Listening to Build Trust: Lessons from a Hostage Negotiator

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Chris White is a professional risk manager and crisis negotiator with over 25 years of experience in the industry. In the interview below, I find out from him how excellence in listening can transform the way you work, live and communicate.

Claire Fry (CF): Before transitioning to the financial services sector, you spent most of your career doing crisis negotiation work, of what relevance is this to the business culture space?

Chris White (CW):Negotiation is a discussion (or series of) in the hope that an agreement can be reached. It doesn’t matter whether it’s buying a car, freeing a hostage or doing business. It’s very much an art that has to be learned and is about influencing behaviour, not brow beating. The business culture space can be tricky, even redesigning office space can be tense, let alone deciding strategies or making the big decisions. Employees that have had the opportunity to be part of negotiations and influence outcome are generally happier.

“Generally, people don’t really listen and therefore don’t respond well, this takes them further away from the trust they seek”.

CF:  In your experience, what is the link between listening to trust building? 

CW: We do sometimes trust without listening. Have you ever asked to see a BA pilots licence before he/she flies you and your family at 5k feet in a metal tube? There are other institutional examples too. However, in daily life we make judgements before we give trust, based on listening, responding, rapport building and beliefs. The excellent listener can more readily empathise (which is key) and will stand far more chance of gaining trust than someone who merely ‘hears what is said’.

CF:You worked for a long time as a professional negotiator, including at Scotland Yard, why the shift to the private sphere?

CW: I did my time, simple as that really. However, I knew for a long time that the skills I possess are transferrable to any walk of life and can make you a more effective human being regardless of arena. I happen to be in the private sector but that could easily change again and the skills are just as valid.

CF: What’s the biggest challenge you see people facing when it comes to listening?

CW: They don’t really listen, they just hear…and want to put their own point of view as soon as possible and try to ‘problem solve’ or ‘win’. This misses the huge opportunity to gain empathy with the other party and thereby have a feel for what is important to them and how they feel. Really listening is a very active process and requires careful responses. Generally, people don’t really listen and therefore don’t respond well, this takes you further away from the trust you seek.

CF: If there was one crucial thing people could focus on to improve their listening, what would you suggest it should be?

CW: There is more than one, but I would say: never assume you know what a person means. Check your understanding by responding with open questions: ‘what’ ‘why’ ‘who’ ‘where’ ‘when’. Responses that invite a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ shut down dialogue and don’t build trust.

CF: This all sounds very nice, but it can feel a little “fluffy” at times, what’s the return on investment from excellent listening skills?

CW: I get that and of course there are times when things need to be done right now. Sometimes there is no room for negotiation and orders must  be  given and followed. I do believe though, that in most people’s day-to-day working (and indeed private) lives, being an excellent listener is a massive advantage. It enables you to demonstrate understanding, build trust, show empathy and be an influencer/persuader. It’s a learned skill and can’t be done every minute of every day (wouldn’t that be nice!), but when practised well it can have stunning results.

CF:  One of your focuses within this field is on increasing company diversity, especially around gender diversity and women in leadership roles – why the interest there in particular? And where does coaching women on their listening differ from men?

CW: Controversial one this one! We are all different of course and excellent listeners exist across all cultures and genders. I have encountered the belief from both men and women that women, in very general terms, are naturally better listeners, before any training anyway. I’ve certainly witnessed many male friends going straight to problem solving if I’ve ever asked advice, and they haven’t really listened to my problem! In the global business space it’s true to say that culture and gender can result in business travellers being treated or perceived differently in various parts of the world. Learning, practising and then using listening skills appropriately can best position you to gain trust…. men and women may like to use the skills in different ways.

CF: Does it always work, or does it sometimes go wrong?

CW: It isn’t a magic wand, it takes time and effort and some people are not receptive, sometimes to the individual or the circumstances. Some people are just difficult or just don’t like you. I think it’s not always the ‘going wrong’ that’s the problem; it’s how you recover or find another way to connect that marks you out as a good listener.

CF: At the Relate Conference in June, you spoke a bit about agendas, can you say a bit more about it?  

CW: In order to listen really effectively, the only agenda that is important is the other person’s…not yours! You can introduce your agenda once you have earned the right to do so through trust and empathy. Too many people ‘hijack’ the agenda by talking about their own view or their own experience. How many times have you heard….’Oh yes I know what you mean, that happened to me once and what I did was…’? It’s not about what you did; it’s about staying on their agenda and allowing that to develop by listening carefully.

Chris White and Claire Fry offer leadership and deep listening/trust-building training modules across a variety of industries including: financial services, pharmaceutical and telecoms.

To find out more about how Chris and Claire can support you, get in touch below: