You don’t have to be a mind-reader to make a good deal. But it can pay to think like one.
By using a psychological technique called the Forer effect (named after psychologist Bertram Forer), which often involves making flattering but general statements about the person you’re trying to influence, you can quickly develop a rapport with people–and you can get them to open up. It’s a trick that Washington, D.C. publicist Deirdre Adele Cehrs and New York City-based, former FBI crisis hostage negotiator Chip Massey commonly teach clients through their consulting firm, Convincing Company.
The applications for the technique in business are manifold. Picture high-stakes moments from making a sales pitch and managing a difficult employee to negotiating a big deal or landing an investor. “From a business perspective, using this kind of technique can give you an incredible competitive advantage,” Cehrs says.
Her first experience with the Forer effect came as a New Jersey teenager, when a fortune teller spoke to her high school English class. (It’s a long story that has to do with Bruce Springsteen, she says.) The woman picked Cehrs out of her class by chance, and made a bold claim: “I’m seeing someone with the letter J, and they’re clutching their chest.” Cehrs was struck. Her father, John, had recently had triple bypass surgery. At the time, she believed that this meant the fortune teller was the real deal–so she bought into everything she said thereafter. Because she personally connected to the statement the woman made, Cehrs quickly trusted her.
It was years later before Cehrs would recognize that what she experienced that day was the Forer effect. While doing research for an in-progress book about negotiation tactics, Cehrs and her business partner, Massey, tried to think of occupations that involve excellent convincing skills. Cehrs remembered her experience with the fortune teller and started Googling around to learn about the secrets of the trade–and she found her answer in the Forer effect.
The technique involves making a statement that’s broad, firm, and yet specific enough for listeners to think that it applies to them. The goal is for the listener to feel seen by the statement–and this, in turn, increases her trust and emotional openness. In his work with the FBI, Massey long utilized the same technique. He’d deploy it in tense situations like corruption investigations and hostage negotiations. “It’s a way of making people feel that they are understood and heard, and [that] even their inner lives are being recognized,” he says.
Cehrs and Massey teach this trick, among others, to their clients, who include executives from companies like Samsung, McDonalds and DuPont, as well as officials at universities like Columbia and Princeton. Here’s how you, too, can use this fortune teller technique to benefit your business–no gift of precognition necessary.
Make broad statements.
How did the fortune teller know that Cehrs’s father had a J name? “I’m Italian and from New Jersey,” she says. “She started by saying she sensed the letter J or M–and that covers a lot of potential names.” If Cehrs didn’t respond to either letter, the fortune teller could have easily followed up with another suggestion that may have stuck: “What about P?”
What seemed to Cehrs, as a teenager, as a magical moment, was actually incredibly strategic. The probability of her having a connection to a man with a J name was fairly high, and the image of a person clutching their chest could be read in a number of different ways–it just so happened that the most literal reading resonated with Cehrs at the time. “When you make a statement that a person agrees with, they get hooked on everything you say after that,” she says.
Create an emotional appeal.
The key to using the Forer effect is making statements that might inspire a person to open up. Usually, that means making an emotional connection, Massey adds: “It’s a shortcut to establishing a rapport and creating a bond.” Examples of statements that could encourage a business contact to open up include: “I know you pride yourself as an independent thinker,” and “You have a great deal of unused capacity.” Compliments, when used strategically, can help sway someone to your side–just don’t overdo the praise so it seems like you’re throwing around baseless flattery.
Pay attention to non-verbal cues.
When you’re making a Forer statement, look at the body language of the person with whom you’re talking; that will help you determine if you’re on the right track. “If you see subtle facial expression of disinterest, or closed-off body language, then you can throw out some other ideas,” Massey says. “You have to have a very keen sense of perception.” Maybe the person didn’t respond to your comment about them being highly individualistic, but if you say, “I know a lot of people depend on you,” they’ll start to open up.
While the Forer effect is an incredibly helpful tool to use when talking to someone you don’t know, Cehrs says, it’s also beneficial for those you already know. And when you do have enough background information on a person, you can make your statements even more personal, to greater result. “Think about whatever thing is most important to that person, and why that would bring them to your brand,” she says. In a business meeting, that might be as simple as saying, “I know how much you value XYZ,” and allowing the other person to agree with you–and then moving along with how that information relates to your pitch.
Especially in a virtual setting like Zoom, Massey and Cehrs say that the Forer effect can be incredibly valuable to entrepreneurs who are trying to negotiate deals and build relationships. “You have to make a real connection, or else the relationship won’t be sustainable,” Cehrs says. “But by using these skills, you can increase someone’s interest in what you have to say.”