Getting past the gatekeeper, the screener, the blocker or whatever term you give them has been a challenge...forever. Their job is to insulate and vet for the decision-maker. In hostage-takings involving multiple actors, it is not uncommon for the negotiator to be speaking with someone other than the guy in charge. Whether it’s a hostage or another bad guy, someone within the crisis site will be assigned to talk, similar to the gatekeepers in the business world. Whether it’s an assistant, a real estate agent, buyer or purchaser, often you will have to talk to people who do not carry the authority to make the decision to which you want a response before you get to the person who makes the final decisions. How do you get past them? Keeping in mind these considerations will help.
Everything you do when trying to influence another starts and ends with Tactical Empathy. Demonstrating that you recognize the lay of the land from their perspective. The gatekeeper is not your adversary. Whatever the issue is that you want to get in front of the decision-maker is your adversary. Your challenge is to make the gatekeeper a teammate in a problem-solving venture. Start with an Accusations Audit. “I know you are busy and may be asking yourself why you agreed to take my call.” “Mrs. Decision-maker probably puts a lot of faith and trust in you make sure her time is not wasted.” Alternatively, you can use a Calibrated Question, “What would have to be true for me to speak directly with her?” This “involves” them in the conversation and shows that you recognize their relative power and influence within the organization or process. Treat the gatekeeper as they want to be treated; with respect and deference. In business and hostage negotiations, ignoring or dismissing these people can be disastrous. If you condescend to a gatekeeper, you will never get to the boss. Never be unkind to anyone who can hurt you by doing nothing.
Every gatekeeper you encounter can help you if they felt like it. People are six times more likely to “feel like it” if they like you, based on no other criteria whatsoever. Your tone, delivery, and cadence go a long way in influencing them to want to assist you. Everything we say and before you finish saying it causes an emotional reaction on the recipient. The reaction can be small or large, negative or positive, conscious or subconscious. This is an undeniable human nature response. Using your voice properly may be the single thing you can do with the least amount of effort that will bring the most benefits. With the right tone of voice, you can say almost anything. The playful accommodating voice is the voice you should use most of the time. The key to this is to smile while you're talking. When you smile while you're talking, people can hear the smile. They can feel the smile. It has a positive effect on their cognitive ability wherein they think more productively and want to interact with you collaboratively. People are drawn to this. Get them to help you by being nice.
The Name Game
When making the first contact with a gatekeeper, give them your name first. Don’t ask for theirs. Names are a part of our self-image and as such is one of our most treasured possessions. Surrendering our name at the request of another is viewed with suspicion and puts us on guard. Our name, like our autonomy, is something we will protect to the death. Telling them your name first humanizes you. It makes the other person feel good and initiates the rule of reciprocity.
Upon giving your name first, they gatekeeper will be more inclined and less defensive about giving you theirs. “Hi, it’s Derek for the Black Swan Group.” Just Derek. Not, “Derek Gaunt, 29-year law enforcement veteran and former commander of one the premier hostage negotiations teams in the Washington DC, metropolitan area, and trainer for the Black Swan Group”. None of that matters. Everything about your past diminishes, in their mind, who you are as a person. It’s fog. It’s distracting. Most people think the best way to engage is to be impersonal – be all business. Not so. Everyone wants to be treated like and feel like he or she are dealing with a person. Simple use of your first name gets the door open.
Never Take A No From Someone Who Can’t Give You A Yes
This is a rule for Cindy Mori, a big-time entertainment executive. As she explains it, almost no one whom you engage for the first time can give you a yes or a no. Most of the time, they are just gathering information. If you get a no from a blocker, ask clarifying questions. From a BSG perspective, No-Oriented questions would work best. “Would it be a bad idea if I sent Mrs. Decision-maker an email and copied you on it?” “Is it disrespectful for me to ask if you are sure you don’t want to (present the ask to the decision-maker)?” Or a Label, “It sounds like you’re hesitant in relaying...“ Or a Mirror coupled with a Calibrated Question like, “No? (upward inflection) What makes you say that?” Or perhaps the “true” Calibrated Question, “What would have to be true if I got the opportunity to speak with him/her?” You are letting them know you are not accepting the first no without being confrontational and at the same time gathering information. You are engaging in a collaborative conversation with the gatekeeper; treating them like a person as opposed to an obstacle to get around. Even though the intent is to get around them, do it in a fashion where you are not creating an enemy. Ingratiating yourself in an authentic way by way of your delivery. They will be hypervigilant of your projected sincerity. If you are disingenuous and it looks like you’re being nice to manipulate them, they will shut you down.
Mori adds showing gratitude at the conclusion of the interaction with the gatekeeper is equally as important. At BSG we say the last impression is the lasting impression. How they feel at the end carries more weight in determining whether or not they pass along your message than anything else.
Maintain Relationships For the Future
Investing time up front in building a relationship with a gatekeeper can pay off further down the road. Your laying out of empathetic stepping stones before you get to your ask is critical to this. You will run into the gatekeeper again. If you think about it, every industry is a small community. You don’t know who knows who. You don’t know who knows where you work or what you do. If you treat someone cruddy and you don’t think that word is going to get around about you, you are wrong. If you caused them pain, given the opportunity, they will cause you pain. Revenge is a powerful motivator. If you actually take the time to get to know the gatekeeper and build rapport with them, you will put yourself at an advantage over your competition, since most people are lazy and won’t invest the time. Again, the rule of reciprocity is initiated. These are the gatekeepers who will return your calls or respond to your emails in the future because you have established trust-based influence with them.
Conversing with the gatekeeper need not be difficult or unproductive. It will provide you the opportunity to gather the information necessary to influencing them in getting your message to the right person if you are willing to defer and listen.