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Communication Techniques to Build Trust and Avoid Manipulators

Robin Dreeke talks about communication techniques to build trust.

Whether you’re talking to a friend, interviewing a potential employee, making a sale, or recruiting a spy, human psychology doesn’t change. The foundations of an honest conversation are the same. We can use communication techniques to inspire trust and get the information we need. Master manipulators may know how to sound good without answering your questions, but they can’t outsmart your gut. Knowing what builds trust in a conversation can also help you spot when someone is untrustworthy.


See Behavioral Analysis from an FBI Expert with Robin Dreeke for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Robin Dreeke is a former US Marine Corps officer and a retired FBI special agent. During his time at the FBI, he recruited spies, worked as a counterintelligence agent, and served as Chief of the Counterintelligence Behavioral Analysis Program. He strategized human interactions, recruited spies, and did double agent operations – exactly what you think of when you think of “spy stuff.” He also spent years as an instructor at the Counterintelligence Training Center. In addition, he is a keynote speaker and podcaster and has written three books about behavior analysis and communication techniques.

The Scam Attempt that Caught Robin

Robin has been a victim of a lot of attempts at scams and fraud. But most of them didn’t go too far. Only one has made it far enough for him to react. It was around 2010. He was still with the FBI, at the time an instructor at a training center in Quantico, but also was becoming a public figure with a social media presence.

While driving one day, he got a message on Facebook Messenger from his daughter, a teenager at the time. It said, “Dad, this strange picture of you popped up on Facebook, you might want to take a look.” Being a public persona and an FBI agent, Robin was understandably concerned. He immediately pulled over and clicked on the link. Typical Facebook pages can’t be seen if you’re not logged in, so Robin entered his login information on the screen.

Only once he was “logged in” did his logical thinking kick in. He realized he had most likely just given his Facebook username and password to a fake website sending the information to scammers. Robin stayed pulled over on the side of the road while he changed every single password he had. In the end, nothing every came of it – likely because he realized his mistake and reacted so fast.

Why This Scam Worked

This was an example of falling prey to your own confirmation biases. If you’re looking at things too emotionally or expect to see certain things, you won’t be able to see what’s really happening. You’ll only be able to see what you expect to see. When something or someone deviates from the normal pattern of behavior, you should not act. Look more closely at the situation before you react.

What Robin should have recognized in the message from his “daughter” was a deviation from his daughter’s behavior. She had never messaged him on Messenger before. That deviation should have made him stop and think. Instead, his curiosity and his concern that people would put compromising information about him online overrode his logical thinking. If he had stopped for a few moments to think, he would have realized the message was unusual for his daughter and become suspicious.

If we can let go of our agenda … and we see what is rather than what we’re trying to see with our own confirmation biases, we take in a lot more data.

Robin Dreeke

Identifying Behavioral Patterns

Every day, with everyone around us, we are establishing normal patterns of behavior. We are also establishing tempo, or the speed and rhythm that people tend to use. Robin’s neighbors raise honey bees, and one day Robin and his wife found a swarm in their bush. His wife was freaking out, but Robin wasn’t. It was because he was observing the tempo. The bees’ tempo was slower, not agitated, and the tempo didn’t change as Robin walked around. There was no danger. Obviously, he didn’t want to go up and slap them. Changing his tempo would impact their tempo. The same is true for humans – we can be influenced by the environment around us. But by knowing what the normal tempo is, we can spot when something is off.

The point is that you’re not trying to see anything. You can’t look for anything specific, or your confirmation bias will ensure you see it. Just watch what is there, and observe if something is out of tempo or out of place. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “If you see something, say something.” What that’s really saying is to look for deviations. If you spot a tempo, an object, or a behavior that seems out of place, that’s something that needs to be investigated.

These conversation techniques can help you have more open conversations.

The same thing is true when we have a feeling that a friend is upset or something is off. We’re picking up on an incongruence between their words and their behavior. The things they’re saying might sound right, but it doesn’t match the emotions they’re expressing nonverbally. For many of us, this is a gut feeling. We pick up on it but aren’t sure why. But learning to consciously spot behavior and tempo changes is a great communication technique. It can lead to better, more open conversations.

Demonstrating the Core Behaviors for Trust

There are three core behaviors for trust: Openness, transparency, and vulnerability. If someone is not demonstrating these behaviors, you’re going to pick up on that. The trap many people fall into when we bring these communication techniques into conscious awareness is trying to label it. We identify an incongruence between words and behavior, or we sense that the person we’re talking to isn’t being fully open, transparent, or vulnerable with us.

Our instinct is to label it: The person is obviously lying or trying to deceive or manipulate us. But when we start placing those emotional labels on people, their defenses come up. You’re going to get into a conflict. It’s possible that their intention is self-centered and they are trying to take advantage of us or hide something. But it’s also possible the reason you feel something is off has nothing to do with you or any attempt to manipulate you.

When you start to notice changes in the normal pattern or feel like someone isn’t being fully open, transparent, or vulnerable with you, it’s time to engage another essential communication technique: Curiosity. Note that something is different and unusual, and start to wonder why. Then ask questions. If you’re talking to a friend, it could be as simple as saying, “Something seems a little off with you today. Is everything okay?” Or you could say something like, “I don’t fully understand, can you please explain more thoroughly?” If it’s a healthy relationship or conversation, the person should be able to give you an explanation. But if they start to “double-talk” – using a lot of words that sound good but don’t actually explain anything – that’s a sign that something unhealthy is happening.

“Indicators” and Communication Techniques for Trust

Another trap that many people fall into is looking for “indicators.” Indicators are specific words or phrases that people think point to something deeper or the “real truth” behind what someone is saying. But watching for indicators isn’t a communication technique. There are no magic words or key phrases that will secretly reveal what someone really thinks. And if you’re spending the entire conversation listening for key words or specific phrases, you’re going to miss what’s actually being said and the pattern changes that really tell you something is going on. Don’t listen for indicators, listen to understand.

If you don’t understand what someone’s saying, be curious. If you’re trying to create trust and determine if someone is trustworthy, curiosity is a fantastic communication technique. Focus on the other person and ask questions. “Why” questions are great because they force people to be very specific. If someone wants you to do something now and you ask why, they’ll give you reasons. These reasons may be why it’s beneficial to you. Or they could be a more simple answer – “I’m on a deadline and if I don’t meet my quota I won’t get my bonus this month,” for example. That’s openness and transparency there. They’re willing to tell you what’s going on behind the scenes. That’s an indicator that you can trust them.

Questions: An Essential Communication Technique

If you’re still not sure about their trustworthiness, stay curious and ask more questions. Questions are going to be the biggest communication technique in your arsenal to determine if someone is trustworthy. Ask them about the company and its quota system, what kind of bonuses they’ll lose out on, how long they’ve been with the company, and if they like it there. When asking these “discovery questions,” watch the tempo and consistency of the responses. If they continue with a nice, even tempo, that’s another verification of trust. But if you detect they’re not telling you something, slow it down even further and ask more questions.

There’s an expression in aviation: “No emergency takeoffs.” Don’t be in a rush to get in the air – it will cause an emergency landing, or worse. Take your time and do your due diligence. The same is true when determining if you can trust someone. Ask questions and pay attention to their answers. “Why” questions are especially powerful as a communication technique. They require people to have a big-picture overview and explain the reasoning behind decisions.

Artful negotiators, communicators, and manipulators are great at using words that make you feel like a million bucks. But they’re also great at doing that without really telling you anything. If you use “why” questions, it forces them to give you more information – or makes it much more obvious that they’re not telling you anything at all.

Real Vulnerability vs. Contrived Vulnerability

Vulnerability is a key part of building trust. But manipulators can contrive vulnerability to trick you into trusting them. But you can use communication techniques to identify real vulnerability. To start, you have to know what vulnerability is. It’s the willingness to show your shame. Shame is a powerful emotion, and it dictates a lot of things in life.

One of the most common job interview questions asks about your weaknesses. When Robin interviewed people for the behavioral team, he always asked what they were working on in life. The goal is for the interviewee to be open and honest about what they’re not good at. If they were answering honestly, with congruent nonverbal communication and a consistent tempo, and willing to say what they weren’t good at, they were someone to trust.

If you’re willing to be vulnerable and transparent on the things you’re deficient at, then I can most likely trust you.

Robin Dreeke

Again, questions are going to be the communication technique you use here. If you are skeptical if someone is truly being vulnerable, ask more questions. Ask them about a time they fell short or failed, or about challenges in their career. And when they respond, look for congruence between their words and their behavior. The tempo of their responses should be consistent.

Establishing a Baseline

What makes these questions useful as a communication technique to establish trust is knowing a person’s baseline. It’s hard to spot inconsistencies in behavior patterns and tempo if you don’t know what the normal pattern is for that person. And every person is unique. It’s important to start a conversation with a low-stakes topic – idle talk about the weather, where they’re from, or something similar. Pay attention to their behavior and tempo about these topics. Then you have something to compare to determine if they’re being genuinely vulnerable.

When establishing the baseline of that tempo, more data is better. The longer you’ve talked to someone and observed their behavior patterns and tempo, the better you will be at identifying changes and adapting to them. There’s no set amount of time you need to gather this baseline data. Everyone’s tempo and patterns are different. It depends on the individual.

If you are good at interacting and both of you are being open, transparent, and vulnerable, eventually your tempo will come into sync. Don’t force it – when it happens naturally, it feels great, but when it’s forced, the other person feels that something is wrong. The more you create trust, try to understand the other person, and stay in the present moment with them without trying to manipulate or extract information, your tempos will converge. That’s a great point where fantastic relationships can be built.

Using Communication Techniques to Identify an Unhealthy Conversation

When we know what a good conversation looks like, we can reverse it. The reverse is what an unhealthy conversation looks like. Unhealthy conversations use communication techniques against us to try to force decisions or trick us into trust.

Understanding communication techniques can help you spot an unhealthy conversation.

An unhealthy conversation will not be open or accommodating. Most people trying to manipulate you have an agenda and are on a timeline. They will try to push the tempo out of your comfort zone. If you are using good communication techniques, asking curious questions and trying to slow the tempo down, and they are not accommodating that change and trying to push it, that’s when it’s time to be done.

That’s what you always want to watch. Watch for someone trying to push that tempo.

Robin Dreeke

Someone who’s pushing the tempo has an agenda they’re not telling you. At best, that’s unhealthy. At worst, they’re trying to manipulate you. Rushing that tempo keeps you off-kilter. They also use it to get verbal commitments really quickly. Once we verbally commit to something, it’s hard to backtrack. We want to validate our own thoughts and opinions and don’t want information that contradicts what we’ve already obligated ourselves to. It’s emotionally difficult to back out of a commitment, so manipulators try to get a commitment from you as fast as possible.

Bad salespeople do this too. They often end up closing the sale, but they’ve ruined any chance of referral and left the buyer with buyer’s remorse. Even if the person pushing the tempo isn’t trying to defraud you, it’s a bad sign. Use good communication techniques and try to slow it down. If they keep trying to force your tempo, it’s time to leave the situation.

Use Communication Techniques to Have Great Conversations

These communication techniques are not tools to call out liars or accuse people of manipulation. Rather, they’re ways to facilitate good, open, transparent conversations. Focus on having great conversations with people. Observe changes in behavior and tempo, and don’t assign meaning to them – get curious and ask questions.

A great way to inspire people to not want to take advantage of you is to make it about them. When you make the conversation about them and listen to understand their thoughts and feelings, you become a real person to someone. If they can objectify you, it’s easy to take advantage. But if you become a real person to them, it’s much harder.

The easiest way to not be a victim is to inspire people to not want to victimize you.

Robin Dreeke

Make it personal, and go down a road where it’s all about them. Seek their thoughts and opinions instead of sharing yours. Talk in terms of their priorities, challenges, and pain points. Validate them with non-judgmental curiosity about who they are. Empower them with choices. When you do these things, it becomes about them. Their brains reward them with serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. When someone’s oxytocin is flowing with you, the likelihood that they want to take advantage of you diminishes greatly. Robin isn’t saying it won’t happen – but it’s much less likely.

Learn more about Robin Dreeke and find all the resources he’s created on his website, peopleformula.com. You can also watch him on his YouTube channel or listen to his podcast, Forged by Trust, wherever you get your podcasts.

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