Emotional Intelligence Lessons from a Police Interrogator, an Executive Coach, and a World Famous Hypnotherapist

April 15, 2016 | David Lee | HCI
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What can a police interrogator, an executive coach, and a world famous hypnotherapist teach us about how to engage difficult people in difficult conversations…and get amazing results?

Let’s start with the police interrogator. I heard him speak at an event where he regaled us with stories about some of his strange encounters with criminals. He shared how he was able to get criminals to cooperate with him and admit to their crimes when other police offers were met with only defiance and denial.

He even shared a story about how a man he put behind bars actually later put his name down as a reference for a job application because he considered the officer his friend.

Yes, he saw the police officer who put him behind bars as his friend.

The ex-con felt this way about him because the police officer is great at communicating positive regard.  He puts himself in a mindset of wanting to like at least one thing about each person he interrogates. He also consciously puts himself in a mindset where he’s not looking at the criminal with judgement and disdain, but as a fellow human being.

Now for the executive coach…

In her outstanding book Conversational Intelligence, Judith Glaser tells a story about a senior executive she coached who chose her over more than a dozen other coaches to work with him because she was the only one who didn’t make him wrong during their interview.

Even though his actions had created a demoralized team, she recognized that his intentions were good, and just like all of us—he was doing the best he could with the skills he had and the belief system he was operating from.

He honestly felt like he was doing what great leaders do to get the best out of their people. The fact that he wasn’t getting close to their best, the fact that they were demoralized meant that he had inherited the wrong team, in his opinion.

Because Glaser didn’t see him through judging, “You’re defective” eyes, she was able to work with him and facilitate change. He went from the having a team that was ready to defect to being his CEO’s top-rated direct report.

Now for the world famous hypnotherapist, Dr. Milton Erickson…

In my previous career as a hypnotherapist, I studied under a number of Dr. Erickson’s students (he had died years before, so I never got the chance to work with him). I got to hear amazing stories about Erickson’s legendary ability to work with people who other clinicians had labeled as untreatable.

Whereas these patients reacted to other psychiatrists and psychologists with defensiveness and resistance, they very quickly became putty in Erickson’s hands.

His secret?

Erickson was very conscious of, and adept at:

  • Focusing on understanding the person’s perspective and their experience rather than on how he is going to change their mind.
  • Being 100% present when interacting with the person, so they felt at a visceral level “This person really cares about what I have to say and understanding me.” Erickson’s students would marvel at the effect he would have when they talked to him. It was if they were the most amazing, interesting, important person in the world.
  • Focusing on people’s strengths, rather than on their problems and weaknesses, and looking for ways to help them utilize their strengths to heal and grow.
  • Communicating with body language, voice tone, and words “I understand where you’re coming from.”
  • Only challenging a person’s perspective, their definition of the problem, and their beliefs about themselves AFTER they clearly get it that he understood their position.
  • Using indirect, and enchanting, ways to challenge, like telling stories that didn’t have obvious connections to the person’s problems, which stimulated them to search for the meaning behind his story…which then lead them to their own personalized, relevant meanings (and answers).

The philosophies and practices of these three people from very diverse backgrounds can provide you with some powerful principles to guide you when you think about how you want to approach people you find difficult.

To get you started, think about something you have negative feelings toward and who you need to have a conversation with and ask yourself:

  1. “What’s something about them I honestly respect, admire, or recognize as good?”
  2. “Since I appreciate it when others honestly try to understand my point of view, rather than try to ram theirs down my throat, how will I demonstrate that I am open to hearing their point of view?”
  3. “If I feel animosity towards them or find myself NOT interested in their point of view, am I willing to do the work to get myself in a more neutral, compassionate state so I can show up for the conversation as my Best Self?”
  4. “Am I seeing them as Wrong and, if so, am I willing to do the work to be more open to recognizing that I don’t know where they were coming from and to be willing to hear them out?”
  5. “How can I apply Dr. Milton Erickson’s philosophies to this person?”


David Lee
Founder and Principal, HumanNature@Work

David Lee is the founder of HumanNature@Work (www.HumanNatureAtWork.com) and an internationally recognized authority on practices that optimize employee engagement and performance. He is the author of Managing Employee Stress and Safety as well as over sixty articles and book chapters that have been published in trade journals and books in North America, Europe, China, India, and Australia.

In addition to his own research and work with both struggling and high performance businesses, Lee’s work draws from a wide range of disciplines, including psychology, peak performance technology, anthropology, trauma and resilience research, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology.

Taking this research, which typically doesn’t find its way into the business world, Lee translates these principles of human nature into leadership and managerial practices that optimize employee performance.

Using the popular TV show The Dog Whisperer as an analogy for the difference understanding human nature makes, Lee’s work helps leaders and managers become “Employee Whisperers.”

For more of his articles, go to http://www.humannatureatwork.com