Which is more difficult: persuading a hostage-taker to free his hostages and turn himself in, or developing an online reputation as an engaging and influential expert in your given field? Ending the hostage situation, of course. It is exponentially more difficult. But as vastly different as those two situations are, they do have one thing in common: they both follow a three-step path to success. In fact, hostage negotiators can teach you everything you need to know about successful social media engagement.
The Behavioral Influence Three-step Stairway Model
So how to negotiators build relationships with hostage takers? The process is simple but not easy.
The Behavioral Influence Stairway Model, which is an updated version of the model created by the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit, offers a great guide for establishing relationships online (and offline, too). It illustrates how active listening can help move you through the three stages of relationship building: empathy, rapport, and influence.
Active listening is not just the driver in creating relationships in hostage situations—it’s also crucial for social media success. So what does it entail?
It starts with understanding that you need to learn about the other person. Before you can connect, much less influence, another person, you’ve got to get a sense of who they are, what they believe, and where they want to go. You can’t assume that they share, like, or even understand your opinions, beliefs, or worldviews. The reverse is also true.
Active listening includes a number of helpful tools for ascertaining these things, whether it’s from behind a barricade or behind a laptop. They include:
- Asking open-ended questions. This can be as simple as changing “Are you happy it’s Friday?” to “How has the week treated you?” Open-ended questions, which can’t be answered with yes/no, give the other person a chance to share more information.
- Paraphrasing. It’s a surprisingly powerful tactic on social media. Regardless of the platform, the ability to restate the gist of another’s argument is a great way to show understanding—for instance, paraphrasing the main thrust of another’s blog post before sharing a link to it.
- Emotional labeling. Putting a name to another’s emotional state demonstrates understanding and, when done properly, can reduce the intensity of their emotion simply by providing a name for it.
For a more complete list of active listening tools (some of which aren’t appropriate for online communications), check out Eric Barker’s Time piece here.
Ironically, the first sign that you are succeeding in your quest to use active listening to build a relationship is the emergence of empathy on your part. That’s right, the first step towards a relationship comes from you. Since you’re the one pursuing a relationship, it’s your job to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
Empathy is the foundation for all relationships, especially new ones. Social media imposes some barriers to establishing it, since you don’t always see or hear the other person. When that’s the case, more has to be inferred from bios, past posts, etc., so do your homework.
Because empathy is what drives effective communication, connection, and change.
This is a great time to start offering help or advice for problems that you have learned about from your active listening.
Built upon empathy, rapport is a sense of mutual understanding. In this stage, the other person is finally joining you in forming a relationship. Their understanding of your understanding (empathy) is the basis for this common ground.
And your empathy then gives insight into how to best communicate your opinions and goals. You have earned the right to be trusted because you’ve shown understanding of the other person’s point of view and hopefully helped that person solve a problem.
In this context, influence “is the act or power of producing an effect without apparent force or direct authority.” This, for most people, is the goal of social media interaction: to cause behavioral change through the respect and connection that others feel for them.
And it’s tempting, when you reach this stage, to view your job as done. Wrong. If you don’t maintain a constant—though perhaps reduced—flow of empathy and attitude of active listening, you’ll soon find yourself back at the beginning.
If at any point the progression stalls—or if you screw up and start “falling down the stairs”—go back to the previous step.
As you can see from this model, establishing influential relationships takes time and effort. And while you will have it easier than hostage negotiators, it makes sense to focus on a relatively few people at a time when seeking to expand your circle of influence on social media.