An FBI Agent’s 5 Keys To Building Trust

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Imagine if you could quickly build rapport and trust when you go to a job interview, on a sales call, or even if you're just trying to get help from your IT department.

FBI agents in counterintelligence need to be able to cozy up to all manner of people and establish lasting trust in order to gain information. While your workplace stakes may not be quite as high, we could all stand to build better rapport with those around us, and cultivate relationships that help both parties achieve their goals.

Robin Dreeke is a graduate of the US Naval Academy, a former US Marine Corps officer and a 20-year veteran of the FBI. In fact, he advanced into the Bureau to lead the counterintelligence division's behavioral analysis program. His new book is, The Code of Trust: an American Counterintelligence Expert's Five Rules to Lead and Succeed. I recently interviewed Robin for the LEADx Podcast in an effort to establish trust and learn his secrets. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)

Kevin Kruse: Tell us a little bit about the operational experience that has now informed your approach to leadership.

Robin Dreeke: It's been a long journey. It's been a journey that was forced on me because it was my job to do and because, as you're saying, when you look at my background, naval academy, Marine Corps, FBI, it's kind of that type-A hard-charger. What my mission was in the FBI was counterintelligence, and ultimately to understand what that is in really easy terms is it's the ultimate sales job. What I mean is there's no reason why any individual whether they're a foreign spy or someone the foreign spy is talking to, should want to have a conversation with me because 99.99% of the time, no one's doing anything illegal but they're potentially compromising US national security. And so it’d be good to know what everyone's talking about.

So when you take that hard charging type-A approach where you—“Just the facts ma'am,” from a Dragnet kind of show—it doesn't go anywhere because what you're doing is you're talking to them in terms of what's important to you, and not what's important to them. Luckily for me I was surrounded by some really great senior folks that had the art form down. They had the subjective art form of how to create strong trusting relationships with people down. I think most of them were natural born leaders at doing it.

So I got better at it through the job training and just observing the behaviors. But really it started coming together for me when people started asking me to write and teach about it. Because then I was forced to sit down and make this art form a paint-by-number. What was my Jedi Master—Jessie Thorn in the book and his real name is John—what was he actually doing when he was doing these things? So I actually had to take that subjective art form that came so natural to him and make it a very cognitive thoughtful process.

And as soon as I took a step back from that and actually gave things titles and meanings. I call it the “New car effect.” The day we buy a car, you can't stop seeing it everywhere.

And you don't even have to try. When you start giving all these behaviors meaning, you start seeing it absolutely everywhere. What I really learned was that, matter of fact the funniest thing that was so crazy to me in New York still, was the people I was working with, my confidential human sources we call them, they liked me better than anyone else in my own life. Everyone else kind of thought I was an overbearing hyper-focused idiot. And years later when I started teaching and always being reflective thinking about these humbling moments, I was thinking, well why was that?

And here's why, it's very simple. People that are in sales do the same thing. When someone's relationship means so much and you're doing your best, what are you not doing? You're not talking about yourself. You're not judging them, you're not arguing their point of view on anything. All you're doing is you're seeking to understand their priorities, what their needs, wants, dreams, aspirations are. You're talking in terms of what resources have for them to achieve those priorities and then you're empowering them with choice as to whether to move forward together or not. And you're seeking their thoughts and opinions to demonstrate value.

When you're doing those very, very simple things that you can make every single statement about the other person and not about yourself, it becomes very, very profound. And so because it was my job to sell the concept that helping the United States was a really great idea and all I had to give them was me and a relationship, I had to make that relationship as best as I possibly could so they actually would want to see me again. And it translates into everything else in life from that point forward.

Kruse: You said 99% of the time they're not doing anything illegal. Are they just collecting information that's valuable but from public sources, legal sources?

Dreeke: Yeah. Most of the time that’s what anyone tries to do, and companies do the same thing. Companies that are trying to get an edge against another company, a competitor, they're trying to understand what they're doing and they're trying to source it from someone who's in a position to know. That what it is. When you encounter—whether it's counter corporate espionage or foreign espionage—it's all exactly the same thing. People are trying to get information and source it to individuals that are in a position to validate it.

It's one thing if you read something in a newspaper, which is fine, but if you've read something in the newspaper and you heard from the president of the company that indeed that's true or not true, well now it's valuable.

Kruse: How long are you building rapport and trust in a single one-hour meeting, a lunch, a dinner and get information at that time? Or is it long-term?

Dreeke: It's not up to me. It's up to them. The thing I do in every first encounter with everyone home, work, and play is I'm completely honest and you have to answer three questions right away. Who I am, what I want, and when I'm leaving. And I have to talk in terms of their priorities of what's important to them personally and professionally. If I don't know what those things are that's the first thing I'm going to find out. And I apologize for not knowing them ahead of time too. If you can't do enough due diligence and research on someone or someone's company before you get together with them then I admit it right off the get go.

Then we start talking in terms of that. And then I talk in terms of the resources I have and then the final thing I'm going to do, I'm going to empower them with choice about getting together again or having more open dialogue about whether we can overlap what's important to both of us.

Now the timing, that's up to them because that's what the empowerment with choice is. When you empower someone with choice you're saying you value their time and you value their opinions and you're not trying to press them. Because if you're trying to press, you start teetering on the edge of manipulation and people pick up on it rapidly. And you want to start ending trust immediately? Try to manipulate or convince someone of something. And this is the real key here. The big switch in everything I do is I started realizing one day that you cannot convince anyone of anything. Rather a way to think about it is stop trying to convince people of things, start thinking in terms of how can I inspire them to want to. Cause when you're thinking of inspiring people for action, when you inspire people to buy a product, when you inspire someone to listen to you, you're thinking in terms of them and not yourself. And the only way you can inspire someone to do anything is talk in terms of them.

Kurse: Everything you’re talking about is coming from an industry that civilians think of as cloak and dagger, yet you're talking about results through transparency from the start.

Dreeke: Absolutely. Matter of fact Kevin, there was a company, I work a lot with private companies, a lot of financial companies and I remember not too long ago I was working with this one company and one of the sales guys there had a great question. Very similar to what you're talking about which is why it popped into my mind. He said, “Well, what do you do when you have someone that you've been grooming as a potential client for a year or two? Every time I'm in town I give him a call, I take him out to dinner, we get to know about each other's families and everything. And yet he seems like he's interested but he's just not pulling the trigger. When do I pull the plug? What do I do in that situation?”

I said, “Well that's easy, you make it about him. The next time you get together, tell him that ‘Hey I really apologize 'cause it looked like over the last year or two that you were really interested in what I had to sell that can help you further to where you're trying to go. Was I wrong in that assessment? Because if I am I really apologize for wasting your time. If I wasn't wrong and you are interested, how can we move forward so that it can be prosperous for you?’” In other words, have a conversation about his behavior and it was your fault if you misread something.

Kruse: In your book you lay out your five principles of trust. Can you summarize a few of them for us?

Dreeke: Sure. First one that overarches everything is really suspend your own ego. I always say the code of trust is flawless. It really is flawless because it is all about the other person. But the one thing that's going to undermine it is your own ego. What happens with your ego and vanity—what's in our heart is generally pretty good, what we want to do on behalf of others and for others—but what happens is our ego and vanity override our mouth and what's coming out of it. And so that's one key thing.

Be non-judgmental is the next one. You want to start off any kind of relationship and end it immediately? Start judging what's coming out of their mouth, start judging their behavior, start judging their actions, their choices. I guarantee you, shields will be up and they will not want to engage you.

Third is honor reason. This is my cognitive thought process. I throw this in here because basically if you're in a leadership position to be effective, you have to maintain an objectiveness. The code of trust is extremely empathetic because you are seeking to understand others. You're seeking to understand their priorities and you're validating them, understanding them. But in order to maintain objectivity, you have to honor reason. And honor reason maintains your goal setting and your ends goals and I go into that in more depth later. But it helps you maintain this cognitive thought process.

Validation of others is the next step. Sometimes people question what actually validation is. It's not saying I agree with you, it's saying I understand you. Validation is seeking to understand others.

And then finally, there is being generous. Being generous–it goes back to ancient tribal man when we were tribal in nature and 30, 40, 50 people on a tribe. Only means of survival is to become part of a collective and being generous on a tribe meant your survival. Five or 10 guys going on a hunt, one guy makes the kill, he comes back, if he doesn't share and was generous with others, if he gets sick, lame or injured later on, he won't survive. And so being generous with your time, being generous with your resources and this is really key, don't keep a scorecard. Leaders do not keep a scorecard. They're generous with their time and their ability to be an available resource for the prosperity of others but they don't keep a scorecard. They just manage your expectations on reciprocity.

Those are the five, right there in a nutshell.

Kruse: I always like to challenge our listeners to get 1% better every day. What's something specific we can do today to gain the trust of those around us?

Dreeke: It's funny, I'm going to give you two things. One's a little more challenging. Seek someone's greatness. Seek to understand what makes that person great. People spend most of their time trying to figure out what people are doing wrong but seek their greatness because once you understand that and you start out a conversation validating that in some way it's going to go a long way.

I'd say where you can really make a great advances with those around you in terms of trust is always try to figure out what's important to them. Their priorities, their needs, wants, dreams and aspirations both personal and professional. Whatever challenges they're facing. ‘Cause when you take time to do that you're making every single thing you're talking about, about them. And now you know how to communicate with them. Because once you know those things, you've given yourself that “New car effect” on what's important to them and now you're going to be talking in terms of those things with the resources you have to offer. That's what I would say to do. Seek to understand someone's priorities.

Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.

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Kevin Kruse
CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE trial of the LEADx platform at https://page.leadx.org/demo.