By Jenica Foster

When a detective stood up to talk to a room full of communicators, I admit I was skeptical. How does this tie in? Here we are learning about strategic communication plans and a curve ball is thrown that causes everyone to lean in and sit up a little straighter. It took a couple days for it to fully sink in, but it’s more relatable than you might initially think.

Mike Shute, a detective for the Calgary Police Service spoke about crisis negotiation at the Alberta Communications Forum on March 4. Mike and his team are often tasked with de-escalating serious situations such as potential suicide. He told a story of an individual who was standing on the edge of a glass railing at the Core shopping centre ready to jump. Mike and his team spent eight hours talking before finally managing to coax the person down off the ledge. Flash forward to the following day and this same individual was ready to jump off the Crowchild Trail bridge. Again, Mike and his team were called, but this time talked the individual down in just 10 minutes.

How did Mike go from eight hours of crisis negotiation the day before, to just 10 minutes? Simple, he built a relationship. It took a line of strategic questioning, but most importantly active listening. For this to make sense, we need to ask for MORE PIES.

Active Listening Skills

  • M = minimal encouragers (mmhmm, uh huh)
  • O = open ended questions
  • R = reflect/mirror (repeat last few words back to them)
  • E = emotional labelling (what are they feeling?)
  • P = paraphrase
  • I = “I” messages (I feel…when you…because)
  • E = effective pause (so they fill in the gap)
  • S = summary

By using the above strategies in conversation people feel heard, appreciated, and it builds trust, as demonstrated in the viral video from 2013, It’s Not About the Nail. Once you have trust, it’s easier to persuade and influence. The key tactic that successfully de-escalated the Crowchild Trail bridge situation was a cup of hot chocolate. Mike had learned that this person liked hot chocolate and developed a rapport the previous day for this to be successful.

Anne Marie Downey (pictured) and Colleen Foster shared tips on what makes a good question and how to use questions to your advantage.

While communicators aren’t dealing with high stakes scenarios everyday, it’s important to spend time building relationships because you never know when you’re going to need to call in a favour to get an initiative passed, test and obtain feedback, or seek buy-in.

But there’s two parts to a successful relationship, questioning and listening. Anne Marie Downey from Downey Norris and Associates Inc., and Colleen Foster, of Foster Communications, talked about using strategic questions as a way to position oneself and influence others.

6 Attributes of a Good Question

  1. It is important to someone
  2. Attracts and generates energy
  3. Creates the opportunity to see different possibilities
  4. Invites deeper exploration
  5. Is simple
  6. Provokes and stimulates

Anne Marie and Colleen preach that, “We have a responsibility to the organization to get to the issues.” Just like Mike’s detective work, communicators must use questions to understand, investigate, motivate, and ultimately bring clarity. This is how we find out the big and small picture, hone in on specific tidbits, and ultimately develop and maintain relationships. So next time you’re in a client meeting, think like a detective to ask the right questions and then truly listen to what they have to say. It may just metaphorically (or literally) save your life.

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