Monday , 17 June 2024

The Interrogator, Negotiator, and Special Forces Operator’s Guide To Building A Better Business or Professional Practice

Sinister Cell with Chair

Business Force Multipliers:
How Interrogators, Special Forces Operators, and Hostage Negotiators
Might Build a More Profitable 
AND Client or Customer Focused
Practice or Business

Yes, each of these professions (operator, interrogator and negotiator) have much to offer a business or professional practice owner that wants to build a successful business, a collection of happy buyers, patients or clients and/or in the management of teams, creation of products, services, marketing and sales training.

That might seem hard to believe.

What can a hostage negotiator, special forces operator or an interrogator offer us?  Well let’s take them one at a time and see.

We can start with interrogators.

Part I The Models Of Interrogation And How You Might Apply Them To Building, Managing, and Marketing A Successful Business or Professional Practice

The ability to influence people (even enemies) and to persuade others to reveal accurate information, to assist you, convert to your cause, to join forces and to become assets in your undertakings is one of the most prized skills of spies, interrogators and hostage negotiators.  These skills, when combined with exceptional problem solving, ferocity in combat, and unnatural levels of persistence also make for the best of the best special forces operators.

Strangely, these skills are also found to be the foundational skills of great leaders in most fields of business and some of the most successful business leaders and innovators have and further cultivate these disciplines.

Here’s the good news.  Almost all of these skills are learnable. 

We can also improve our abilities by improving these skill sets and when we learn the systems and skill sets employed by hostage negotiators, interrogators, spies and special forces operators, we can achieve amazing leverage, reduce stress and achieve more with less effort and fewer resources than ever before.

But you don’t have to believe me. 

Illustrative Editorial of Controverial Waterboarding


Here are a few articles and tools, based on new research into interrogation and “deception detection” followed by my analysis of how to take this knowledge and to apply it to building a client centric and successful practice.

 Let’s start with the idea that spies and interrogators are trained in a few techniques that can be ethically adapted to our own private sector business and personal endeavors.

For example, in a recent edition of Sabotage Times entitled:  “An Ex-Spy Told Us The 16 Best Ways To Interrogate Someone”, the authors examined the work of ex-spy, John Augustine and in particular, a number of approaches that are proven (in scientific research) to work better than compulsive or “enhanced interrogative measures.” Enhanced interrogation techniques (including but not limited to sleep deprivation, confinement, stress postures, humiliation, physical stress – for example, waterboarding) are thought by many people – even some interrogators to be more effective than many of the techniques below based on rapport, trust and other psychological triggers.  But studies are confirming that there are good scientific reasons why effective tools of trust and empathy can be much more effective than compulsive interrogation.  

So, let’s look at each one and then how it might be applied to our own business situations. This can include how we might use these techniques in sales, marketing and management as well as building and keeping trust and rapport with our team, clients, patients and customers.

PRO TIP:  Note that there are many studies and articles (as well as a quick review of the methods below) that verify that rapport and empathy tend to work better in both the short and long term to get information from an enemy (even a hardened and well trained enemy).  So, imagine what those techniques can do for you with friendly clients/customers/patients, team members and partners. 

The Sixteen “Approaches”:

1) The Direct Approach: Believe it or not, according to our ex-spy Augustine, 90% of the time, if you ask a prisoner or a terrorist a question, they will answer. It may not be the truth but it is information that can be used later on for leverage. And, it’s this foundation of communication that can get us to move toward better sharing or even some level of trust and rapport. And understand almost everyone “lies” when we first ask a question.  They tell us the story that they have been telling themselves but it may not be true or the whole truth.  They might need some help figuring that out themselves.

How we use this: So, most of the time we develop products, services as well as advertising and marketing materials, programs and systems based on what we know and think is best for the client.  We never actually ask the client what they want and need.  But spies spend an enormous amount of time collecting and analyzing information.  You should too. In my own practice, we discovered a very powerful selling proposition (probably responsible for over $5,000,000.00 of sales in the last few years) because we kept asking clients what they worried about and what they found most helpful following the planning process. When we first asked clients what made them come to see us (we do trust and estates planning for wealthy families and business owners, and professionals) they told us that they wanted to “save heirs time, probate fees and taxes.”

When we asked virtually the same question as they finished the process they told us that they really valued and never knew that they could protect their heirs from “losing an inheritance or family assets in a divorce or lawsuit.”  We had taught them something that they did not previously know and it was very important to them.  By doing this we learned that people really feared the divorce of their heirs so we started having that conversation earlier and based much of our marketing on this idea.  We came to understand this important thing only by directly asking the clients and then asking them again and again.

Bonus Note:  Like terrorists, clients will often lie and tell you what they think you want to hear.  But deception detection (which we’ll also examine in a later blog), a healthy skepticism, and “follow up interrogation” will help you to really get to the bottom of things and to develop actionable HUMIT (human intelligence). So again don’t accept the first answer to your question and learn to pay close attention to the answers.  Your subject will notice and probably be more thoughtful and truthful.

HUMIT can also be supplemented with ELINT (Electronic Intelligence in the parlance of the NSA).  No we’re not suggesting that you bug anyone’s phone or capture them on secret video cameras (both crimes).  However, if you sell or teach through a web site, you can gather such data through the use of “heat map” or web site tracking software, Google analytics, pixel retargeting, surveys etc.  When you actually see the data related to the user experience of your clients, patients and customers, you can redesign, enhance and improve that experience for a real and perhaps even unfair advantage.  For more specific information on these tools join us on the show In Top Form on Sundays.  We examine many of these tools and discuss specific ways to be better at everything you do. IN TOP FORM

2) The “Establish Identity” Approach: This is a very effective technique. You start your interrogation by telling a terrorist he is a spy captured without a uniform therefore losing the protection of the Geneva Convention. The prisoner responds by refuting the charges therefore establishing his identity by going on to explain that he is perhaps fighting as a soldier in a “Holy War” – telling you more than he had originally planned.

How we use this: In this case, the civilian or business version of this is to tell a client a story about someone who is like them, who failed to go through the process you are using, or who failed to use an appropriate technique and as a result terrible things happened.  For example, people in second marriages often call thinking that the estate planning will be inexpensive and easy.  They think that they will “just leave everything to their children” (possible missing real tax planning opportunities or being unrealistic regarding a second spouses expectations) or that they will leave it “all to my wife” who will then pass on the wealth as agreed. In reality neither of these plans work very well.  But the alternatives such as the use of insurance, trusts and other techniques can be expensive and complicated – yet achieve the client’s real goal of protecting his or her new spouse and the children from a prior marriage.

So, when we tell them a story of someone who did this and it ended badly, we are implicitly asking “are you that sort of person?”

Bonus Note:  Once confronted with a result that is morally unacceptable to them they will argue that no they are not that sort of person and they will tell you more about what really matters to them.  They will also become more open to other alternatives that actually achieve their newly revealed goals.

3) The “We Already Know It All’ Approach: This technique is used to convince the prisoner (or in our case, the client/customer/patient) that the interrogator knows everything.  The interrogator either claims or implies that someone else has talked and the prisoner needs to answer questions in their own self -interest. This works because the prisoner feels they are not betraying anything, as the interrogator knows it all already.  The problem with this technique is that you need vast knowledge of your “enemy.”

In my early days of learning these techniques, I used this in an interrogation of a son whose mother was also being interrogated in another room.  They had attempted to kill a person who had survived and told us everything.

How we use this: In practice, after a while you start to know who does what.  And, if you have done your research on the client or customer (in my case we do some advanced research and we have them fill out an estate or financial planning questionnaire) then you probably do already know a lot.  Are your intake people (or your data collection from forms etc) also taking good notes about what clients or customers tell them?  Want an example from my line of work? Well, if we strongly suspect (or have been told) that there is tension between siblings who work in the family business and those who do not, we can say “Look we know that this is happening and it happens all the time.  You’re not alone in this.”  That can get people talking. And once we open the discussion we are in a way better position to offer solutions (or perhaps products and services in your case) that will be effective.

Bonus Note:  Once you get them talking, because you’ve demonstrated that you’re paying attention and that you have other clients like them and you’re adapt at solving these issues, they are also more likely to accept your suggestions and solutions because you have demonstrated you understand, you’re interested and that you have experience with such matters or concerns and problems.

4) The “Good Cop, Bad Cop” Technique: A sympathetic interrogator versus a loud, aggressive interrogator. This needs sophisticated role play to work but can be very effective if the sympathetic interrogator builds rapport or greater rapport with the “prisoner.”

How we use this: OK.  This is an old one but a good one.  In fact, while it doesn’t seem useful (who wants to be a bad cop to the client or customer?) it can still be very useful in situations where, for example,  there is a recalcitrant relative who doesn’t want to participate in alternative resolution or a solution that would be good for everyone. And, I have personally experienced this when requiring emergency medical treatment where follow up was required.  The smiling easy going doc explained that if I did X,Y and Z then she could complete my follow up treatment herself.  She also explained that the angry, grumpy, sleepy and tough attending would review with me the consequences of failing to follow up properly (which might include seeing him again).  I did what I was told.

Bonus Note:  For another example form the world of estate disputes, if there is a proposed heir who is refusing to participate or who is exhibiting bad behavior, they can be introduced to the “litigation model of dispute resolution and to a litigator.”  This can then be compared with an ADR model of resolution and to a mediator who is happy and kind by comparison. This is not to suggest that my litigation partners are frightening or scary (or are they?).

5) The Silent Treatment: The interrogator says nothing in the interrogation room but just stares at the prisoner (or perhaps more effectively just past them). This technique usually only works best with inexperienced and untrained prisoners. This is also a technique used in therapy and in certain types and stages of negotiation.  The human default to loath a conversational vacuum works to get information.

How we use this: Just being a little bit more interested and curious about the other person (your client) is often enough to help you get loads of important and actionable information.  So, after asking better and more open ended questions use this technique to hold back and wait to get more information.

Bonus Note:  Questions might include: “Well, how else could you handle that?”  Followed by “And?”  Also useful: “What else would they need to know?”  “What might happen if they don’t know or understand that?”  Also followed by “And?” or “Anything else?” Just using the follow up question and carefully listening almost always yields information that could be vital in understanding the real needs of the client/customer/patient and how to sell them, market to them and to ensure better and more effective consumption/use of your product or service or compliance in the case of medical treatment.

6) The “Love of Family” Approach: An interrogator leverages the prisoner’s feelings toward his loved ones and what might happen to them if he doesn’t comply with the interrogator. An example?  “What if you help us.  You could be with your family within days.  Remain uncooperative?  Then your kids might never have the chance to see their father/mother as they grow up.  Is that fair to them? To you?  Is that what you want?”

How we use this: This one gets used the same way in our practice as it might be used by a spy, interrogator and negotiator.  Sometimes, we know that the right thing is hard to do or hard to understand or is expensive to buy.  But if we fail to persuade the “buyer”, we do them a disservice. In such cases (and where we are really sure that we understand their problems and needs) we can describe a failure to do the right kind of planning and have them imagine and then tell us what the consequences might be.

Bonus Note:  This can also be useful in determining whether or not they understand all of the real-world ramifications your product or service (in my case, of an estate planning tool) and/or the failure to address the implications of inaction or of choosing an inferior alternative.

7) Love of Country or Comrades Technique: An interrogator convinces a prisoner to think of his comrades; he talks and therefore keeps them safe.

How we use this: Again, in the same way and most often when discussing friends or family members who might be acting as fiduciaries and/or business partners and associates.

Bonus Note:  For example, we might ask them to consider what would happen if we do not protect business successors through the use of leases and employment contracts and/or buy and sell agreements.

Retro Grunge Interview Room Door

8) Hate of Country, Enemy or Comrades Approach: An interrogator convinces the subject that he has been abandoned and isolated. Desire for revenge is the key to this technique.

How we use this: Anyone ever have a client/customer or patient that wants to do everything in the simplest way and ignores prudent if not vital aspects of your product, treatment or service? In estate planning, for example, maybe they ignore tax issues in their planning?  In my case, a quick reminder of how the government (possibly a hot button) might tax them again at death on the assets that they have paid on for their whole lives might do the trick and get them to pay attention to tax planning alternatives.

Bonus Note:  This can also be used to motivate more attention to the important issue of protecting heirs from divorce and lawsuits.  Anyone ever have a client that loved their “ex-son or daughter in law”?

9) The Incompetent Interrogator Approach: An interrogator convinces an arrogant prisoner with illusions of superiority that he, the interrogator, is incompetent. This is a very effective technique in the some cultures where female interrogators are sent to interview high-ranking officials.

How we use this: This one was always easy for me (as my default mode of casual might be viewed as incompetence).  But most of the time we actually want to be seen by our clients as effective and highly competent. That appearance of being competent and effective/knowledgeable is often vital to building trust.

However, we can discuss “other attorneys/advisers and clients” who handled things poorly and got bad results and can partner with the client to make sure that that doesn’t happen to him or her. We can still have them think about the effect of failing to follow good advice and to consider what bad advisers might be telling them and how that might turn out.

Bonus Note:  Sometimes this can also be accomplished by saying “I’m not sure that I understood everything you were suggesting or saying (or that the incompetent adviser was suggesting) since they seem to contradict x, y, or z – that you also said were important to you.”  “Can you review it for me again so I make sure I get it right?”

10) The “Rapid Fire” Technique: An interrogator fires continuous questions while constantly interrupting the prisoner as they try to answer. The prisoner through exasperation may answer truthfully when finally given an opportunity to speak.

OK.  This one is hard to use in a client centric practice and should probably be avoided! Now at home and specifically with teenagers?  That’s another story and this can be effective in the short term.

11) The Pride and Ego-Positive Approach: An interrogator praises the subject as a warrior/soldier saying he fought well.  The interrogator stresses comradeship, which can be a building block to getting the prisoner to talk “soldier-to-soldier.”

How we use this: Many times, clients have preconceived notions of what they want (perhaps loads of difficult and potentially confusing and contradictory specific bequests).  But, they have arrived at these conclusions (and fixated on them) only because they didn’t understand all of their options.  Praising the client for the thoughtfulness of their plans, goals and motivations can then segue into other and perhaps better ways to achieve their goals which might be to protect heirs, reduce costs or other articulated outcomes.

Bonus Note:  For example: “So I can tell you’ve thought a lot about this and developed well thought out and very clear planning objectives. For example, you’ve said you really want to protect your daughter’s inheritance from a divorce.  And you are not sure about your son-in law.  But at the same time you are requiring the trust for your daughter to end when she’s 35.  Could we have it go on to continue that protection since many divorces occur after 35?”

12) The Pride and Ego-Negative Approach: A most misused tactic by young interrogators who forget that their job is to get information, not to judge the prisoner. Instead of building rapport, the interrogator focuses on being in charge and berates the prisoner and his culture.

How we use this: We don’t and never would. But, it’s a common problem for advisers who act like they’re in charge.  We find clients are way better to work with and have a much happier experience (followed by referral) when we acknowledge, right from the start, that they are in charge.

Bonus Note:  Don’t assume that everyone in your organization gets this.  How are calls handled? Have you ever listened in or recorded such calls for training purposes? How are clients/patients and customers greeted? Have you ever asked them?

13) Fear: An interrogator pounds the table, threatens the prisoner with a focus on their fears which, in most cases, are always worse than the reality.

How we use this: So this sounds like one you would not use.  But we might for good and ethical reasons.  Sometimes, people cannot do what they really want, and need to do, without experiencing fear.  And we have a full repertoire of stories that induce fear of failing to act in a timely manner and to implement the documents that they really need to achieve their goals. Many scientific studies of human behavior and of the effectiveness of advertising and marketing have confirmed that we will often do more to avoid loss and out of fear than to achieve gain or to feel better.

Bonus Note:  Pay attention to the stories that you tell (or weave into your marketing) that really work.  Then use them again and again for the same purpose. Test them against others to see which work better to illustrate the point, and to evoke positive actions. For example, my brother has a high-end property and casualty insurance firm.  He is constantly telling clients to buy high value personal lines umbrella policies.  He observed that after his clients saw me, that they would almost always buy them. Why?  I have a good story.  Ask me to tell you sometime…especially if you don’t have an umbrella liability policy.

14) Calm: An interrogator shows compassion, empathy, or understanding creating a sensation and perception of calm and the subject then reciprocates and gives information.

How we use this: We do use it.  Sometimes, a client is reluctant to share a family secret or dynamic that might really matter to the planning process.  If we show that we or other clients have been harmed by failing to fix problems proactively, and/or we show that we understand and have experience the client may be more willing to share and we get them a better result. Also, experiencing the consultation, selling session or other experience as being calm and safe is a requirement for some people have enough trust to buy.

Bonus Note: In today’s world, drug and alcohol dependency is common and drafting for it can be an important enhancement to a plan.  Because this can be a delicate subject I usually bring it up as part of something I put in my own plan (based on experiences that my clients have had) and get the client to acknowledge that this can ”happen to anyone in any family.” Is there anything like this in your business or practice?  How do you handle it?

15) The “Train is Leaving” Gambit: An interrogator convinces the subject that timing is a major factor. He needs to talk now or there is no deal for leniency.  This is used often in criminal interrogation as well as in other types of field interrogation where time may be of the essence.

How we use this: The application of this technique is obvious here. Many times clients need to do things, update plans, develop a business succession plan, deal with litigation, hold family succession meetings etc. that are hard to do but way overdue.  This technique can be very helpful in finally getting action and attention on what matters. We can convince them that failing to act now has consequences that are antithetical to their already established goals and values.

Bonus Note:  This technique works well when combined with a phased approach to estate planning.  For example, it might be really important to eliminate A/B trusts and to replace them with disclaimer trusts.  It might also be important to do an IRA trust.  We establish the importance of these documents but set a timeline with multiple appointments for each phase so that the urgent gets done no matter what. Do you have multiple levels of products  or services?  Can you use this to get the first level of action?

16) The “Combination Play”: An interrogator uses more than one technique to enhance the effectiveness of each.

How we use this: There is never a client meeting when I don’t use multiple techniques to discover information that is vital, to create rapport and trust, and to make sure that I deliver what the client wants and needs.  There is a synergy to these and they often flow from and complement one another.

Bonus Note:  Here’s a real pro tip.  When you combine these techniques with a few of the verbal techniques used by interrogators, you have a powerful method for getting more done for the clients in a more effective and satisfying way.  They also buy more, send friends and family and are more willing to come back and to update more often. For that reason, we have more for you on how spies and interrogators get information as it applies to building, managing,  and marketing your business/professional practice.

So that’s a quick and over simplified view of how some old fashioned and more sophisticated interrogative techniques might be useful in your business and marketing.

In the next two installments we’ll also consider how Navy Seals lead and win and how you can use these tools to do the same AND then what you can learn and use from hostage negotiators to make your business or practice a better and more profitable place to work.

About the Author of An Ex-Spy Told Us The 16 Best Ways To Interrogate Someone”:

“Jon Augustine” is a former spy who served as an officer in the United States Army Intelligence Support Activity (USAISA). “The Activity” is a top-secret Special Operations Unit that collects actionable intelligence in advance of missions by other US Special Operations forces, especially counter-terrorist operations.

People who read this also read our four part series on Building and Maintaining Trust

Need more training?  Get our study course Persuasion to Profit

business black ops twitter pic

About Dave Frees:  

Dave has been called a “GrandMaster” of communications and persuasion skills by Steve Forbes,
Editor-In-Chief of Forbes media. He is the author of Language of Parenting.