in: People, Podcast, Social Skills

• Last updated: April 4, 2022

Podcast #648: Lessons in Building Rapport from Experts in Terrorist Interrogation

What do you imagine when you imagine a terrorist being interrogated by an intelligence officer? The former getting roughed up? The latter yelling, banging his fists on the table, and demanding that the detainee talk?

My guests today argue that using force in this way to get what you want isn’t effective when you’re dealing with a terrorist, or, for that matter, a teenager. Their names are Laurence and Emily Alison, and they’re a married pair of forensic psychologists, as well as the authors of Rapport: The Four Ways to Read People. We begin our conversation with how through their extensive experience in training police, military, and security agencies like the FBI and CIA on how to conduct interrogations of criminals and terrorists, the Alisons discovered that literal and metaphorical browbeating was ineffective in inducing communication and cooperation, and that methods which built rapport were much more successful. We then discuss why building rapport in order to handle conflict, avoid arguments, and create connections is important not only in interrogation rooms but at work and at home. From there we dive into the four elements that make up this model of interpersonal communication, the last of which we demonstrate with some role play. We end our conversation with the idea of the “animal wheel,” in which different personality styles are represented by a mouse, lion, T-Rex, and monkey, and the importance of understanding your own interpersonal style and that of the person you’re engaging with, so you can predict how they’ll react, and adapt accordingly. 

If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.

Show Highlights

  • What is rapport? How is it different from friendliness?
  • What does fear do in a conversation or relationship?
  • Why is rapport so important to our overall well-being?
  • Can you learn rapport?
  • How the pandemic has made our rapport skills worse
  • What does honesty look like when trying to build rapport?
  • What does autonomy have to do with rapport?
  • How to deal with resistance 
  • The importance of reflection in the midst of conversation 
  • How to respond to the classic “Does this dress make me look fat?” 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

rapport book cover by emily and laurance alison

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. What do you imagine when you imagine a terrorist being interrogated by an intelligence officer? The former getting roughed up, the latter yelling, banging his fist on the table and demanding that the detainee talk? Well, my guests today argue that using force in this way to get what you want isn’t effective when you’re dealing with a terrorist, or for that matter, a teenager. Their names are Laurence and Emily Alison, and they’re a married pair of forensic psychologists as well as the authors of Rapport: The Four Ways to Read People.

We begin our conversation with how, through their extensive experience in training police, military, and security agencies like the FBI and CIA on how to conduct interrogations of criminals and terrorists, the Alisons discovered that literal and metaphorical brow-beating was ineffective in inducing communication and cooperation, and that methods which build rapport were much more successful. We then discuss why building rapport in order to handle conflict, avoid arguments, and create connections is important not only in interrogation rooms, but at work and at home. From there, we dive into the four elements that make up this model of interpersonal communication, the last of which we demonstrate with some role play.

And we end our conversation with the idea of the animal wheel, in which different personality styles are represented by a mouse, lion, T-Rex, and monkey, and the importance of understanding your own interpersonal style and that of the person you’re engaging with so you can predict how they’ll react and adapt accordingly. After the show’s over, check at our show notes at

Alright, Laurence Alison, Emily Alison, welcome to the show.

Laurence Alison: Thank you very much, Brett. How are you doing?

Emily Alison: Thank you.

Brett McKay: Doing good. Well, it’s great to have you. You two co-authored a book… You’re husband and wife, but you co-authored a book called Rapport: The Four Ways to Read People. And this book is… I think it’s like a layman’s summation of both of your background in forensic psychology. So let’s talk about that. What’s your backgrounds, and then how did that background lead to this book?

Laurence Alison: Sure, sure. So as you say, we’re both forensic psychologists. I guess we’ve got slightly different emphases. Mine, in simple terms, I’ve worked the last 25 years mainly with police, law enforcement, security services, and military, and I guess you could categorize what I do as being interested in the decision-making of those people and in the way in which they communicate, and I guess a lot of my work has been directed at catching the bad guys, whereas with Emily…

Emily Alison: It’s probably treating the bad guys. I come at it from much more of a counseling angle, I think, and again, for the last 20 years, have worked with various groups of offenders, both within the criminal justice system and also in the community, and lots and lots of emphasis on domestic abuse in particular. So violent offenders is really my main population that I’ve been working with.

Brett McKay: And then a few years ago, both of you got involved with a commission on interrogating terrorists. How did that happen?

Laurence Alison: Yeah, so in the wake of President Obama’s inauguration, there was a change in mindset in relation to what would work with high-value detainees or high-value targets or terrorists, certainly around the controversy post-9/11 with the so-called enhanced interrogation tactics/torture. The view was, A, this was morally reprehensible; B, it was ethically questionable; and C, it was illegal; and also, D, pretty importantly, it didn’t work. So there were some tactics that were being used, which I don’t know how much you want to get into the details of that ’cause they’re pretty unpleasant, that were being used in the wake of 9/11 that were really counterproductive in terms of the intelligence and the information that was being sought.

So with that in mind, Obama’s initial idea was to achieve two things through what was called the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, which still exists. It’s partly DOD, CIA, and FBI. It’s a tri-service program, and the two objectives were to generate an elite group of mobile deployed interrogators to go into hostile environments and do interrogations, but do them properly, do them backed by science, and do them according to the rule of the law. So where we came in was in relation to the science bit, because up until that point, prior to 2012, we’d been developing various different methods to look, essentially, at what worked with people that were highly resistant. And so we came on board in 2012, and every year since then, we’ve been successful in securing research funding to do work on what works in these high-value interrogations.

And I think what really demarcates our work from pretty much everyone else’s in that group of people that received funding was, unlike a lot of psychologists that have done a lot of work in relation to what happens in a laboratory with a student as a proxy for a terrorist, our work was on the real thing. So we’ve secured nearly 2000 hours worth of material of real field-based interrogations with people from ISIS, Al-Qaeda, extreme right wing, the Garda Síochána looking at Irish paramilitary interrogations, and so we scoured that database, largest database in the world, to look at what worked. And maybe surprisingly to some members of the public, what worked were the rapport-based methods, the so-called soft skills, which is a term I hate, but those were the things that worked in securing information, intelligence, and evidence.

Brett McKay: Alright, so that’s a great transition to the topic of the conversation, your book Rapport, because that’s counterintuitive. You think, okay, it’s a bad guy, but what you all found is that actually, one of the first goals you have when you’re interrogating someone who is a detainee, potentially has information that can help, is you want to establish rapport. And I think we’ve all heard that word before, rapport, but how do you two define it? Is there a scientific definition of rapport?

Emily Alison: I think really the… That’s the interesting thing is, I think there probably wasn’t up until maybe the last 10 years, where there has been quite a lot of emphasis on trying to define exactly what rapport is. When you look at the therapeutic literature, it’s really about connection, so it’s not necessarily a kind of friendliness or getting on with others, but it’s a respect or a connection that’s established through communication. So that was really important to us, that it wasn’t about this simple idea of rapport as getting people to like you. Rapport is more about getting people to communicate with you, whether they like you or not.

Brett McKay: And you all make a distinction in the beginning, there’s a difference between rapport and force in communications. What would be those differences?

Emily Alison: So I think with rapport, it’s really the opposite of methods that use force. Because whenever you’re using force to try and get information out of someone, usually, that’s through pressure, enticement, coercion, or threat, and all of those things are generating fear. So the reason the person is telling you isn’t because they’re choosing to, isn’t because they want to, it’s because they feel frightened. And the difficulty with bringing that into an interrogation room in particular, is that if I’m so frightened by what you might do if I don’t give you information, and I don’t have any information, then I’m quite likely to feel compelled to make something up. So you can massively impact the credibility of the information that you’re actually getting by introducing fear into an interrogation room.

When we think about our wider relationships, I think that’s so important because fear can be a part of our more intimate personal relationships as well, that kind of parenting style of “wait until dad gets home” attitude. And that that just isn’t a dynamic that you want to introduce into your personal relationships either.

Brett McKay: And it can also be in your work relationships. You might not be like when you… You use, you might use force, but not even you’re realize using force. Like, if this doesn’t get done, there will be consequences.

Laurence Alison: Right. The other thing that sort of struck me that we often talk about when we’re trying to get the basic idea over to cops or military personnel is, look, as soon as you show the hand that you are playing, which is forceful, you set up a dynamic in what you create, what will react. So reactant is, if I’m saying to you, you’d better tell me this, or you know, I’m in an organizational culture, you better get this done. I might have been thinking, “Do you know what, I was gonna get it done before you told me that I had to get it done.” And now, I may be thinking, “Maybe I don’t want to get this done because you’ve so forcefully introduced that I have to.” So it’s a bit like… The other example that I always give is, if I say to my kid, “You can have Honey Nut Loops or Cheerios. Actually, you know what, I’ve decided you can’t have the Cheerios.” Suddenly, that’s the thing that I wanted. So you don’t want to introduce anything… Someone might be working particularly well, as soon as you start challenging them on not working so well, it implants the idea that they should resist.

Brett McKay: And so you guys make this case that the ability to establish rapport, it’s useful in what you all do, obviously, but it’s also just useful for everybody to help us in our careers and help it make our lives more meaningful. And based on your experience, working with not just detainees but other people, why is it so important to our well-being to be able to develop rapport?

Emily Alison: Well, I think it’s quite interesting because for us, bringing this into a wider context just became… Seemed like the right thing to do. We were having lots of experiences where we were training very elite individuals in a professional context, and what we were getting was in the sort of quiet times of the training, so over coffee or over lunch, we’d get people grabbing us and saying, “You know, I really want to try to use this with my teenager ’cause we’re having a really hard time getting on.” And I think we were just seeing people find it so applicable and so useful to their day-to-day relationships, and I think that’s so important. We talk about in the book, just how important rapport and healthy content relationships are to your well-being, to your health, to your mental health, but also your physical health. I think even Laurence and I were quite shocked by a lot of the research that has come out showing how even your physical health is severely impacted by poor relationships, by isolation, by not really feeling a connection to other people. And certainly, given what 2020 is putting us all through globally, that seems ever more poignant now.

Laurence Alison: Yeah, I mean, we refer to in the book the so-called Blue Zones. So these are areas around the world where they’ve got a disproportionately high number of millennials, people that have reached over 100. And with the only commonality between all those areas is that they value social relationships probably more than we do elsewhere. So loneliness really is an actual killer, at least ischemic heart disease, information and so on, so just physically and in terms of mortality. But like Em said, we were repeatedly getting cops and some real tough guys that were coming to us in the windows of our session saying, “You know what, this has made me a better husband, this has made me a better father. I can connect with my teenager. I can talk more successfully to my wife.” So that’s kind of why we did the book.

Brett McKay: And I think a lot of people think that rapport is like this social skill, you either have it or you don’t. But you guys make this case, no, rapport, like any other skill, is a skill you can develop with practice. And if you don’t use it, it can also atrophy. I think, you mentioned 2020, the year we have, and I think I read an article how, because of social distancing, we’ve gotten… We don’t have the opportunities to flex those social muscles so we’ve kind of… A lot of people have gotten socially awkward because they haven’t had the chance to practice those rapport-building skills that they were able to practice before.

Laurence Alison: Yeah, I think it’s… Sorry, yeah. I think that’s true. We’ve all got out of practice a bit. We’re used to talking to people over a screen, which is not quite the same. I think you’re right. It would be interesting to know what the consequences of this are. And I think technology has got us so far. And I dread to think what we would have done without it. Our son can spend a lot of time on the Playstation but actually lots of parents moan about this, but that was his connection to other people. But you’re right, these skills do atrophy. You’ve got to work on them. We each have an inclination to behave in certain ways, and some of us might have a natural flair for it. But all of those things can be worked on.

Emily Alison: Yeah, I’m just laughing because we’ve got a broadcaster over here who described it as you need the three sentences pass now, where the first three sentences that come out of your mouth when you’re trying to have a conversation, you just have… People have to just let you off, because we’ve gotten so unaccustomed to those casual conversations that we’re really rusty, so we need to warm up.

Brett McKay: No, it’s true, I’ve felt that before. So let’s get into rapport, what it is and how you develop it. And you guys lay out that there’s cornerstones of rapport, and you developed this acronym to help people remember. It’s HEAR. It’s honesty, empathy, autonomy, and reflection, and let’s talk about some of this in detail. Let’s talk about honesty. This one seems pretty straightforward, you gotta be honest with people, but you all make the case that being honest when you’re trying to build rapport is tricky because you have to balance being straightforward and honest, but not too straightforward and honest. So how do you do that?

Emily Alison: So I think it is interesting, ’cause now when I train in these techniques, I’ll often describe them as like walking a tightrope. So you are constantly trying to maintain that balance, and honesty is a great example of that, because what you don’t want to do is be avoidant, and you’ve got something that you’ve really got to address with somebody or a topic that’s a bit uncomfortable or awkward, you don’t want to bring it up, so we become avoidant or vague or we don’t really say what we mean. And that’s an issue, but then you also don’t want to be what I call trout-in-the-face honest, which is like, I’m really gonna whack you with exactly what I think about what’s going on, because that can come across as demanding, judgmental, and again, generate that reactance that Laurence was talking about. My absolute advice, then, if you’re gonna try and stay on that honesty tightrope, is you need to pair that honesty with some empathy. So all of these skills do tend to interact, but that’s the kind of magic combination that helps you deliver something honestly and not fall off either side.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s move on to empathy. So how do you become more empathetic, and what does that look like, and what does that look like when you’re working with a guy who potentially was a terrorist?

Emily Alison: So empathy’s a really interesting one because it’s quite a hard thing to teach. It’s really important to teach it in early experiences, so to children. I think empathic development in children, we talk about in the book, is quite a significant, important stage for them. But empathy, really, in the way that we’re talking about it, again, it’s not this soft, fluffy, warmth. Those are different things. You can still be warm, you can be sympathetic to people, but that’s not empathy. Empathy, genuinely trying to adopt their perspective. So that means that you can’t just think, well, if that was happening to me, how would I feel? What would I do?

That’s a step in the right direction, but what we’re actually saying is, if… We’ve seen this, for instance, with… I’ll give you an example from our interviewing context. If you’ve got a suspect who is a female, Pakistani background, British-born blogger, so a social media blogger, who’s been arrested on suspicion of encouraging support for ISIS, and you are an older white male British police officer, how are you gonna relate to that person? Well, empathic understanding is thinking, if I were your gender, had your background, your ethnicity, your experiences, how might I feel in this situation? And that is a really… You can see that is a really difficult challenge. So the further away things get from your direct experience, or in particular your core values, the harder it is to empathize. It’s still possible, but it’s the level of effort you’re prepared to put into that challenge.

Brett McKay: So how would that look like on a just a day-to-day, like workaday basis for someone who’s not interrogating potential terrorists?

Laurence Alison: Well, I think people make the mistake of… Let’s talk about the three levels of empathy. Level one is I am able to articulate how I feel about something. Level two is I’m able to articulate how I would feel if I was in that other person’s situation. So in other words, as Emily gave the example there, well, how would I feel if I was in Syria and I may be being recruited to the cause? Well, I’m not a 19-year-old female. So level three is, what you’ve gotta do is you’ve got to… I like to consider empathy as more of a process of active imagination. I’m never going to be a 19-year-old female, I never was, but it’s the effort that you make to try and go to that place and to try and seek the understanding of it, which oftentimes is through listening or an act of imagination.

I often draw up the fact that prior to… In the Victorian era, there was very little understanding or appreciation of what it was like to be poor, until we started to get books about it, and narrative books largely from Dickens, explaining the plight of the poor. And, weirdly, once people started to read Dickens, they were using their imagination and engaging with what essentially was a fiction, but nonetheless representing the reality of what was going on in the streets, and that’s when the attitude in Britain changed towards poverty, and that is an act of imagination. And I guess what we’re saying with empathy, it is an act of imagination. You don’t have to feel warm towards the person, but you are reaching out psychologically, cognitively, and with effort to try and understand that person’s position or plight.

Brett McKay: Well, so it sounds like empathy… I think most people, when they think of empathy, they think of it as an emotional thing. It’s like, well, you want to see, you want to feel what they feel, and it’s not necessarily that. It’s like, you just want to understand intellectually what’s going on.

Laurence Alison: Yeah, I think it’s kind of Mr. Spock-ish, I don’t know if… I’m probably older than some of your viewers, but Mr. Spock always used to say, “Curious.” It is, what is going on here? Why is this person behaving like this in front of me? I need to find that out. So as Em said, proper, true, clinical counseling empathy is actually rather cold. It doesn’t need to be. It’s not a prerequisite of it, but it’s definitely a more cognitive than affect-laden issue.

Emily Alison: I think it’s interesting as well when you do try and bring that into the realm of your personal relationships, because that can feel a bit clinical. But I guess we’re saying, if you’re trying to empathize with your teenager in their situation, you kind of need to turn off your own emotion, which is, you might be thinking, “Well, you’ll get over it. You’ll grow out of this. Stop being so childish,” or whatever. But that’s your kind of emotional mindset and value system coming into play. Whereas, instead, if you’re empathizing with your teenager, you’re thinking, “Where is your head at at the moment? What are you going through? What’s this experience like for you, what do you care about?” And that does require listening. It requires caring enough to figure out what the answers to those questions are.

Brett McKay: And I’ll let you… Going back to if you’re interrogating terrorists, by being empathetic, you can figure out what this person needs in order for you to get the information that you’re looking for. They might be willing to give you whatever they want, but they want to know that they’re gonna be safe after they get it, but you have to be empathetic to understand that.

Emily Alison: Exactly. I think that is spot on, but it’s also not assuming. For some, it might be safety. For some, it might be a platform to put their message across. And that’s the main thing is you do have to have this kind of receptivity to think, “I want to figure you out. I want to know what is driving you,” not just assume, well, the last person like you that I interviewed valued this, so you probably think the same. It’s a very individual thing, I think.

Laurence Alison: Perhaps, as a classic example as Em said, there’s huge danger in assuming what makes someone tick. We had one detainee that was involved in basically a shooting incident where they had gone into a shopping mall, and yeah. The attack plan was to go into a mall and basically kill people. And it was subsequently discovered. And he said in the interview, “Look, I never ever wanted to hurt children, that was not my objective. I really, really care about kids. I never wanted to hurt a child.” Subsequently, and later on in the interview, it was discovered that that person wanted to kidnap some kids and take them back to their country of origin. At which point the interviewer said, “Well, hang on. A minute ago. Hang on, a minute ago, you said you didn’t want to hurt kids, but you’re taking them away from their parents.” And the detainee responded with, “Yes, because your Western government is corrupt and you’re corrupting your children. I wanted to give them a better life.”

Now, one might think, well, how true was that, but it certainly came across as pretty genuine cognition about what he saw children as in the West. It doesn’t make it right, I can’t condone it. But the interviewer had made the assumption that the guy was lying about not wanting to hurt kids. And I actually think it probably was the case that that value system was so different to the interrogator’s that the interrogator wasn’t sufficiently alive to the possibility that he needed to find out more about the value system. Does that make sense?

Brett McKay: Yeah, that makes sense, that makes sense. So we’ve talked about honesty, we’ve talked about empathy. Empathy allows you to know how to be honest without bludgeoning people. Let’s talk about autonomy. So how does giving people autonomy build rapport and actually nudges them to doing what you want them to do?

Emily Alison: So yeah, autonomy is a really interesting one because I think this is such a driver for us. As human beings, we want to be in charge of our own destiny, of our own decisions. And as soon as someone tries to constrain or control us, there’s a real natural reaction to rebel against that. And I think this applies to so many different contexts, and you can think about… Certainly for me, working with domestic abuse perpetrators for a very long time, I’ve experienced cases where they’ll be sent for treatment, and the idea is to say to them, “Well, it’s a choice. You can choose not to go for treatment.” But they know that if they choose not to go for treatment, that may mean they can no longer reside at the family home, they can no longer have access or contact with their children. These are huge stakes for someone, that mean that that’s not really a choice, that is really strong-arming somebody. So one of the rules we always say with using autonomy in a rapport context is don’t dress things up as a choice when they aren’t really a choice. So only go to the point of choice that you can actually use within your environment. So that creates some interesting challenges for us, obviously, with suspect interviewing as well. There’s not a lot of choice about whether you’re there when you’ve been placed under arrest and you’re being interviewed.

Laurence Alison: But I think the thing is, provide choices wherever and whenever you can. In suspect interviews, we’ve done role play scenarios where we deliberately get the actor to come in and say, “Look, I want a notebook to take notes.” And weirdly, sometimes, the interrogators will resist giving that suspect a notebook, and then it just becomes this massive struggle where, “Well, you’ve got a notebook. Why can’t I have a notebook?” “Well, you can’t have a notebook ’cause you don’t need a notebook and this is all being recorded. What do you need to need a notebook for?” “Well, yeah, but you’ve got one.” And that problem can go away. Unless that person is gonna be a threat with the pen, which is a different story, if you can provide choice, you should, because as soon as you withhold that, you’re creating tension that doesn’t even need to be there.

And to your question, Brett, around getting people to do what you want them to do. The thing is, none of these techniques are tricks. The more authentic that you can be, the better. The more genuine you can be, the better, and actually, if you genuinely want rapport with someone and they genuinely don’t want to do something, then that is absolutely their choice. And it’s enshrined in law, isn’t it, in relation to suspects, you do not have to say anything, you have a right to silence. And weirdly and counterintuitively perhaps, the more authentically you as an interrogator land that right to them, we always say, “Sell properly and authentically, that they have a choice about whether they speak or not.” When it becomes procedural or perfunctory or robotic, people are much more likely to avail themselves of that right to silence. If it’s delivered authentically and genuinely, some people actually do want to talk or they’re at least contemplating it, and you should allow that contemplation to arise. Don’t… As soon as you push, they will pull. As soon as you’re pulling on that tug of war rope, they will pull back. So just let go of the rope.

Brett McKay: What do you guys do whenever someone doesn’t want to cooperate? What’s your next step?

Emily Alison: Yeah, so we’ll see lots of different forms of resistance or lack of cooperation, and I think our advice when we’re working with interviewers or interrogators is to say, “What do you know about this person already? What do you know they care about, or have some indicators,” and again, as I said before, you don’t want to make assumptions, but you want to make a kind of informed hypothesis, a bit of a guess of it’s, they probably are interested or care about this, and so if you can frame your approaches or your questions or your appeals to them around values that you think they’re gonna hold, then that is likely to start pushing those levers that open them up.

Laurence Alison: You’ve at least got to be able to explore the blockers, because the reality is, if they’ve got a genuinely and fully informed picture of the reasons why they aren’t talking and the reasons why they might want to consider talking, then you genuinely do need to leave that choice up to them, but what’s kind of strange is, perhaps, sometimes it is in their best interest to talk and they don’t, they’re not fully apprised of the reason why. You can sometimes get some very strong-arming barristers or solicitors that are instructing them not to talk. Well, the reality is legally, it’s not an instruction not to talk, it’s advice. And so we always recommend, if you as the interrogator keep that position clear in your head, it’s not about what your solicitor or barrister or attorney wants you to do, it’s not about what I want you to do, this is the situation, it is your choice.

And actually, that is the strongest indicator that that person can make a fully informed, legally appropriate and psychologically real decision about whether they want to talk. And look, the reality is, if you’ve got a hardcore Taliban commander that has got zero interest in speaking to you, there is nothing you can do about it. And that, again, is also their choice, but as soon as you start going down that slippery slope of strong-arming, coercing, tricking, deceiving and so on, the long-term pain that you will pay for that is that you could get bust information, you come across as the bad guy, you come across as the coward, and that will go back to those people in terms of the long game. That is a toxic route that you can go down that doesn’t pay off, and it is, the more you can leave it up to them, the better.

Emily Alison: I was just gonna add very quick, give you a practical example of seeing that in operation, and this really shocked us even in the analysis of the data, but like Laurence said, for some people, they’re so dug in, it really doesn’t matter. You feel like it doesn’t matter what you do. And we’ve seen that kind of where interviewers, we call it a kind of kitchen sink approach. They’ll just try anything to get that person to cooperate. But we saw a real difference if the interviewers maintained rapport-based methods even with very hardcore paramilitary suspects, they would never say anything on tape. They were way too savvy, that wasn’t gonna happen ever. But they would give information up when the tape switched off and intelligence in this form matters a great deal. So we were saying, “Listen, it always matters, rapport always matters.” Even if someone looks like there’s no chance of them cooperating, it’s not worth going, “Well, let’s just try anything.”

Brett McKay: So it sounds like knowing how to give someone autonomy requires empathy. Again, you have to understand where they’re coming from, and I was trying to think of a sort of a day-to-day example and one that came to me is customer service, right? When you have a problem and you go to the customer service person and the typical thing is you just start demanding things, da da da da da. And I think in that situation, you’d want to be, “Okay, how can I give this person autonomy?” So you’d ask is there anything you can do to fix this problem? And they might say no, but at least you’re not going, you’re not saying, “I’m gonna go to your manager.” Just say, go to that person like, “Hey, you make the choice. You’re capable of doing this.”

Laurence Alison: Yeah, I think that’s a good example. If you come in hard to someone that is on the front desk there that’s gotta deal with your BS, you’re instantly setting up an environment where you’re the wall that they want to knock down. Whereas if you come at them more openly and delicately and considerately and allow them some decision-making in the process, you’re gonna get a much better result, aren’t you? You don’t become abrasive quickly ’cause you get a reaction immediately back to that.

Emily Alison: It’s hugely important in parenting as well, when you think about trying to teach your children how to solve their own problems. If you’re constantly sort of saying, “I lay down the law and I decide what’s gonna happen to you, and I decide what your punishment is, or what to do about this situation where you screwed up,” and we never ever say to them, “Look, this is a problem. This is how things are. This is what’s happened. What are you gonna do to fix it?” That’s a really important lesson for kids to learn, which is own your behavior, take responsibility and fix your wrongs. Those are such important messages.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about the last part of HEAR, which is reflection, and you guys devote a whole chapter to this, so it seems like it’s really important. So what is reflection and how does that work into the process?

Laurence Alison: Well, we had an interesting idea here, Brett, which you may or may not go for. We thought it’s probably best to illustrate this by example. So I don’t know how you feel about this, but would you indulge us by letting Emily interview you for a couple of minutes and we’ll…

Brett McKay: Okay. We will see how it goes, oh, goodness, this is… You’re putting me on the spot here.

Laurence Alison: Actually, what I’ve noticed is that you’re really good at reflections yourself, so I don’t know if you… Throughout this interview so far you’ve said quite frequently, “So it sounds like what you’re saying is, ‘Yada yada yada.'” Well, that’s a classic what we call reframe reflection and what you’re doing there is we’ve said something, you’re exploring it by saying, “I think I’ve heard what you said but I’m just checking, are you saying this?” and that is a classic interview technique to squeeze more information out of people, so you’ve got a natural ability there, Brett, for doing a particular form of reflection.

Brett McKay: I’m ready to interview terrorists. [laughter]

Laurence Alison: Okay. We’ll set you on one.

Emily Alison: Oh, yeah.

Laurence Alison: So Ems, we had an idea about how to do this.

Emily Alison: Well, it’s entirely up to you, again. I’m respecting your autonomy.

Brett McKay: Oh, autonomy, thank you, yes, thank you.

Emily Alison: But I was gonna just ask you just hopefully an interesting question, if you could just say a little bit about maybe why you chose to start up this podcast or to give it the title that you did or just tell us a little bit about that.

Brett McKay: Sure, so the whole thing started off as a blog called back in 2008, and we just… I wrote content with my wife about how men can improve themselves, be better husbands, better fathers, better dads, and then in 2009 I decided to do a podcast because I thought, “Why not? Let’s do a podcast, it’s something to do,” and that’s basically the reason why I started the podcast.

Emily Alison: So you said that when you started it as a blog which, yeah, it’s funny, isn’t it, how technology has just advanced so much, but when you were writing it as a blog that it was about being a better man, being a better husband, being a better father, what made you want to get those messages out to people?

Brett McKay: Well, it’s just basically I was trying to fulfill what I thought was an unmet need in my own life, a lot of the men’s publications at the time, like magazines and things, I thought were very superficial, too focused on six-pack abs and wearing expensive clothing and it just didn’t resonate with me, so I figured I’m probably not the only guy that feels that way so I’ll create the men’s magazine that I’d want to read.

Emily Alison: Right, yeah, that’s really interesting, so kind of feeling like the things that were aimed at men were not really connecting with you, were not really in line with your values and what you cared about, they were all these superficial things, cars and six-pack abs and the kind of stereotypes, and so do you think one of your goals is to get underneath some of those stereotypes of men?

Brett McKay: Yeah, I would say that it was, I would say that that was one of the goals to say that men are more multidimensional than people often think they are.

Laurence Alison: Multidimensional.

Brett McKay: Yeah, they’re many-faceted, they have other interests besides six-pack abs, cars. They want to learn how to be better husbands, better fathers, interested in hearing from interesting people like yourselves, forensic psychologists, and how they can use those insights from your careers in their own lives. I think sometimes we sell men short.

Emily Alison: Yeah, so on the one hand feeling like there wasn’t anything out there but then also feeling like what was out there was kind of derogatory toward what maleness is about.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I would say that, yeah, I think that’s a great way to put it.

Emily Alison: Okay, that’s quite interesting. Listening to that, that tells me an awful lot about you and what you care about and what you think about in terms of yourself and your identity as a man and what you think… What you would want for other men to feel as well, that you want there to be a place for men to be interested in parenting, be interested in big ideas, not just this kind of broad stroke, surface media idea of what masculinity is.

Brett McKay: Correct… Yeah, no, definitely. I’m on board. [laughter]

Laurence Alison: Okay, so we’ll stop there. So the techniques there, they’re probably pretty apparent, but what you’ll hopefully have noticed is that there isn’t actually much questioning. What you’re doing is reflecting back what you’re hearing to seek more information. We often talk about what people say… The words that people say are the bit of the iceberg that you can see above the water, but what you can’t see is the size, shape and dimensions of what sits beneath it. So what you’re doing when you reflect is you’re throwing some of the words back in order to try and explore what the thoughts, values, beliefs and feelings are under the system.

So a lot of what Emily was doing there was what you’ve been doing with us was, which was, look, you’ve started the podcast, you’ve started this Art of Manliness and that seems to be about, one, a reaction to what was out there and a lack of something; two, that men were being done a disservice and you said that the key thing that stood out for me at the early part of that conversation was you said an unmet need. So depending on what you want to explore and what direction you want to go in, you would reflect back the things that you wanted to understand more about. So the art of reflection is to know where you want to go and what you want to find out about the person. You can actually travel quite far quite quickly and I think we’ve got a better understanding of your motives around what you do quite quickly but hey, what are your reflections on that?

Brett McKay: No, I was… It’s interesting, you guys didn’t… Both of you, Emily primarily, was just saying, was just kind of reflecting back what I said to her and it puts you in a position, at least it put me in a position, where I was like, “Well, yes but I want to refine that some more.” So I would give more and more information, so basically I saw it as a tool to fine-tune what I was trying to say and then, Laurence, you chimed in when I said multidimensional, you just said, “Multidimensional?” Not accusatory or anything but it was just like, “Oh, what do you mean by that?” and I had to be like, “Well… ” It forced me to start talking more what I meant by that.

Laurence Alison: Yeah, so that’s what we call a simple reflection. You pick out. Also the other thing that I could have reflected back was unmet need or superficial, you said, so depending on where you want to go with it you can pick the part, the bits that you want to explore a bit more and as you say, the funny thing is, is the person being on the receiving end of it, you start to think about things that are in your head that you haven’t previously articulated, so you actually kind of get a better understanding of your own thoughts and feelings. Ems has just written down, not six-pack as well.

Emily Alison: So you wouldn’t simple reflect if I’d said to you, “Six pack.” You know, that’s irrelevant.

Laurence Alison: That would be the one thing to reflect.

Emily Alison: It’s not what we’re wanting to talk about. So we don’t reflect what we don’t want to know more about or what’s off topic, because it’s not gonna take us in the direction we want to travel.

Brett McKay: Okay, that was really, that was really useful. I think it gave people a good idea of how to use these things. You guys do this other example that I love, ’cause it was funny, but the example given the book is the question I think a lot of men might have heard from either wives or girlfriends, it was like, and the question is, “Does this dress make me look fat?” Everyone knows, every dude knows that that is a trick question. So but with the HEAR process, it’s possible to cut this Gordian knot and answer it, so…

Laurence Alison: It is, so do you want us to role play it?

Brett McKay: Yeah, let’s role play that.

Laurence Alison: Maybe I should be this person. I’ll be the questioner. Okay. Ems, oh, man, I don’t know if I can go out in this. I think I look fat. Do you think I look fat?

Emily Alison: Why? Are you feeling fat at the moment?

Laurence Alison: Yeah. Yeah, I am feeling a bit of a chub, to be honest. I think, since I’ve gone past 50, I think I’m looking a bit porky.

Emily Alison: So you’re worried about how you look? How do you feel?

Laurence Alison: Yeah. I feel fat. So do you think I look fat? I shouldn’t probably wear this out, should I, right?

Emily Alison: Well, what is making you say that about what you’re wearing?

Laurence Alison: Well, look, it’s bulgy here, I can barely get my belt around my waist, that’s not a good look, is it?

Emily Alison: So if you go out dressed like that, how are you gonna feel?

Laurence Alison: On display as something that shouldn’t be seen. What do you think I look like?

Emily Alison: Okay, well, I wouldn’t want you to go out feeling like that about yourself, I want you to wear something you feel comfortable in, you know.

Laurence Alison: So you do think I look fat?

Emily Alison: So if… I know you’re asking me, you’re asking me this question, aren’t you, do you look fat in that, and that’s such a difficult thing, ’cause if I say to you, yes, then I don’t want to hurt you, I don’t want to upset you. But if I say to you, no, you just said to me, you feel like it doesn’t fit and it doesn’t fit you right, and you don’t feel comfortable in it. So you know, if you’re feeling like that doesn’t look good, then we should do something about it.

Laurence Alison: Don’t you think I have put a few pounds on?

Emily Alison: Well, if you think you have and you’re saying your clothes are tight. Yeah, I think we both have, you know. Our diet’s been rubbish lately. Do you think that’s true?

Laurence Alison: Yeah, I guess. We should maybe, I don’t know, we should maybe think about doing some more exercise or… Anyway I’ll put another shirt on, I guess. Okay. Well, let’s… Yeah. Okay, so we’ll kill it there.

Brett McKay: So let’s do some reflection there. One thing I noticed that Emily did was that she was honest. There was that point where Laurence kept pushing the question and Emily was like, look, if I say yes, you’re gonna feel bad, but if I say no and you go out and you don’t feel comfortable, that’s not good either.

Laurence Alison: Right.

Brett McKay: So there was some honesty there.

Laurence Alison: Yeah, and you know, would I have felt hurt with that? No. If Emily had said, if I’d said, do I look fat in this, she said, yeah, you do look a bit fat. That kind of been too quick and too brutal, But what she did was ask me how I felt about it, how comfortable I felt. And you know, Ems, I don’t know if you want to talk about the rule of three.

Emily Alison: Yeah, we’re often, ’cause these things are hard to remember in the moment, aren’t they? And so we kind of try to give these little tips and pointers, and one of them that we often say is use the rule of three with reflections. So if you get something thorny or a difficult conversation or even a topic that you’re trying to pursue, you can knock three times, but once you get to the fourth knock, you need to actually be honest, deliver the bottom line or actually leave that conversation, because it’s not gonna actually progress in a positive direction.

Laurence Alison: So with the fat example, I think I gave it to Ems three times. Do I look fat in this? And the response was, How do you feel about it? Well, I feel a bit overweight and I can hardly get in my clothes, and so do you think I look fat? Well, how are you gonna feel when you go out. And then the third time when I asked her, so, you know, I have put some more pounds on, haven’t I? At which point she said yes. So she’s used reflection a couple of times to explore how I feel about it and why I’ve said it and what do I think, but ultimately, because she’s done it with some empathy and some concern, and of course you couldn’t see her face here, but she looked like she did care. She was able to say it and I didn’t feel offended, and also we were also moving towards a resolution, maybe we should do something about this. I felt supported.

I didn’t… She’d answered the question honestly, but I’d explored the reason I was saying this first. So it’s a good technique to… If used a couple of times, and honestly, and empathically. That’s why all these things need to be used in combination, really. You know, the reflection stuff is a tactic, but your honesty and your empathy needs to be a value that you bring into the room.

Brett McKay: Right. It’s not like a linear thing. It’s not like you’re honest. It’s like you’re doing these things all once.

Laurence Alison: Right.

Emily Alison: I should maybe point out, though, that, and obviously this is the case across lots of different contexts, but sometimes there is a time where you have to give the bottom line to somebody. If say, you’ve got to let somebody go at work or you’ve got to impose a punishment on your child for something they’ve done, or certainly for our circumstances. But we’ve got urgent safety interviews in terrorism, in interviewing where literally it’s the kind of ticking time bomb scenario, there are questions that need to be put to someone urgently, and a bottom line that has to be given.

Laurence Alison: And things that can’t be given as well. You know, you get detainees saying, “Can I speak to this person? Can I do this?” “No. You can’t do that. And here are the reasons why.” So you need to be able to give the hard messages, definitely.

Emily Alison: And the way to do that, just to hang on to this, is if you’ve got a bottom line to deliver, always pair it with empathy at the front end, even if you’re, you’ve got your own emotional reaction to whatever it is, try and pair it with some empathy at the front end. So give that bit of understanding. I think I say in the book, we call it the toddler and the t-shirt technique, where you give that understanding and that’s an example where the toddler says, “I want to wear my dinosaur t-shirt to nursery today, mummy.” And you say, “Well, you can’t, darling, it’s wet.” And they say, “Well, I want it.” You say, “Well, you can’t, it’s wet.” And they say, “Well, I want it.” And round and round we go, you’re never gonna give that bottom line of, “You’re not wearing the t-shirt to nursery,” unless we give some empathy first, and people think, they think it’s indulgent, they think you should just say, “No, just do it.” But people can’t hear the message unless they have their perspective acknowledged.

So for that example, you’d say, “I know you love that t-shirt, it’s your favorite. I bet you were really looking forward to wearing it today, but you can’t, sweetheart, it’s wet, so you can wear it tomorrow. We’ll dry it, hang it. Now you have to pick one of these other 20 dinosaur t-shirts that you own,” and that’s like a really common example, but I promise you, we’re teaching the same thing when you’re acknowledging somebody’s perspective in a terrorism interview. Give that empathy first and then they can listen to the bottom line.

Brett McKay: So the HEAR process is something you can do to build that rapport, but another part of rapport that you guys make the case is that there’s a social dynamic going on. People are, they’re gonna be confrontational, they’re gonna be submissive, they’re gonna be cooperative, they’re going to be just bulldozing. And you have to take that in account too, and when you’re trying to build rapport with somebody. So let’s talk about this, these social dynamics. And you guys use sort of animal totems to describe them. Can you kinda walk us through the, what you call the animal circle.

Laurence Alison: Yeah, so this goes back to Leary’s work, Timothy Leary, some of your listeners may know Leary. He was known in the 1950s for being a personality theorist, and then he kind of went off the rails a bit and was engaged in using LSD and God knows what. But in the early part of his career, he came up with a really interesting idea. And the idea was that up to that point, personality theory had always been considered a kind of static trait that was just within the individual, how conscientious or extrovert or neurotic you were. And Leary said, well, okay, that’s… I’m not disagreeing with that, but actually part of what personality is, is only revealed when you see that person interacting with another person. So if you like, it’s a kind of inter-personality theory.

And so he created this thing called the interpersonal wheel, and for listeners, if you want to fill in your own wheels to see where your particular emphasis is, if you go to our website, which is, you can fill in a little inventory, it will tell you whether you’re mainly controlling or mainly cooperative, or mainly a capitulator or mainly conflict-driven. The theory’s argument, Leary’s argument was in any interaction, there were two basic dimensions: Power and communion. The power dimension, if you visualize a kind of north, east, south, west, the power dimension runs north south, and as you go north, you’re creating more power, and in so doing, the person that you’re speaking to, you are wanting them to go lower, you’re wanting them to go south and be more submissive.

Equally, if you come into an interaction and you’re very submissive, you are inviting a response where the person opposite you is gonna be higher on power. So if you look at someone like, we always think of a good example, is Gordon Ramsay is a character that’s very high on power. And what does he like when he’s talking to other people? He likes them to be lower than him, so he’s comfortable with a power dynamic where he’s in charge and the other person opposite him is lower. So that’s the power dimension. On the horizontal axis, the west to east axis, you’ve got what we call communion or love. Now, this axis works rather differently, and at the west side, you’ve got conflict, and at the east side you’ve got cooperation. And on the east side where we talk about where the monkey sits, if you’re giving out social warm vibes, you’re expecting to get that back. If you’re at the west side, which is what we call T-Rex, you’re sending out conflict vibes, which is meaning that you’re about argument and conflict and division, and separation and debate, and those things attract each other.

So in terms of those kind of totemic animals, you’ve got at north the lion, you’ve got at east the monkey, you’ve got at south the mouse, and at west you’ve got the T-Rex. Now, all of these areas need to be mastered and all of them can be done pro-socially and adaptively, or anti-socially and maladaptively. So you want proportionate control and leadership, you want proportionate cooperation and closeness and warmth, you want proportionate ability to sit back, listen, have the humility, and you want proportionate ability to engage in conflict without going too far and becoming attacking, punitive and sarcastic. So as with all these interactions between people, there are a number of things that you need to do. One, don’t be too extreme on any of the dimensions; and two, know what you are dealing with, when the person sat opposite you is displaying a particular form of behavior. So you always need to think about where you fit. And that in a nutshell is the interpersonal wheel.

Brett McKay: Well… And I… Just to give an example like the power dynamic. So from your guys’ experience, oftentimes you’re going in, interviewing someone who’s a detainee and they might be high on the lion, right? So they’re in charge or maybe there’s some high… They’re up high in the Taliban or something like that. And so when you interact with them, they’re gonna give that vibe off and so is your response… I think the typical response from people will be like, “Well, I’m gonna show who’s the alpha here.” But you guys said, “No, actually, if you want to get some stuff done, you have to be a little bit submissive.”

Laurence Alison: Correct. Yeah, yeah. And trust me, when you’re teaching… We teach hardcore military personnel this, the idea that they go submissive, it’s like, “Well, I ain’t doing that, I’m not surrendering.” But if you’ve made the choice, you’ve… You’re in control of that position of interpersonal surrender, that is a massive position of strength, massive position, as long as you don’t acquiesce to the point where you’re going so low that you’re actually being bullied and you’re becoming avoidant and uncertain and hesitant. If your choice is to have the position of the mouse or the position of capitulation where you have humility, patience, persistence, and the ability to sit back, that is an enormous position of strength and it…

When we looked at this statistically, actually, weirdly, the strongest position to be out of all these four animals, the go to position if you’re struggling is go to mouse. Don’t go to bad mouse where you’re becoming uncertain, weak and you’re being pushed around, but humility, perseverance and the ability to listen, and that is really a position of strength, massively. We’ve seen, and trust me, all the best and elite interrogators that we’ve seen, and these are guys that have seen, seen it all, they’ve seen it all, and the thing that they have mastered is that position of mouse. It is a real position of strength. If you’ve got someone that’s hardcore, wants to be alpha, you know what? That’s fine. That is fine. Let them talk, listen to them, seek understanding, have the humility and good grace to sit back. It really is a position of strength.

Brett McKay: What do you do with like the T-Rex? So, this is a person who likes conflict, how do you… Let’s say they’re like a bad T-Rex. It’s not like… They’re not just bringing up conflict because… I mean, sometimes conflict is good, ’cause that’s how you figure out where differences are, but this person just wants to just cause a ruckus. How do you respond to that?

Laurence Alison: Well, again, when we present this quite often, cops will say, “Oh, well, maybe I should go to the mouse position and try and warm it up.” Well, that is an absolute disaster. We’ve seen people in OCGs, organized crime groups, that have been through the cop system a lot, and they want a bit of rough and tumble, and the most successful interviewers are people that take that head on. They don’t go bad T-Rex, they go good T-Rex. So even if someone’s being really aggressive and unpleasant, you need to know what your bottom line is, and you just need to give them a direct message. That doesn’t mean you need to be mean with it or attacking or punitive, but you match, you match that T-Rex position. So conflict begets conflict, that is where you need to be.

Emily Alison: I would just add to that, ’cause I think this is… T-Rex is my greatest challenge.

Laurence Alison: Ems is weaker on the T-Rex.

Emily Alison: Yeah and if I go T-Rex, I probably used to tend to go bad T-Rex. So if I got pushed into conflict, then I would go bad, and learning how to go good is quite challenging, because… And instinctively, we know that based on the model. When someone is attacking you and being insulting, being sarcastic, being derogatory, it makes you want to argue back. It’s very compelling to be drawn into their style of interaction, and the rule with this is, when you do that, you’re actually letting them control you. You’re letting them set the dynamic, so by you being able to restrain yourself and pull back from that and be frank and forthright rather than attack back is a huge strength to hold. It’s you controlling the dynamic rather than them.

Brett McKay: So, it sounds like… Okay. If someone’s coming at you with conflict, you have to go back with conflict, but like not overbearing. You’re not gonna start yelling at them and insulting them. You’re just gonna give them the bottom line. But would you also try to make nudges towards cooperation, like find ways where you two can cooperate?

Laurence Alison: Yeah, the thing is with the model, you don’t need to stay in that same position forever. As long as like Ems said, if you’re making the choices and you’ve got enough self-control and emotional self-regulation to know what you’re doing, you can start shifting that dynamic, but what you can’t do is flip suddenly from conflict to cooperation. That’s at the other end of the axis.

Brett McKay: Well, Emily, Laurence, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work, ’cause you mentioned a website where people can take a quiz to figure out what’s their preferred social interaction. What was that again?

Laurence Alison: Yes, so our website is And the book is called Rapport: The Four Ways to Read People. And actually, if you go to the website, there’s a bunch of other, there’s some free resources on there and reference to other books, papers and so forth and so on, yeah.

Brett McKay: Well, fantastic. Well, Laurence and Emily, thanks for this time, it’s been a pleasure.

Laurence Alison: Thank you, Brett. Great to talk to you. You take care.

Emily Alison: Thank you.

Brett McKay: My guests today were Laurence and Emily Alison. They’re the authors of the book, Rapport: The Four Ways to Read People. It’s available on, and check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Check at our website at, where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher premium. Head over, sign up, use code MANLINESS at check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of The AOM podcast.

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