Why did Neville Chamberlain so poorly judge Adolf Hitler? How did Bernie Madoff manage to pull off a $50 billion ponzi scheme? Why was Amanda Knox found guilty, innocent, guilty and then innocent?
I was reminded of these questions, (posed by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, ‘Talking to Strangers’), last week, when it was reported that a Kent based estate agent let 26 properties to different tenants, none of whom were met in person. The comments section in the news forums and on social media exploded with remarks suggesting how wrong this was, that the agent was acting irresponsibly, that it would all end in tears, for example: “Hope his PI is up to date and covered all the bases with duty of care. Letting a property is more than going through the paper process to get a let. They are supposed to be working for the landlord. The story suggests they didn’t meet the tenants and good agents know what that can lead to.”
But do they? Does an agent have the powers to be able to detect a wrong’un? What if the agent was actually exercising his duty of care more effectively by not meeting them?
Only if you’re prepared to have one of your deeply held beliefs challenged then read on.
Many of the senior leaders and politicians who met Hitler were taken in by him, Chamberlain in particular. Likewise those who met and investigated both Bernie Madoff and Amanda Knox; in Bernie’s case disbelieving the huge body of evidence that he was up to no good, in Amanda’s coming to the wrong conclusion that she was guilty of murder.
Gladwell suggests ‘TDT’, Truth Default Theory, as one of the main reasons why, when meeting strangers, we so often get it wrong. He cites many examples and experiments and one in particular that stood out for me. It involved 44 people who each took the same test. Half of them cheated and half didn’t. They were all videoed and asked whether they had cheated or not. These videos were then shown to another group who were asked if they could tell who was lying. On average, they called it correctly 54% of the time, little better than heads and tails. But this statistic is skewed. The participants were way better at identifying the truthsayers but spotted less than 30% of the liars.
This and many other experiments suggest we’re really good at identifying when someone is telling us the truth but poor when it comes to spotting a lie. The problem isn’t confined to ordinary people or even agents, (with or without super powers). The same videos were shown to law enforcement agencies who on average did as poorly. Other experiments with the FBI, CIA, military, police forces across the world, who you would imagine (hope?) would be really good at this, show that whilst there are some notable exceptions, on average the liars aren’t identified. That’s because our default is to believe people tell the truth – we suffer from TDT.
What can you do about it?
One option is to distrust everyone – but what sort of world would that be?
Or, as Property Academy members recently learned, you can change how you listen.
Richard Mullender was head of the Met Police negotiation team and Lead Trainer at Scotland Yard’s National Hostage Negotiation and Crisis Unit – where he dealt with suicide attempts, extortion threats, domestic sieges and even negotiated with the Taliban for the successful release of hostages. He told our members that body language, “tells” and the like, are vastly exaggerated in importance and in fact he prefers to negotiate over the telephone rather than face to face. The trouble with meeting in person is the instant judgements we form whereas this is less likely to occur without seeing someone. He says the key is to learn how to properly listen to what the other person is saying – and the more they say, the more information they yield and the more clues as to their drivers and honesty.
Richard certainly knows how to negotiate, something he coaches our members on, and if you choose to become a member of Property Academy then you’ll get to see his incredibly valuable session – or maybe you should just listen to it, (that’s another option we offer).
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