Lifehacks for Investigators: How to Win Friends and Spy on People
You’re a professional investigator. You’ve got mad investigative skills, a talent for sniffing out information. You’re comfortable in a wide range of settings. You do satisfying work that stimulates your brain and makes you feel useful. All good, right?
However…there’s often a social price to pay. Raise your hand if you’ve ever experienced the following:
- People are initially fascinated with you at parties...until you break it to them that surveillance isn't all that sexy. At which point, their faces go blank.
- Others are instantly repelled, or suspicious, when they hear what you do for a living.
- The rest ask such predictable questions (e.g. "Are you watching/recording/following me now?") that you feel compelled to sneak back to the punch bowl out of sheer boredom.
For fellow investigators weary of reliving such repetitive scenarios, there’s good news: Those mad skills you worked so hard to hone can actually serve you well in social settings. In fact, if you learn to engage those same techniques in matters interpersonal, they might just increase your emotional intelligence…and make you a better person, a more trusted friend and partner, and the life of the party.
These skills could even save your marriage one day.
The recipe: Take these three important investigative methods, add a measure of kindness, and mix well. The result is a new interpersonal skill, one that can calm rough relationship waters and, ultimately, add to your overall happiness.
1. Observing + Caring = Empathy
Even after a long day of surveillance, you still have the mental focus to remain aware and in the moment. You don’t miss much, and you can Sherlock out information about people by noticing small details others miss. You smell wrongness in situations, even if you can’t explain exactly why. You’re wrong occasionally…but not often.
It’s funny; investigators often switch off these abilities when they get home, if only because their partners and kids like to say (at the height of the argument), “Don’t investigate/interrogate ME!”
The trick is to keep doing it, but be a little more stealthy, a little less smug. Here’s the thing: You know your observations are usually dead on, and that knowing can get a little overbearing on the home front…especially when you use it to win the argument. But what if you keep that inner certainty to yourself, and use your observational skills for sussing out your loved ones’ unspoken needs and inner turmoil?
Remember: Most people are so busy thinking about their own feelings and agendas, that they forget to notice other people—which is why skills of observation are like a superpower, especially when you actually care about the person you’re observing.
Skills of observation are like a superpower, especially when you actually care about the person you're observing.
I saw this talent at close range recently, when my Cambodian friend Chantha stayed with me for a few weeks. She’s a phenomenal cook, and she watches people carefully to see what foods they like best. She has a crazy ability to match people with meals they will love, and every dinner with her feels like a celebration—because Chantha is constantly meeting every need, from food and drink to camaraderie and laughter. She doesn’t talk much about herself, unless asked. She listens and asks and shows genuine interest in people. She cracks jokes and mirrors others’ moods and interests.
By the time she left town, everyone who’d met her had fallen completely under her spell. Tears were shed. Promises to visit Cambodia were sworn. I’ve never seen anyone make such a strong (and positive) impression on so many, so quickly. Late one night toward the end of her visit, she shared her secret: She is always watching, and she remembers everything.
Instead of showing off your keen eye to impress, stay quiet. Watch, listen, and learn. Use your powers for good. Make people a little bit happier by seeing what they need. That happiness will spread.
2. Interviewing + Genuine Interest = Connection
You’re a whiz at coaxing the real story out of a reluctant witness. Why not pivot this skill toward filling those awkward silences at dinner parties and stilted meet-and-greets?
Not long ago, I found myself sitting at between two thirty-something guys I’d never met during happy hour at my favorite bar. When wedged between strangers and looming silences, I generally switch into interviewer mode—which includes a few key rules:
1. Ask interesting questions that require full-sentence answers (i.e. no “yes-or-no” questions).
2. Let the answers lead you toward something fascinating about the new person—you can see it in his face when you’re closing in on it.
3. Be genuinely interested, and listen carefully.
4. Focus on the other person, but don’t let the “interview” become one-sided. Have a real conversation—an exchange.
In situations like my cocktail-hour-with-strangers, I start with the basics, except with a slight twist: Instead of “What do you do?” or “Where are you from?” I try, “What’s your dream job?”, “How do you know (our mutual friend)?”, or “What brought you to Nashville?” Small differences, but the answers tell a story…and stories lead to conversations and connection.
Within a few minutes I learned supercool things about both of the young men. One was a highly trained dobro player who’d spent months transcribing an iconic Nashville instrumentalist’s most famous songs for posterity…and in the process, had learned to listen to music at a near-molecular level of detail and beauty. That work had changed music for him forever. The other man spoke eloquently about the life and death of his father, a doctor who chose teaching and service over a lucrative private practice. Despite the awfulness of losing his dad, the son had been grateful for the chance to care for the caregiver, as a tumor slowly stole his father’s life.
I found both conversations profound, memorable, and rewarding, and I left with the feeling that potential new friendships had germinated. For me, conversations like that are win-win: The “interviewees” feel important, because someone has shown interest in them and listened; and you’ve (hopefully) learned something about the world and made a new connection.
Here’s the key: When “interviewing” for fun (and not for profit), you are not extracting information. This is no place for the Reid Technique. In her book, How to Talk With Practically Anybody About Practically Anything, Barbara Walters cautions that merely asking and listening doesn’t lead to real connection:
“When a conversation becomes a monologue, poked along with tiny cattle-prod questions, it isn’t a conversation any more. It is a strained, manipulative game, tiring and perhaps even lonely…A conversation, even a brief one, should have all the best features of any functioning human relationships, and that means genuine interest on both sides, opportunity and respect for both to express themselves, and some dashes of tact and perception.”
3. Reserving Judgement + Generosity = Patience
You pride yourself on keeping an open mind until the facts are in. You’re rational, and you don’t jump to conclusions. “Innocent until proven guilty” is your mantra.
But sometimes, back home, when your husband is late coming home and has not called, the judging kicks in: He has not bothered to call because of who he is—a thoughtless person who doesn’t care enough to let me know he’s safe, you think.
What if, instead, you withheld judgement, and interpreted his tardiness a little more charitably? Maybe he’s just having a blast with an old friend and forgetting to check in. Heck, you’ve done the same thing a thousand times.
Either way, you’re worried. But in the first story, you’re looking for the negative, and you’ve succeeded in finding it. In the second, you view his oversight with a more generous heart.
That difference is huge, according to psychologist John Gottman. For decades, he has studied what makes marriages fail. He observed newlyweds interacting and divided them into two categories: “masters” and “disasters.” Masters, he said in an interview, “are scanning (the) social environment for things they can appreciate.” They view a spouse’s oversight charitably—as just something that happened, a forgivable error.
“Disasters are scanning … for partners’ mistakes,” Gottman said, and they’re more likely to see the mistake in the worst light—as a character flaw.
Six years after the initial interviews, Gottman checked back with couples and found that partners who viewed their spouses’ behaviors with contempt were less likely to remain married than the ones who resisted the rush to judgement and treated partners with respect and appreciation.
When you investigate a criminal matter, a suspicious disability claim, or a domestic case, you don’t assume; you don’t decide until you see for yourself, and you don’t root for either team—you just collect your observations, dispassionately and thoroughly.
It’s certainly not as easy to remain dispassionate in matters of the heart. But a little investigative distance (and an open mind) can go a long way toward staving off that 2am argument when he sneaks sheepishly home after the revelry is over.
Hear him out. He may have spent the whole boozy evening telling his old friend all about you, the love of his life, and what a great listener you are. Hugs exchanged, fight averted, no regrets come morning.
A job well done.