Mind games: what a hostage negotiator, magician and sex therapist can teach you about good relationships

We all know by now the business benefits of effective collaboration, but what is the formula to building trust and cultivating successful relationships? Kate Magee turns to a hostage negotiator, sex therapist and magician, as well as those inside the industry, for answers.

The following is a true story. 

A man comes home from work late at night. He finds his wife on the phone and is convinced that she is cheating on him. He loses it. He locks her in a room and ties her up. He has a weapon. When the police arrive on the scene, he is threatening to kill her and is shouting from behind the locked door: "What would you do? You go to work, do your best, come home and she’s on the phone to her lover. What would you do?"

According to former hostage negotiator Richard Mullender, the man has already told you everything you need to know to end the siege positively. 

How do you rate your communication skills? Would you know what to say to calm him down?

People reveal secrets about themselves all the time. But most of us are not adept at listening effectively to hear them. 

In this story, the detail that the man wants to "do his best" at work revealed his values – he is a family man. The negotiator responded with: "This isn’t you, is it? Let me speak to the man who loves his family." It was a successful start to an intervention that ended peacefully. 

Thankfully, the stakes are far lower in conversations between colleagues, clients and agencies. But relationships can still be explosive, fractured and fatally ineffective. 

"People reveal secrets about themselves all the time. But most of us are not adept at listening effectively to hear them"

In an age when collaboration is the "new norm" and strength increasingly comes from partnerships, developing good working relationships is an ever-more important skill. And not just because it makes a more pleasant working environment but because strong partnerships lead to successful business outcomes, as demonstrated by the couples featured in Campaign’s new ad campaign, "Proud parents". For example, John Lewis and Adam & Eve/DDB’s long-term relationship has not only had a positive impact on the retailer’s sales and the agency’s reputation, but has also helped propel customer director Craig Inglis to the board.

House of Fraser chief executive Nigel Oddy says the goal is to "work together as one team with your external partners" and that is achieved through trust. As he says of his relationship with creative agency 18 Feet & Rising: "Trust is crucial to our relationship. It’s built by a number of things including openness, consistency and, of course, delivering the results."

This idea is also backed up by Google’s Project Aristotle research. After a two-year intensive study into high-performing teams, Google found that the single most important quality you need to create a high-performing team is "psychological safety". Or, put another way, trust between co-workers – so that team members feel they can share ideas and take risks without fear of judgment or embarrassment. 

But trust is a hard thing to build and a precarious quality to maintain. So, in the spirit of collaboration, Campaign spoke to communications experts in different fields to provide shrewd advice for those in the commercial world.



Absolute honesty, however bad the situation

Mullender, who was in the police force for 30 years and a hostage negotiator for five, advocates absolute honesty to build trust, whatever the circumstances. Often in difficult situations, there will come a point when it is tempting to lie.

Someone, for example, might not release a hostage if they think they will be arrested afterwards. Or, commonly in a suicide attempt, the person will refuse to come down from the ledge if they then have to go to hospital. But, even when the stakes are at their very highest, you must not lie.

As Mullender explains: "The bottom line is that they will have to go to hospital or go to the police station. So I have to say I can’t do anything about that. You have to go.

"It’s about putting down a marker and saying I trust you, you can trust me – I will deliver bad news. If you lie about anything in those situations and they find out, they won’t trust anything else you say."

To build trust, you have to show you will deliver both good and bad news. If absolute honesty is a policy in a life-or-death situation, there is no excuse not to do the same in a business context.


It’s not me, it’s you

One of the most common mistakes people make when communicating is not thinking enough about the other person. We tend to think selfishly about what we want or what we are going to say, rather than about what they need to hear.

Lee Warren, a magician and di­rector at Invisible Advantage, was staggered when he made this point recently in a training session for the executive team at a global agency and one person replied: "This whole thing about focusing on our audience is going to transform how we pitch."

Total focus on the audience is a lesson Warren learned from performing magic tricks: "Magic is the only form of communication I know where it either works 100% or it doesn’t at all. If you’ve had a tough meeting, you can still save it. If a trick goes wrong, that’s it. For that reason, magicians are obsessively focused on how a situation looks from someone else’s perspective."

You will be far more persuasive if you present something to the other person’s agenda.

Why do you think your relationship works?

SD:"Curiosity and courage. When I have lots of courage, Jenny is curious and the opposite is true. That way, we tend to end up with something that both of us buy into but one or the other is terrified by."

Why do you think your relationship works?

JB: "We both prioritise two things – working very hard and having lots of fun."

How important is trust in your relationship and how did you build it?

SD: "Wine was the enabler. After that, a mutual understanding and belief in wanting to always do better, brilliant advertising. We have the same belief that if the idea is difficult, then it is probably right and nothing will get in the way of its success."

JB: "Really important. The bottom line is that Dags has never let us down – he makes things happen – so we have confidence taking his initiatives and ideas straight to our clients."

What advice do you have for others to create great working relationships?

SD: "Have a mutual belief and the trust to make it happen. Always share what is wrong and do it quickly, preferably in the pub… post-six o’clock, of course."

JB: "Dream big. I learned that from the Snoopy film but it seems to work."


Listen for emotions, not words

While long-term trust can be built over time by obvious behaviours such as doing what you say you will or not gossiping, short-term trust is a different beast.

Warren says: "Short-term trust (the sort of thing that is useful at the start of presentations and business meetings) is about several things but based on the simple idea that if you engage people emotionally first, you’re more likely to earn their trust."

When Warren is performing magic tricks at events, he will start off by asking the person: "Will you be my glamorous assistant?" This relaxes them and removes any nerves or stress.

Great communicators will identify the emotion behind what someone is saying and react accordingly.
For example, if a client says "All you lot care about is making money", then most people’s natural reaction would be to contradict them. "What the person is actually saying to you is: ‘You don’t care for me,’" Mullender says. You should respond to that feeling rather than arguing about whether or not you want to make money.


Focus on understanding, not empathy

When listening, the focus should be on understanding the other person, not empathy, Mullender argues. Empathy, he believes, is a red herring because people can only think about how they would react in a situation themselves.

"Empathy is just nonsense. How sad is your sad? You can understand someone and the impact an incident has had on them, but don’t say you know how they feel – you don’t," he says.

These different emotional responses are a common topic in sex therapist and Relate counsellor Peter Saddington’s counselling sessions, which often explore the impact of a person’s past, background or family upbringing.

These innate differences can be a source of tension in relationships. 

He explains: "If you’ve grown up in a family without much money, that might influence how you act in a
pay-rise situation." Or when making a decision on whether to buy a product or service, team members may have different approaches to spending and those subconscious values may cause misunderstandings.

Saddington advises people to talk about their values and bring differences into the open, rather than letting tensions fester.


Put the elephant on the table

All of the comms experts agree that addressing a situation head-on is the best strategy. But good communicators use half-questions such as "Does this sound good to you?" or "Is this making sense to you?"

These are kinder because asking direct questions tends to force people into a corner. 

"During a pitch, saying ‘At this point, clients will often have some concerns around budget’ is very different to saying ‘Can you afford this?’ The latter is more stressful and can encourage people to lie," Warren says.

Mullender says that in order to "put the elephant on the table", using phrases such as "I get the impression…" allows you to address what you see and hear in a room, and what you think is really being said, without being too direct.

It also allows someone to correct you if they think you are wrong. In this way, you can tackle problems head-on and stop resentment, misunderstanding or anger building.

Why do you think your relationship works?

DB"There’s a lot of mutual respect flowing round, but mainly it’s because we all live for risk-taking creative work."

How important is trust in your relationship?

DB: "Oh, fundamental. Everything’s out in the open and we are always honest with each other, but in a respectful way."

How do you overcome your disagreements?

CB/JA: "Don’t dig your heels in and think that only you can be right. Just listen. If one of us is disagreeing, it’s for a reason, so understand why. The few times we’ve have disagreements, they’ve always made the work better in the end."


Don’t ask too many questions if you want information

While asking the right questions are important, try not to ask too many questions because, each time you do, you are potentially changing the subject, Mullender believes.

"If someone tells you they are going on holiday, you might immediately ask where to. But the other person may want to tell you that they are going on holiday because they are stressed," he says.

We often ask questions because we are being kind to the other person, who has started to ramble. But if you are trying to find out information, resist the temptation to let someone off the hook. Mullender stresses: "The secrets are in the rambling."

For this reason, he says that when he used to appear in court giving evidence in crime cases, the best barristers were not those who asked lots of questions but those who asked open-ended ones.


Don’t see your conversation partner as an adversary

The best business negotiators are commonly portrayed as aggressive salespeople striking a hard bargain. Mistakenly so, according to Simon Horton, author of The Leader’s Guide to Negotiation.
"We tend to view good negotiators as tough negotiators. But if everybody is like that, then nobody gets a deal because nobody budges," he says.

This myth is perpetuated by those who have struck good deals in this way in the past. It’s the concept of "survivorship bias" at play – where people often falsely attribute their success to the approach they took.

But Horton says this group fails to see the deals they may have been offered had they taken a softer approach, and those they have subsequently missed out on because of their reputation as a hard negotiator.

Crucially, he adds, these people are not seeing the bigger picture: "If you are a forceful character and push something through that the other person doesn’t want, they are going to be resentful and demotivated. The deal you think you got won’t be implemented the way you want."

He points to the example of supermarkets squeezing suppliers and ending up with horsemeat in their products. Or someone being rude to a waiter and receiving a saliva-laced dish in return. Striking a deal that works for both parties is ultimately better for both.

This principle is demonstrated in an experiment conducted by Roger Fisher, the late professor of law at Harvard Law School and director of the Harvard Negotiation Project. In his seminars, he used to ask students to play a game. They had to sit opposite each other in a classic arm-wrestle position. Each person would win a point when they pushed the other’s hand on to the table.

The objective was to win as many points as possible, without worrying about the opponent’s tally. Most of the students proceeded to wrestle each other, tiring themselves out and winning only a few points. But some approached it differently, moving their arm in a pendulum swing, so each person racked up far more total points with almost no effort.

Horton believes that people tend not to be creative enough when thinking about solving problems: "People think along tram lines and never think outside those lines – they don’t come up with solutions that would work for both parties. That causes deadlock but, if they thought about it more
creatively, that would suit everyone."

Of course, this is not to say you should be weak. You need to know your bottom line, but a collaborative approach is more likely to elicit a positive outcome all round.


If it goes wrong, work out where and fix it

There are different forms of trust, and these include reliability (you do what you say you will), competency (you have the skills to do the job) and intention (you have the right attitude). If trust has been broken, it can be rebuilt but methodically and slowly.

Saddington works with couples trying to rebuild their relationship after an affair: "It’s not an easy one. There needs to be commitment on both sides to do it and it doesn’t happen overnight. Trust takes time to build up."

But he advises couples to recognise that trust is usually only broken in specific areas and to focus energies on improving this part of the relationship.

"You still trust your partner to make you tea, drive you to work or help you get the dinner ready. It’s just you don’t trust them to be honest in the relationship regarding other people and you don’t trust they are not going to do something that causes you distress," Saddington says. 

The key, Saddington adds, is to take your time, and be accountable and honest. "Even if that honesty is a difficult thing, you have to show you are behaving differently," he says.


Be memorable

"Trust and memorability are closely linked. It’s a quirk of the human mind that if we can remember something easily, we tend to believe it more. You can sometimes build trust by not being the same as everyone else," Warren says. 

He adds: "For example, suppliers always comment on the furnishings and artwork at a client’s building. If you want to be trusted, have something different and more interesting to connect with." 

People also tend to remember what they enjoy. Whenever you have the opportunity to make something dramatic, interesting or theatrical, grab it.

Warren says: "However boring and technical people are, everyone goes to the cinema or watches Netflix. We all love a bit of storytelling or drama."

How important is trust in your relationship?

NO:"Trust is a key pillar of everything we do at House of Fraser and crucial to our relationship with 18 Feet & Rising. It’s built by a number of things including openness, consistency and, of course, delivering the results. It’s about building high-performance teams internally and then being able to work together as one team with your external partners."

How do you overcome your disagreements?

AC: "We listen and talk and listen and talk and listen some more. Tension only leads to better work."