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10 backdoor ways to gain the upper hand in conversations

Persuasion is difficult, especially when you disagree with someone. Here are 10 tips for winning over people from a longtime FBI employee.

10 min read


10 backdoor ways to gain the upper hand in conversations


Some of my biggest laughs come from watching Hollywood movies and TV shows depicting FBI agents as indestructible bullies walking that fine line between good and evil.

They are either taking the law into their own hands in their pursuit of justice or abusing their power to crush the little people that get in their way.

These movie heroes gain the upper hand with a combination of bullying, intimidation and rudeness. It’s all very entertaining but the danger that lurks is when impressionable audiences actually start to believe the tactics they see in movies will actually work in real life.

Life does not always imitate art, especially when the art comes in the form of Marvel comics made into action movies.

The truth is that FBI agents use backdoors to gain the upper hand in conversations when they need to get the job done — not brute strength and ignorance.

No matter your situation in life, learning to talk to people in a constructive way is essential to your success. Doing so will give you an upper hand when dealing with employees, bosses, customers and teenagers.

There are some tricks of the trade that I learned as an FBI agent for almost 25 years. And here are 10 that will help you to get people to lean toward your way of thinking when it matters most:

1. Leave a strong first impression

There is a reason FBI agents wear suits to work and visit the gym several times a week. They portray the image of someone who is both professional and capable of handling themselves in every situation.

Most people make snap decisions within the first few seconds of meeting you. They spend the rest of the conversation justifying their first impression.

The person who makes a good first impression is the one who controls the image they project to others. If you believe you are inferior, that is the way you will come across, regardless of your qualifications.

The way we think affects our behavior, and this is the essence of mental toughness: Control the mindset, control the behavior, control the outcome.

To make a great first impression, you need to manage your thoughts, emotions and behavior in ways that set you up for success. How you think determines how you act. How you act determines how others react to you.

How to make it work for you: Take advantage by paying attention to your appearance, posture, voice and mannerisms. The secret weapon is likability, and it can make a huge impact on your success.

2. Greet people by name

Dale Carnegie, the author of “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” believed that using someone’s name was very important. He said that a persons name is the sweetest sound in any language for that person.

Research shows that people feel validated when they are referred to by their name — just don’t overdo it!

How to make it work for you: Personalize your interactions with others by using their name. Not everyone is good at remembering names, so you may need to jot down their names and makes notes to help jog your recollection.

3. Tilt your head

Common sense tells us that if we nod when were listening to someone, it indicates that we are in agreement. A head tilt to either side, however, is a gesture reserved for times when we are truly comfortable. A head tilt is a powerful signal that indicates we’re friendly. It’s difficult to do around people we don’t like.

How to make it work for you: When you tilt your head and nod, you are sending a more powerful nonverbal message that indicates you are listening, comfortable and receptive.

4. Limit your speech

To be most effective, talk no longer than 30 seconds at a time in a given conversation.

According to researcher Andrew Newberg, the human brain can really only hold on to four things at a time, so if you go on and on for five or 10 minutes trying to argue a point, the person will only remember a very small part of that.

How to make it work for you: Speak briefly, sticking to one or two sentences or around 30 seconds’ worth, because thats really what the human brain can take in.

5. Mirror their behavior

Mirroring is observing a person’s body posture and then subtly letting your body reflect their position.

Mirror neurons fire when you reflect an emotion you see in others. Researchers have discovered that those who had been mimicked are much more likely to act favorably toward the person who had copied them.

How to make it work for you: Mirroring is an effective way to build rapport and increase a person’s comfort level when you need to use persuasion to get your point across.

6. Paraphrase and repeat back

One of the most effective ways to gain an upper hand on conversations is to show them that you truly understand how they feel — even if you disagree with them.

Studies have shown that when you listen to what someone has to say, then rephrase it as a question to confirm that you understood, they will be more comfortable talking with you.

FBI agents use this to help them get confessions, but you can use this same trick because people are more likely to listen to what you have to say once you show them that you’re really listening.

How to make it work for you: When you repeat back what you think you heard the other person say, you also give that person an opportunity to clarify a misunderstanding or misinterpretation.

7. Smile, always

It should be no surprise that a smile creates the highest positive emotion, but it has to be a real smile! In a genuine smile, the lips are drawn toward the cheekbone, eyebrows rise, and pupils dilate to open up. There is no more powerful persuasive tool in the world — or more disarming — than a genuine smile.

We are better-looking when we smile. When we smile, people treat us differently. We’re viewed as attractive, reliable, relaxed and sincere. Recent studies indicate that seeing an attractive smiling face activates the region in your brain that process sensory rewards. This suggests that when we view a person smiling, we actually feel rewarded.

How to make it work for you: A smile is contagious. It can make us appear more attractive to others. It lifts our mood, as well as the moods of those around us.

8. Dont correct people when they are wrong

Carnegie also pointed out in his famous book that telling someone they are wrong is usually unnecessary – and can be a catastrophic move if you want to maintain the upper hand because you’ve attacked the other person’s ego.

When someone says something stupid and we disagree with the statement, our first response is to correct them. After all, they are wrong and we are right! We start an argument, but no minds are changed. If anything, both sides are even more entrenched.

I’ve used a technique called the Ransberger Pivot many times, and it’s an effective approach (unless you’re dealing with a nutcase or radical, in which case nothing will work).

The Ransberger Pivot has three steps:

  1. Remain quiet and listen to what the other person is saying.
  2. Look for any points of understanding that you are sure you both agree on. Make an intelligent and thought-provoking response for their side of the argument. When you focus on points of agreement, they feel you are joining with them instead of fighting against them.
  3. Seek to understand how they feel and why. Then explain the common ground that you share with them. Use that as a place to start when explaining your position. Doing so makes them more likely to listen because you’re not telling them to pound sand.

Sometimes this was hard, but I found a way to agree with some aspect of the other person’s argument, instead of telling them I thought they were ignorant or a nutcase. While that might have made me feel morally superior, it’s an incredibly unproductive response.

Finding commonality will lessen the anger or other negative emotions that can erupt when tensions are high. However small the commonality, it gave me a base from which to work.

Common ground can be added as the conversation continues, but what is key with the Ransberger Pivot is that the other person doesn’t feel insulted, as everyone is treated with respect. This can be essential if your goal is to gain the upper hand in the conversation and win the person over to your point of view.

How to make it work for you: The Ransberger Pivot diffuses hostility and builds harmony by showing that you share the other person’s concerns. They are then more likely to listen to and hear your answer. The pivot may not come naturally. You’ll need to practice it.

9. Say “please” and “thank you”

“Please” and “thank you” are some of the most powerful combinations of words in our language. They are simple words, and yet it seems that most people don’t use them enough.

When we make someone else feel important and appreciated, we’ve brightened up their day. That person is more likely to pass on that feeling to someone else.

Most of us don’t intend to be rude, but we’re so caught up in our cellphones, iPads or our own lives that we don’t see what is around us. Researcher Robert Cialdini has shown that people respond to politeness!

Treat people with respect. By simply adding the phrases “please” and thank you” when making a request, compliance is much easier to achieve. Successful people do what the unsuccessful are unwilling to do.

How to make it work for you: You can make yourself stand out in a rude society by remembering your manners, treating people as respected individuals and doing what others are unwilling to do.

10. Flattery works

This one may seem obvious at first, but there are some important caveats.

For starters, it must be sincere for it to be effective.

Second, remember that we look for cognitive balance by keeping our thoughts and feelings organized in a similar way. So, if you flatter someone who has high self-esteem, they will like you more because you validated how they feel about themselves.

How to make it work for you: People can sense a suck-up a mile away, so be sincere in all that you say.


LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Get Quy’s new book, “Secrets of a Strong Mind (second edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles” as well as “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.

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