Improve your relationships – with advice from counter-terrorism experts

Joanna Moorhead
·7-min read

“The more you push someone, the more they close up,” say Emily and Laurence Alison, a husband-and-wife psychology team. “The hungrier you are for information, the harder it will be to get that out of someone. But give the person a choice about what they say; give them some autonomy and you begin to build the rapport that may lead to a better conversation,” says Laurence.

This sounds like parenting advice and yet the Alisons’ specialism is helping counter-terrorism officers and the police to improve communication and co-operation with criminal suspects. When the atmosphere turns adversarial and competitive, as it so often does, they turn to the Alisons to help them navigate and negotiate.

For the couple – who’ve been married for 21 years and have a 16-year-old son – the parallels with parenting have long been obvious and were underlined by the response of officers they’ve encountered on the intensive courses they run on how to interrogate terrorists.

A senior military officer said the training made him a better father

Time after time, participants fed back that as well as learning invaluable skills for their professional lives, their approach was helping them deal with family and work relationships. “We were fascinated,” says Laurence, director of the Centre for Critical and Major Incident Psychology at Liverpool University. “We’d do a day on the best way to extract information from a dangerous prisoner and at the end of it participants would say, ‘This is such useful advice for me as a parent of teenagers.’”

On their courses they use professional actors to put police and counter-terrorism officers through the trickiest of situations. “We have scenarios in which they’re interviewing suspects from a Rwandan warlord to a Taliban commander to a right-wing bomber. All our characters are drawn from real-life situations.” Course participants are counter-terrorism officers, senior detectives and military personnel.

On one occasion, remembers Emily – who also works with domestic abuse perpetrators – a senior military officer “thanked me for making him not only a better interviewer, but also a better man, a better father and a better partner”.

All of this has fed into the Alisons’ latest project: a book that reframes the advice they’ve been sharing with the police and security forces for the past two decades, making it relevant to all of us. It turns out, they tell me via video link from their home in north Wales, that the killer piece of information in their counter-terrorism arsenal is in the book’s title: rapport. Forming a connection – one built on empathy and where the power balance is shared – is the key to getting not only terrorists to talk, but anyone else, too.

In Hollywood films, interrogation scenes invariably hinge on threats, coercion or tricking a prisoner into giving something away that he or she didn’t intend to. The reality, say the Alisons, is that torture and coercion were brought in by “charlatans and novices” and are “wholly ineffective”. Establishing rapport, by contrast, “is not only the bedrock of successful relationships, but also provides the best path to securing information from difficult people”.

“If someone has information and you want it,” says Laurence, “it’s up to them to decide whether they give it to you or not. They have the power.” This means that the interrogator who is humble, even submissive, who takes a back seat and relinquishes the reins, is far more likely to get people to talk. “The reason some interrogators find that hard comes down to ego,” explains Emily, “but if you’re being strategic and tactical, why should that threaten your ego?”

Time and again, the parallels abound between communicating with terrorists and communicating with teenagers. We’re talking about an individual who doesn’t want to reveal something, who feels there’s an attempt being made to force them to have a discussion they don’t want to have, who believes they’re being coerced into operating to someone else’s agenda rather than their own. Across the table, an interrogator/parent can, if they wish, play the “power” card. At their peril, warns Emily: “You get a teenager who comes in and they’re being demanding, arguing, being sarcastic, and the parent thinks: ‘You’re not the boss here, I’m the boss!’ But you have to ask yourself: is it helpful to knock your kid out of the power seat? What we’re suggesting – what we suggest to the anti-terrorism officer – is that you should think smarter. Don’t be led by your ego, be led by what’s going to work.”

Forming a connection built on empathy and shared power is key

The acronym they use is HEAR – Honesty (always tell the truth); Empathy (imagine how it was when you were a teenager or how it might feel to be the terrorist suspect across the table); Autonomy (respect the right of the other individual to their part in whatever conversation you’re having); and Reflection (feed back the essence of what’s being said as you’re hearing it, which will encourage the other individual to clarify their position and tell you more about it).

Don’t expect it to be easy. “Rapport is effortful,” says Emily. But do expect it to work. “We use it in our dealings with one another, so even when you know it’s being deployed, it’s still entirely effective,” adds Laurence.

Emily describes how she’s “a terrible timekeeper – mostly because I’m doing a million and one different things”, and says hearing Laurence reflecting back about how that made him feel (that his time wasn’t valuable) has helped her improve. Like many successful relationships, they are friends first and foremost, respectful of one another’s strengths and equally enthusiastic about their shared purpose. “We even do role play over a cup of tea,” jokes Emily.

Key to their approach, whether you’re dealing with a terrorist, a bank robber, your boss or a teenager, is recognising what sort of communicator they are.

The world is divided, say the Alisons, into four “animal types”: T-Rex, lion, monkey and mouse. The T-Rex (Laurence is one) is frank and forthright, but can become sarcastic and unfriendly. A lion sets the agenda and acts confidently, but can be demanding, dogmatic and rigid. The monkey (Emily) is social, warm and friendly, but can become overfamiliar or obsequious. The mouse is modest and humble, but will do anything to avoid conflict and may seem disengaged or formulaic.

“The recipe for a successful interrogator, or a person looking for healthy relationships, is to know yourself very well, and to be able to predict what you will tend to say, and also to recognise the personality type of the other person so you know how she or he will tend to react,” says Laurence. “And the final rule is that you need to be flexible, to be sensitive to the other person so you can adapt to their style.”

One helpful discovery they made along the way is that the top priority is to concentrate on understanding the “bad” part of your own style, and to work on reforming that. In the book they note that, for example, “The effect in an interrogation situation of even small amounts of negative T-Rex behaviour (being judgmental, argumentative, sarcastic and attacking) was catastrophic to rapport and subsequently to generating information.” Exactly the same will be true, says Laurence, if you start behaving this way with your teenager or your colleague: the damage you do will be extremely hard to undo.

Their book ends with a call for “a rapport revolution” because, they say, “When we are able to extract someone’s core belief and values, we find that they are more similar to us than we imagine. And when they are not, we don’t have to agree, but we should seek to understand.” That sentence begs a question about our social media-driven world that is characterised by a failure to listen and a rush to judge. “It’s what I call extreme communication and it breaks all the rules,” says Emily. “It shows no honesty. There’s no empathy, no autonomy, no reflection. It’s all knee-jerk, superficial bravado. It’s the very antithesis of communication.”

She maintains there is room for optimism. “The silver lining is that we were sleepwalking into negativity, hate and tribalism. The pandemic has outed that. So my hope is that we’ll ask ourselves if this is the sort of society we want. Lockdown has shown us the value of real relationships, so that’s a beginning. It’s a sapling.”

Rapport: The Four Ways to Read People, by Laurence and Emily Alison, is published by Vermilion at £14.99