FBI agents receive specialized training to gain subtle influence over people they interact with during investigations, and those FBI tactics apply in a wide variety of situations, including parenting.
Former FBI behavioral analyst Jack Schafer regularly shares how FBI behavioral techniques can help in everyday interactions, and his tips run counter to the image of FBI agents as tough and intimidating. Instead of using force, FBI agents rely on the power of persuasion.
“With persuasion, there are no winners or losers. Persuasion is the art of getting others to do what you want them to do because they want to, not because they are forced to,” Schafer told Inc. magazine.
In his recent book “The Like Switch,” Schafer shares FBI tactics for winning people over — tactics that can be valuable when parents and children don’t see eye to eye.
• Put in the time. “The more time you spend with a person, the more influence they have over your thoughts and actions,” Schafer told Time Magazine. If parents aren’t around, someone else will end up influencing their children. Spending time with children increases not just influence but affection, because people tend to like each other more when they spend time together.
• Remember forbidden fruit is the sweetest. FBI agents refer to this concept as “the scarcity principle.” While it’s important to set clear limits about truly dangerous behavior, in many cases forbidding something, like a particular food or video game, will make it more attractive to a child.
For example, researchers from Penn State found when they placed crackers in a covered dish and only made them available for five minutes, preschoolers liked them more than nearly identical crackers that were always available, The New York Times reported. With older children and teens, instead of forbidding some behaviors, it’s often better to let them use their own judgment after teaching them appropriate principles, according to Schafer.
• Offer the illusion of choice. Giving children a choice increases their sense of control, even if the choices are ones the parent has selected, Schafer said. For example, parents could offer children the choice between an apple and an orange for a snack. “The feeling they have some control over a situation can work wonders, even for children,” Schafer wrote in his book. When children experience autonomy and choice in an age-appropriate way, they will be able to make better decisions when a parent is not around, The New York Times reported.
• Ask questions, but don’t be too obvious. Often you can find out what is on a child’s mind by asking about a third party, Schafer told Time. For example, you might say, “My friend’s son got caught drinking. What do you think his parents should do?” This will help you get to know your child on a deeper level without you becoming accusatory or the child becoming defensive.
• Use empathetic statements. Parents can get their children to open up by showing empathy, using statements like “You look like you are thinking about something pretty serious. You look as though something is really bothering you.” Shaefer says these statements are invitations, not demands, so children feel they are volunteering to share information with you.
• Use likeable body language. Shafer shares three body language cues that signal friendliness. These include the “eyebrow flash” (quickly raising and lowering the eyebrows), tilting the head, and smiling. Basic friendliness is important even at home and can go a long way toward improving rapport between parents and children.