversation.

And it’s such a fascinating behavior. I can think back on times I’ve done this mirroring when in the presence of very charismatic people. I’ve seen others do it with me. As Voss explains, this is an unconscious behavior. So how can we deliberately practice it? Through our words.

[The technique] is almost laughably simple: for the FBI, a “mirror” is when you repeat the last three words (or the critical one to three words) of what someone has just said. Of the entirety of the FBI’s hostage negotiation skill set, mirroring is the closest one that gets to a Jedi mind trick. Simple, and yet uncannily effective.

If you think about it, this simple act is incredibly rare. When is the last time someone actually repeated what you said? Even a single word of what you said? Chances are, the last time this happened is also the last time you felt truly heard.

Left to our own devices, we won’t listen in this fashion. Our ears on are perpetual auto-pilot. We listen only for the pauses in another person’s speech so that we can issue a “yep” or “uh-huh”. Meanwhile, as our ears listen for those beats, our brain formulates whatever we’re going to say when it’s our turn.

Talking right past one another. I’m profoundly guilty of this.

Why? Because we’re so fixated on saying the right thing. But we must remember what Frank Luntz wrote in the review of his brilliant book Words That Work.   

It’s not what you say; it’s what people hear.

So a mirror is a way of helping people hear that we are listening. Practice it today. Start by doing what Voss describes as the literal repetition of someone’s last two or three words in a statement. Preferably in the form of a question. Here’s a brief example from the book:

The boss said, “Let’s make two copies of all the paperwork.”

“I’m sorry, two copies?” [the employee] mirrored in response.

These two lines make a great illustration. Note the use of the phrase “I’m sorry”. There are two things happening there. For one, the employee is softening the whole situation with an apology, as if to suggest he is to blame for some misunderstanding. Second, the employee is asking, through this mirror, for more explanation. The phrase “I’m sorry, two copies?” is a more elegant way of asking “Can you repeat that?”

This is vital. You don’t want to ask people to repeat themselves. It will make it seem like your not paying attention. A mirror leads them to do this without appearing distracted.

The boss then repeats herself. Which is critical to the negotiation because, when we have to repeat ourselves, we very rarely say things the same way. We usually reword our statements, we add more clarity and unveil more of the core desire at-play.

This is especially true when someone is mirroring our language. The mirror makes us feel like we were actually heard. Just not understood. So we’ll naturally want to explain ourselves further. That further explanation opens up possibilities for negotiation.

A Daily Jedi Mind Trick

Again, I heartily recommend that you use this very simple technique today. Use it all week. You’ll find that this really is a powerful way of listening to others.

Nevermind the negotiation. Consider the boon that comes from just listening. That is a great gift in itself. Yes, there should be a justifiable end (i.e., a better-negotiated agreement) but you won’t negotiate with people nearly as much as you’ll listen to them. Listening is constant. Empathy is always in demand.

So make no mistake: we can all benefit by becoming better negotiators. But this powerful technique, this Jedi mind trick of mirroring, can help us be better listeners first. That, in itself, might be the best benefit of all.