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  • Writer's pictureGary Lloyd

Change Management lessons from terrorist interrogators

Even when you take an inclusive approach to change, you may encounter individuals or groups whose positions seem intractably opposed to yours. How do you bridge the gulf between you?

The first thing to realise is that a "position" is difficult to change because it is the manifestation of other things, far below the surface. 

Each of us has a unique story about the way the world works and what is right and wrong. We create those stories based on our interpretation of our experiences and those shared with us by people we respect and trust. We store those interpretations as assumptions and beliefs that are rarely in our conscious minds. Instead, we abstract then into values and stories, the territories where emotion reigns supreme.

So, if you want to bridge the gulf, you can take the initiative and excavate below the level of stories and values. This is something well-understood by terrorist interrogators and hostage negotiators.

Two British academics, Laurence and Emily Alison, were given access to over one thousand hours of videotaped interrogations of terrorist suspects. Their findings reshaped interrogation technique across the world, although their findings came as no surprise to seasoned professionals.

After eight months of rigorous analysis, they found that the "yield" of information from an interrogation was strongly correlated to the degree of empathy shown by the interrogator. And that means showing you are genuinely interested in what the other person has to say, asking questions, listening to answers and asking follow-ups. Going through the motions is transparent and doesn't work.

As an example, they describe the interrogation of a terrorist suspect who has information that could save lives but has refused to cooperate. Below is an abridged version of the conversation, published in The Guardian newspaper in December 2018

"Tell me why I should tell you," says the suspect. "You don't know how corrupt your own government is – and if you don't care, then a curse upon you."

 "I am asking you these questions because I need to investigate what has happened and know what your role was in these events," says the interrogator.

"Why are you asking me these questions? Think carefully about your reasons," says the suspect.

This fruitless ping-pong continued until a different interviewer took over. First, he sets out the facts and then says: 

"I don't know the details of what happened, why you may have felt it needed to happen, or what you wanted to achieve by doing this. I'd like you to help me understand. Would you tell me about what happened?"

"That is beautiful," says the suspect. "Because you have treated me with consideration and respect, yes, I will tell you now. But only to help you understand what is really happening in this country."

The key in the lock was to express a genuine desire to understand the other person's point of view and listen without judging. 

The FBI's former chief hostage negotiator, Chris Voss, endorses the central role of empathy in bridging the gulf between what seem to be opposite positions. In his entertaining book on negotiation, Never Split the Difference, he recounts stories of negotiations with kidnappers, in locations that range from New York to the Philippines and Ecuador.

The key says Voss, who now teaches negotiation at Harvard, is to build rapport with the kidnappers. You need to understand their needs and empathise with their point of view, says Voss. When you can reflect their point of view to them and hear them say, "That's right," you have the basis for negotiation". 

But, says Voss, he never goes into a negotiation thinking that he knows what the other party assumes or believes, even if he has seen similar situations many times before. If you seek to confirm your pre-existing assumptions and beliefs, he says, it will be apparent, and that's not the basis for genuine empathy.

He goes on to make what I think is a crucial point for people who want to effect change.

When you want to make a change, success will depend as much on a shift in your own assumptions and beliefs as it does on those of others. 


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