My name is Miriam Elfahdi and this past semester I interned as a Campaign Associate for Sarah Parady, a labor rights lawyer running for the Denver City Council At-Large position. I connected with Sarah through my family’s cafe in Denver, in which her and her lovely family frequent. Soon after her announcement that she was running for the At-Large City Council seat and was in search of a staff to help her, I met with Sarah at a local coffee shop and talked about how I might be able to assist her. With my past experience as a Communications and Operations Coordinator, I explained how managing calendars and scheduling was a newfound skill of mine. I also expressed my interest in the intersection of Politics and Communication as I was about to enter my senior year as a Strategic and Corporate Communication and Political Science double major. Sarah and I collaborated on how my skill sets could be of help to her needs going into the campaign, and in her typical generosity, she considered how my interests of political communication could be further explored in working with her. I started working soon after this meeting and continued for a few weeks in the Summer before picking it up again this past January, this time, remotely.
Being that this election was to take place in Denver and I was about to begin my final semester in Orange, my role was adjusted in order to be successful remotely. Additionally, the campaign was almost half a year further along. Both the staff and the priorities of the campaign were in a different place in comparison to when I worked in the summer. This being said, it was expressed that one of the biggest priorities was phone-banking to reach out to Denver voters. I was promptly set up with a system that connected me to phone numbers on organized lists. In the beginning, I was assigned to those who had previously shown support to Sarah and could be asked if they wanted to and were able to show more support. This was wildly intimidating in the beginning as persuasion is not one of my strong suits. After a few calls, however, I realized that because the people I was calling were already rooting for Sarah to win, they weren’t bothered by my calling, even if their answer was still no to further support. This changed, however, when I was assigned to lists to the more general population of Denver voters.
The weeks leading up to the election, I sat at local coffee shops for hours on end making calls to Denver voters to inquire if they’ve voted and additionally, if they’d heard of Sarah and her stances. These calls were far more grueling. As previously stated, persuasion is not one of my strong suits, but I found myself not even getting an opportunity to persuade as the calls often ended as soon as it was revealed I was calling on behalf of a political campaign. Good calls were often even more frustrating as I felt that I was unable to give adequate responses once they did express what their concerns for the city and its politics were. Cooperative or not, every phone call felt like I was both burdening and begging the person on the other side to give me information I needed and be able to speak my piece. Thankfully, around the same time, I was introduced to communication tactics in my Conflict, Negotiation, and Power class that helped immensely.
A former FBI negotiator, Chris Voss has mastered the art of negotiation. For this reason, he now is able to share what he has learned about how people communicate, and further how to alter your communication to obtain the desired outcome of an interaction. Professor Michael Ross introduced my class to Chris Voss by assigning his book, Never Split the Difference. Further, he played videos by Voss in which he further explains the art of negotiation. These videos were enticing both because a hostage negotiator is not a common perspective I hear from in my classes, but also because Voss explained that negotiation is done in merely every conversation we have with others. Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly adjusting and reacting in interactions with consideration to what we want out of the situation. A big teaching of Voss is to create the illusion of control.
Creating the illusion of control is required in order for the other party to feel like they have control over the situation. People tend to be put on defense mode when something is being asked of them and this prohibits a productive conversation. To prevent this, Voss provides a few tools to create the illusion of control, one of which being mirroring. This tactic involves simply reiterating what the other person is saying in order for them to expand their thoughts and put their guard down. In doing this, the other person feels like you are truly listening to what they are saying and will therefore share more. Mirroring can be as simple as repeating the last few words of the last thing a person said and turning into a question and pushing them to expand.
Upon hearing about this tactic in class, I took it to a real world application in conducting these phone calls. As a large part of my struggle was to make people feel like it not was a burden to talk to me and to share information about their concerns for the city, I started implementing mirroring as a communication tactic. Initially, it felt unnatural, but I quickly realized that the impact was noticeable. More than before, I felt that calls became less hostile and people cared to share more information when I simply repeated the last thing that they said and proposed it as a question. This tactic helped me until the end of my time phone banking and surprised me every phone call with its success. There are countless lessons I’ve learned as an SCC major that have made me a better communicator. I wouldn’t have guessed, however, that the tactics provided by a hostage negotiator would prove successful on my calls for a political election.