Earning trust from others -- a CIA veteran's suggestions

Steve Kelman turns to an unusual source for IT leadership lessons.

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Some blog readers will remember my admiration for the Harvard Business Review site The Daily Alert , which run posts daily from academics and practitioners on management topics. A recent post called 5 Techniques to Build Rapport with Your Colleaguescaught my eye. It was written by Christina Hillsberg, formerly a CIA analyst.

Hillsberg starts with the observation that we are far more likely to share information with and support the proposals of people we trust, because (although she doesn’t specifically say this) trust in others is a shortcut we use in our behavior towards them, a way to avoid having to evaluate every new interaction from the beginning. Thus, the ability to create such trust is an important organizational (and life) skill.

The ability of the CIA to build trust among potential sources and assets is an important skill for an intelligence agency, and the CIA teaches this skill to intelligence personnel. In her article, Hillsberg shares some of those techniques, which the CIA summarizes under the mantra “You me same same.”

The first technique is to make yourself well-rounded, developing new hobbies and interests. This may seem like a strange piece of advice unrelated to building trust, but the argument is that being well-rounded increases the odds that you will have something that the people you are dealing with will find interesting. That interest in turn makes them more likely to want to connect to you.

“In order to have topics that you can connect with others on, you need to have your own interests and hobbies,” Hillsberg writes. “Is there something you’ve always wanted to learn? There are endless opportunities to acquire new skills from people all over the world without even leaving your home. …Having any amount of experience, even small amounts, in a variety of topics can give you material to draw from when you’re meeting and connecting with others.”

But, she continues, don’t pretend to be someone you’re not: “Just like CIA operations officers’ attempts to connect with someone over fake shared interests often fail, so will your attempts at building trust if you’re not authentic. Try to find a shared topic about which you’re genuinely interested. If you can’t find a way to connect with someone, consider learning more about one of their interests — but only if it’s something you actually want to learn about.”

The third tip is to listen. “When you’re building rapport with someone, remember that by and large, people like to talk about themselves and their own interests,” Hillsberg writes. “It’s okay to talk about you too — and you’ll need to do that in order to make those shared connections — but do it in a way that keeps the conversation moving and encourages them to share more. …For example, if someone excitedly shares about their recent vacation, and it’s a destination you’ve been to countless times, resist the urge to take over the conversation with your own stories of traveling there. If they ask if you’ve been there, you should tell the truth, but then diplomatically put the ball back in their court by asking them questions about what they liked best about their trip, where they stayed.”

Hillsberg also discusses an approach that the CIA calls “give to get” -- “to give some information about yourself first in order to make them comfortable to share details about themselves. …If there’s specific information you’re hoping someone will confide in you, set up a conversation by sharing something similar in your life that will ideally trigger them to share and open up about the topic you’re interested.”

Finally, take notes. “Just like CIA operations officers write up their meetings afterward, consider taking notes on the things you’ve learned about someone after your encounter so that you can remember to follow up in your next conversation,” Hillsberg writes. “If a colleague mentions they’re training for a marathon, write that down so the next time you see them, you can follow up and ask how it’s going. If they share with you how many kids they have and their names, write those down too. People feel special when you remember details they’ve told you about their life and even more so when you follow up.”

I don’t know if this degree of calculatedness feels right to me personally for everyday life, but I share this for those who might find it attractive.

Building trust with others is such an important part of life that we should look for tips anywhere -- even from the CIA -- to help us do it better. Notice also that none of the CIA advice involves deception or trickery – indeed, the one context in which the issue comes up, involving developing new hobbies or other outside interests – Hillsberg specifically advises against made-up hobbies.

I am guessing the real CIA doesn’t shy from trickery as much as Hillsberg does here, but I am inclined to believe – maybe because I want to believe – that being straightforward here works better than being too clever by half.