How FBI empathy can revolutionise difficult conversations this Christmas. (My Christmas Gift to you)


“Your family made your buttons, so of course they know how to push them!” Myles Barrett

Spending time with family brings different words to mind for different people: fun, love, joy excitement, sharing … sometimes. And at other times… different words… perhaps difficult, challenging, frustrating, maybe even downright upsetting and destabilising. Our families made our buttons, so is it any wonder they can push them?

I hate to repeat myself, but for those situations, you can’t do much better than the survival guide I published last year on my blog and on the Huffington Post … or can you?

There’s one thing you can add that will help you with difficult conversations at Christmas (and other times). It goes by different names in different contexts: Negotiation theory calls it “FBI empathy” or “tactical empathy” (among others); Mediation calls it “reflecting back”; in coaching and counselling it’s called “therapeutic listening”. But it boils down to the same thing – or near as:

If you know the TV quiz Catchphrase, you’ll be familiar with the line “say what you see” – that’s basically the rule for reflecting back, except more along the lines of “say what you heard”.

It seems quite simple and straightforward – with a similar level of intensity as the person who has spoken, you repeat back what they’ve said to check that you’ve understood correctly.  Somehow, many of us struggle with this – it can seem clunky. Also, if it’s a difficult conversation, chances are, we don’t agree with it. That can be challenging. Your ego can get in the way.

The Head of the Harvard Program on Negotiation, Robert Mnookin, describes it as

“The process of demonstrating an accurate, non-judgmental understanding of the other side’s needs, issues, and perspective.” He also says that it “does not mean agreeing with or even necessarily liking the other side.”

We do it for so many reasons – mainly: it’s effective. It calms down the situation, slows the conversation, gives space for reflection and allows the person who spoke to feel heard and understood. They also get the opportunity to correct what they said or your understanding of it.

If you are lost for how to begin, a good phrase is “hang on, let me just check I’ve understood what you’re saying…”. You can end with “did I understand you correctly?”. There’s more to FBI empathy than that but this is at the heart of it and a fantastic place to start.

For bonus points: what if you didn’t have to be right? How would that feel?

Give it a go and let me know how it goes. I’d love to hear from you.

Wishing you a wonderful Christmas and an even better 2019.