Armed with intelligence

Jun 11, 2015 · 7 min read

Imagine, for one heart-stopping moment, that you’re sitting face to face with terrorists. How would you attempt to influence them? With a background in British Intelligence and the UK Armed Forces, Graham Cox has lots of experience in persuading difficult people what to do. He calls it ‘responsive design’

Words: Graham Cox
Photograph: Glock

You are the most important thing in your world. And I am the most important in mine. Human beings are intrinsically lazy. We are programmed to see everything around us from our own perspective. It’s all about us. One of the first things you learn in Intelligence is the importance of thinking not about yourself but about those whom you want to influence. I call it responsive design.

There’s a lot of talk about responsive design for websites (ensuring that they can be viewed across all platforms) but responsive design for humans is much more powerful. In simple terms, it means constantly adapting your behaviour to influence those that surround you. Of course, it’s not necessarily as simple as it sounds — but here are some key steps towards starting to get it right.

Know yourself

When we react negatively to someone’s behaviour, is it their fault or ours? Far too often, we blame them without questioning the reason for our response.

Take the issue of trust. I have an extrovert personality; I want to be trusted and I want to be trusted fast. I also place my faith in people very quickly. That’s just the way I am and it’s useful in an operational context…well, sometimes. But I meet lots of people in business who are relatively slow to trust others. They may be highly intelligent, analytical people who like to go through a critical process before bestowing their trust; they may have had their trust broken in the past; or they may just be naturally cautious.

I therefore have to be self-aware and ensure that I don’t take offence when trust comes slowly. If I do, the person I am meeting will pick up on negative signals from me, and any hope of trust will be kicked into touch.

Trusting someone involves making a decision, and decision-making is also a process that differs widely in people. Some people like to make fast, instinctive decisions; others are far more methodical. And at the extremes, these two types of personality can clash unless they are both self-aware and recognise where their own frustrations are coming from — which isn’t easy.

Because we each believe that we are the best thing in the world, we tend to justify our own behaviour and blame others for causing arguments and problems. That’s why psychometric testing can be very useful — it provides an insight into our personalities that we would be unable to achieve on our own. Take care though — there are a lot of unregulated psychometric tests out there. I use techniques endorsed by the British Psychological Society.

Understand people

Just as we have to understand ourselves better, we need to understand those we wish to influence. A simple example is personal space. Some people are uncomfortable with people ‘invading’ their personal space. Others like to talk close up. Get two of the more extreme types of those personalities together and you end up with a waltz, with one chasing the other around the room. Those conversations will never lead anywhere fruitful.

Powerful influencers understand the feelings of those they speak to in terms of personal space, and mirror them. They have a natural way of monitoring those they are with, checking their body language, looking for signs of distrust or irritation, and endeavouring to build empathy. When powerful influencers put on a presentation to a group of 10 people, they actually put on 10 one-to-one presentations.

Knowledge is also very powerful. I’m surprised at how often people will attend a business meeting with someone they have not met before without having done basic homework. You can tell a lot from reading about someone online, and begin to understand what ambitions, fears and motivations they might have. More importantly, showing the other person that you have some understanding of who they are and what they have done is hugely important when building trust. And if you think you’ve reached a level of seniority where you don’t need to do that kind of thing any more, you couldn’t be more wrong.

Learn to persuade

As already hinted, and as most people working in comms and marketing will be aware of, mirroring someone’s body language in subtle ways can be a very effective way of making them feel comfortable with you. But of course, the best persuasion skill of all is simply to listen — and to listen carefully with interest. Looking out for clues of things that are important to the person talking and then bringing them up yourself will build trust.

This stage in a relationship is all about building empathy. Anything you can find in common between yourselves will be useful.

Above and beyond that, we humans are powerfully influenced by non-verbal factors — the way we dress, the way we talk, even where we choose to meet. There is also a theory that you can influence someone positively by dabbing a small amount of their perfume or cologne on you before meeting them — but maybe that’s taking things a little too far.

Tell the story

Storytelling was also covered in depth in issue 01 of Poppy but, in this case, it’s as much to do with the way that you tell a story as the content. We’ve probably all seen films featuring a negotiator who slows the pace down by telling the hostage-taker a story.

Our brains are wired to empathise with someone telling us a compelling story. We will relax, we will listen and we are much more open to persuasion. Without sounding stilted or scripted, it’s a good idea to have a fund of stories at the back of your mind that you can call on to drop into conversation and mould towards the interests of the person you are talking to. This story can be the key moment in a successful negotiation or discussion — but don’t tell too many, and don’t launch into them too early. Listen and build trust first.

Challenge your prejudices

Offending someone is easy. It’s so easy that we all regularly do it without realising we have. You can build self-awareness and awareness of others; you can learn persuasion skills and storytelling techniques; but unconscious bias can wreck it all.

However enlightened we like to think we are, we are all prejudiced in some way or another. Indeed, those who claim to be enlightened are invariably every bit as prejudiced as anyone else. Ultimately, we tend to like people who are like us — in terms of personality, class, interests, outlook, race, sexual preference and so on. When we are with people who are very different to us, we may feel insecure or uncomfortable; it’s human nature.

Tackling unconscious bias means interrogating our own thoughts and actions in a relationship to ensure that we are not behaving in a way that is prejudiced or discriminatory — because if it is, it will be spotted, even if we are not aware of it.

Arrange a psychometric test and discover who you really are. Use the information.

Where do you stand on the trust scale? If you trust people easily, don’t be offended if someone is slow to trust you.

If you don’t do it already, start exploring the art of mirroring body language. It may prove handy when you need it most.

However senior or junior you are, find out about people before you meet them. Show your knowledge of them without giving them the impression that you are a stalker.

What are your prejudices? Identify them and ensure they don’t detrimentally influence your relationships.

Choose your moment in meetings, and then tell a story that weaves together your messages with your understanding of your audience.

Most important of all: listen, listen, listen.

And if all that fails, wear the same perfume.

This story is taken from the second issue of Poppy. Our print run is strictly limited but, if you are based in the UK, you can request a printed copy via the website.

Graham Cox is a Director of Boundaries Edge, a team of former intelligence and military officers working with business psychologists to provide an edge in recruitment, comms and strategy.

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Poppy Magazine

Brain food for communicators in finance.


Written by


Brain food for communicators in finance.

Poppy Magazine

Brain food for communicators in finance.

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