How to Use Influence Tactics Like an FBI Agent

UPDATED: November 20, 2017
PUBLISHED: November 20, 2017

In the world of counterintelligence, there is no room for error. Agents must influence and persuade others under extremely stressful and sometimes life-or-death circumstances. Using proven psychological methods, these field-tested experts perform mental ju-jitsu to influence others—oftentimes without the subject even realizing what’s going on.

Related: How to Read People Like an FBI Agent

While the stakes might not be as high in our normal day-to-day lives, the ability to influence and persuade others is an incredibly valuable skill. And many of these skills used in counterintelligence can be used in your daily life: salary negotiations with your boss, buying a new house or debating weekend plans with friends.

Four of the field’s top experts, from hostage negotiators to spy recruiters, recently sat down with The Science of Success to share their favorite and most effective influence tactics—things you can begin using today to up your level of influence in your own circle.

Disengage their autopilot response.

Chase Hughes, founder of Ellipsis Laboratories and former U.S. Navy correctional and prisoner management departments

Most people cruise through their day on autopilot. In fact, nearly 50 percent of what you do each day is done out of habit. You use routines to save brainpower, and you utilize various practices depending on where you are and who you are with. For instance, you might behave very differently in a room with your supervisor at work than you would with your friends at home. Once you decide on which role you are playing, your neurons begin firing in the usual sequence for that scenario, and you often stop being consciously aware of your behavior.

If you can break someone out of this autopilot mode, their brain will begin searching for information, making them much easier to persuade. “If you’re getting a coffee at Starbucks, quickly ask the employee at the cash register which direction northeast is,” Hughes says. “They most likely have never been asked that question before, and it will cause them to go internally into their head and break out of that employee mode.” It’s in this moment of time that their brain is grasping for information and you have their focus, interest and curiosity. This makes an individual much more susceptible to your next statement, question or command.

Ask better questions.

Chris Kukk, founding director of The Center for Compassion, Creativity and Innovation, and former U.S. Army counterintelligence agent

Information is the ammunition of influence. One of the crucial common themes across military counterintelligence is understanding the other side: their motivations, priorities and goals. The more information you can collect from the other side, the easier this mental ju-jitsu becomes.

The best way to gather this information is by asking good questions. “A great question can bring out the essence of not just the problem, but of the person experiencing the problem,” Kukk says. “A closed question is one that has a very short answer. It’s a yes or no or I don’t know; a very tight closed way of answering it. It’s short. An open question is a question that is literally limitless. It’s wide open. A person can answer it in many different ways. There’s not one way to do it.”

Begin presenting others with open-ended questions where you might normally use a closed one. This will allow you to gain insight into not only how someone feels, but also why they feel that way, giving you a peek into their perspective, which can be a very powerful tool in influencing someone.

Related: The Science of Persuasion

Never keep score.

Robin Dreeke, author of The Code of Trust and former U.S. spy recruiter

Sometimes, influencing someone is an incredibly long process. In order to be an effective spy recruiter, Dreeke developed close relationships with each of the spies he recruited, as well as the subjects he wished to recruit. By getting to know each of them extremely well, Dreeke was able to relate to them and help them achieve their goals. When you help someone accomplish something, his or her natural reaction is to reciprocate.


Understand the other side’s priorities, be up front and share your own, and align yourselves.


This is actually when you have to be careful, according to Dreeke. “You can’t keep a scorecard. Because if you do, that’s the proof you really did it for you and not them,” he says. “It’s critical that the other side not feel they are being manipulated or see your actions and interest in them as disingenuous. As soon as you get into the I did this for you and now you have to do this for me game, you’ve already lost. I give, I let go, and I just wait. Usually, everything falls into place.”

Understand the other side’s priorities, be up front and share your own, and align yourselves. Help them achieve their goals, and more than likely, they’ll help you achieve yours, too.

Repeating and mirroring.

Chris Voss, founder of The Black Swan Group and former FBI hostage negotiator

When many people hear about “mirroring” they immediately think body language. But that’s not always the case or the most effective strategy. “The mirroring a hostage negotiator does is just the repetition of the last one to three words that someone has said,” Voss says. By repeating the last few words in someone else’s sentence, they naturally elaborate more and give up potentially valuable insights.”

Here’s an example:

Party One: “I don’t really want to get Chinese for lunch.”
Party Two: “You don’t want Chinese for lunch?”
Party One : “No, not really. It’s super salty, and I’m afraid I’ll eat too much and be tired all afternoon.”

By simply repeating the last few words of the other party’s statement, we learned several new pieces of information. Party One is health conscious and also may have something going on this afternoon that requires them to be sharp. This tactic is incredibly simple and can be used on anyone, anywhere.

While most of us are not saving hostages and recruiting spies, these tested tactics from the experts can have huge impacts on your interactions. It’s important to remember that everything in life can be a negotiation.

Related: 7 Ways to Think Like a Negotiator

Austin Fabel

Austin Fabel is the producer of the “#1 New and Noteworthy” top iTunes podcast The Science of Success, handling all of the behind-the-scenes aspects responsible for growing the show. Austin is also the co-founder of Podcast Work, a podcasting agency that helps companies and individuals start and grow their own podcasts, build an audience and generate great content.