For us to justify our own point of view in a negotiation, we usually need more information about the opposing view. However, humans can be shy and doubtful. We give extra details and answers to straight questions rather stingily – especially if we suspect that the information will be used to try and sell us something.
Fortunately, there’s a technique that helps our opponent to tell us more without making the conversation feel invasive or prying. Richard Mullender, former hostage negotiator for Scotland Yard, calls this technique the echo. Chris Voss, former hostage negotiator for the FBI, calls it mirroring. I personally use Mullender’s term.
The echo returns a question
The main idea in the echo is that the negotiator picks a word or two from what their conversational partner said and gives them back as a question. The rising intonation and the inquiring look will let the listener know that this is a question. However, it isn’t exactly a question, since it doesn’t ask anything. It doesn’t redirect the conversation and doesn’t put the listener under undue pressure. They will respond to the echo however they want to, but often respond in a way that moves the conversation forwards.
For example, if the client says, “This project management model doesn’t feel quite right, I’m not sure we can commit to this quick a sprint cycle.”, the echolocator will answer, “This quick a sprint cycle?” The client can then respond, “Yes, usually we implement changes only once a month.” The echolocator will ask, “Once a month?” And the client will say, ”That’s right, we don’t have the capacity to test these faster.”
This way, the dialogue will reveal at least one challenge that, if successfully overcome, might make the client more willing to accept a faster-paced schedule. Without using the echo, it’s easy to make assumptions that might not necessarily be correct. When you instead send a few echoes, you can more easily grasp what the real issue is.
Genuine curiosity and sufficient silence are crucial
There are two important parts to successfully using the echo. The first one is the genuine curiosity of the asker, without any blame or display of arrogance. If the client senses doubt, arrogance or annoyance behind the question, that bleeds through in micro expressions and the tone of voice. As in conflicts, it’s very important in a negotiation to maintain a feeling that you’re both on the same side.
A curious and positive tone of voice is thus crucial. With the right tone, an echo question lets the listener know that you didn’t quite understand that part. Nevertheless, the echo doesn’t claim that it was explained to you somehow badly. It asks for clarification but at the same time leaves open what extra information, or how much, the responder should give. The responder is free to make those decisions themselves.
Another crucial thing about using the echo is the patience to stay silent long enough after the question. That’s because in an ideal situation, the client does actually have to think for a moment about why, ultimately, the suggested sprint cycle is so impossible. When you have sent the echo, be patient, be patient, be patient. Be patient.
But if you simply don’t get an answer, you can follow up with a different sort of question.
That sounds reaaaaal fake
In his Masterclass course, Chris Voss talks about getting the same feedback time and time again: no one talks like that. It feels odd, unnatural, uncomfortable, downright terrible. And it does, initially, when we’re not used to it. Voss’s advice is to practice.
Voss reminds us that everything we learn initially feels unnatural and odd. I can say from my own experience that that’s true. All new tools and approaches feel awkward and difficult at first. It’s hard to override our own automatic reactions, and doing everything the same as before sounds very tempting.
But if our earlier techniques haven’t always given the best possible results, it’s justified to try something that feels awkward at first. When you learn to use the echo as a normal part of the conversation, you’ll soon notice how much people actually like it.
People love talking about themselves, their challenges, their current situation. It’s important for us to be heard. When you use the echo and pick a few words from the other person’s dialogue, it shows them that you’ve been paying attention. It also tells them that you’d like to hear more. That you’re present.
That you’re present? Yes, because you pay attention to what the other person is saying and…
Finally, a disclaimer: this is a conversation technique, so you need to be able to hear the other person to use it. I’m not at all sure if the same technique will work in written communication, in emails and chats.
TL;DR: The echo, or mirroring technique
- We often need more information from our conversational partner, but if the other person is suspicious, they might give short answers to our questions.
- The echo helps the other person to tell us more without prying or being invasive.
- The echo works like this: pick a few words from what the other person said and return them as a question.
- Return them as a question?
- A question is composed of a rising intonation, an inquiring look and genuine curiosity.
- Remember to be silent long enough after asking the question.
- Initially, using the technique will feel uncomfortable and unnatural. Remember to practice!
- This is a conversation technique, so you need to at least hear the other person’s voice to use it.