It’s impossible to change people’s minds unless you change their hearts, too. That means it takes more than shallow, fleeting relationships to get the job done. It comes down to this: in a world of mass media—more than ever—you must learn how to charm people.
Charm is the power of pleasing or attracting others through our personality. There have been several arguments that social media is damaging our people skills. I disagree. The charm of manners and personality is as important in social media as it is in face-to-face conversations.
FBI Charm School
I spent 20 years as an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent and my job was to recruit foreign spies to work for the U.S. Government. I learned this: the greater the goal, the more important it is to change the heart as well as the mind. In my work, it was imperative for me to learn ways to transform relationships and situations.
My years in the FBI was a grueling course in learning good manners because people were not going to talk to me, let alone follow me, unless I could engage them in a meaningful way.
A few years back, I arranged to meet a Russian Intelligence Officer at a coffee shop near Union Square in San Francisco. As you might expect, Igor was nervous when we met and probably suspected I planned to blackmail him into cooperating with the FBI. He was a big lug of a guy and it was sort of amusing to watch him tremble and stutter out of sheer terror.
But that was not my intention. If I wanted to change Igor’s mind about the FBI, I had to change his heart, too.
To elicit his cooperation, I needed to transform hostility into hospitality.
Why Is Charm Necessary?
Sometimes it’s not all about the money. The days of closing skills and hard pitches as the answer to improving sales are over. Customers are getting too sophisticated for this approach; they use mass media to educate themselves about a product and make their decisions right then and there. If we’re on the losing end of this decision, our job is to change their mind by changing their heart.
In my case, the KGB (later known as the SVR) had first claim on Igor’s allegiance. I doubted he would defect to the U.S., but that didn’t mean I’d given up on him, either. He could still be useful. I would simply have to charm him.
What Does Charm Look Like?
This is not an exhaustive list, but here are some tips from my FBI charm school:
This is difficult because it means you really do have to focus on the person in front of you—whether you’re knee-to-knee and nose-to-nose with a person or in front of a computer screen answering emails. Do not lapse into planning tomorrow or checking items off your to-do list. It means being present with both sides of the conversation—not just your side.
Igor’s English was poor so I really did have to concentrate to understand what he was trying to say.
Match your personality to your employee, prospect or client. This means quickly assessing whether they are introverts or extraverts, analytical or a visionary, purpose-driven or security-driven, goal-oriented or people-oriented. If you’ve been a good listener, you will be able to make these distinctions.
Igor was not a risk taker so I immediately re-framed the conversation. Instead of making a single suggestion, I offered a series of smaller, bite-sized ones he could take time to consider, and get comfortable with, before we moved onto the larger goal.
Only by taking the time to develop relationships, can you fully understand people’s needs, desires, and fears. Until this happens, it’s very difficult to engage them in any meaningful way.
Igor worried a lot. He was suspicious of everything and professed loyalty to the Russian Intelligence Services. I assured him that I had no intention of asking him to be a traitor to such a fine organization.
In a culture that at times seems to be losing its ability to have respect for the opposing point of view, it’s important to give others the respect that is due to them without trying to belittle them in the process.
Igor expected to be bullied by the FBI, and when he finally understood that I had no intention of placing him in an uncomfortable situation, I sensed his gratitude.
A person with tact knows what to say or do to avoid giving offense. Tact is essential when dealing with difficult or delicate situations. Do not ask embarrassing questions that put people on the defensive. Perhaps the biggest tip for developing tact is this: think before you say something. Try role-playing with a friend and ask for their input. Are you coming across the way you want?
Igor expected to be blackmailed (for what, I don’t know—it made me think I hadn’t watched him close enough!) It was important that he walk away from our conversation with his dignity because I wanted to leave the door open for future conversations with him.
I had no intention of “pitching” Igor or trying to recruit him to work for the FBI. I did want to leave a favorable impression, however. Over time, Igor felt comfortable enough with me to provide valuable assessment on his fellow Intelligence Officers.
The charm had worked.
How have you charmed people? What tips can you offer to others? How would you describe the difference between being charming and manipulative?
LaRae Quy is former FBI Agent and Founder at Your Best Adventure
She helps clients explore the unknown and discover the hidden truth in self & others
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