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Podcast Episode 077: The secrets of listening like a spy

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In this episode we get the opportunity to listen to a retired FBI Special Agent and Chief of the Counterintelligence Behavioural Analysis Program Robin Dreeke. Robin has taken his life’s work of recruiting spies and broken the art of leadership and relationship building. Robin has crafted his Code of Trust for quick results and maximum success.  

Author of Sizing People Up: A Veteran FBI Agent’s User Manual for Behaviour Prediction  and It’s not all about Me 

My favourite story about Robin’s life as a marine and what that taught him about how he wasn’t listening and the consequences on a bombing range. 


Podcast Episode 077: The secrets of listening like a spy

Robin Dreeke:      

Before I retired, my main job inside the FBI was I ran our behavioural analysis programme for counter-intelligence. To put it simply, my job was to recruit foreign spies. And so many times, I called it the most challenging sales job in the world because my job is to sell a concept, not even a product, but a concept, the concept of patriotism to the United States. And I’m selling this concept of patriotism to people that don’t ever, ever really want to buy it because they’re foreign operatives from another country.

Oscar Trimboli:           

Deep listening, impact beyond words. Good day, I’m Oscar Trimboli and this is the Apple award-winning podcast, deep listening. Designed to move you from a distracted listener to a deep and impactful leader. Did you know you spend 55% of your day listening, yet only 2% of people have ever been taught how? In each episode, we explore the five levels of listening. Communication is 50% speaking and 50% listening. Yet as a leader, you’re taught only the importance of communication from the perspective of how to speak. It’s critical you start to build some muscles for the next phase in how to listen. The cost of not listening? It’s confusion. It’s conflict. It’s projects running over schedule. It’s lost customers. It’s great employees that leave before they want to. When you implement the strategies, the tips and tactics that you’ll hear, you’ll get four hours a week back in your schedule.I wonder what you could do with an extra four hours a week. Today, we get the opportunity to listen to a retired FBI special agent and the chief of the counter-intelligence behavioural analysis programme. How to recruit a spy in other words. Robin has taken his life’s work of recruiting spies and broken down the art of relationship building and leadership. Robin has coded his code of trust for quick results and maximum success.He’s the author of Sizing People Up, an FBI agent’s user manual for behaviour prediction and his other book, It’s Not All about “me”. I’m sure you can all think of a few people who could use that book. My favourite story in this conversation is Robin’s life as a Marine and what it taught him about what he wasn’t listening to and the consequences of that on a bombing range. Let’s listen to Robin.

Robin Dreeke:   

The true power of listening is to seek the thoughts and opinions of others and learn about what their priorities are and learn how they view prosperity from their point of view. Because once you understand what they think is prosperity from their point of view, you know exactly what they’re going to do every minute of the day. They’re always going to act in their own best interest and in terms of their own prosperity.

So the cost of not doing that, you’re living life, interacting with other human beings, completely guessing at why you should even have a relationship. Before I retired, my main job inside the FBI was I ran our behavioural analysis programme for counter-intelligence. To put it simply, my job was to recruit foreign spies. And so many times, I called it the most challenging sales job in the world because my job was to sell a concept, not even a product, but a concept, the concept of patriotism to the United States.

And I’m selling this concept of patriotism to people that don’t ever, ever really want to buy it because they’re foreign operatives from another country. It was actually illegal by treaty for me to actually initiate a conversation with these individuals. I always ask someone just like, “So how do you think you recruit a foreign spy?” And they said, “Oh, money.” Well, money is just one thing. What’s money buy?

Money gets someone to actually take action in terms of their part is likes and interest. And so if you’re just guessing at one aspect of what you think someone might want, or you think is a part of their life and you take action on it, it can be extremely insulting. It’s like if I walked up to a stranger on the street and said, “Hey, I’d love you to work for the FBI, here’s $10,000. What say you?” It could be extremely insulting because you’re way off the mark.

You’re not even thinking about what’s important to them. What are their needs? How do they see prosperity from their point of view? In other words, what are their priorities and what resources do I have that I can offer in terms of his priorities? Because if you don’t have that conversation first, understand things with that transparency and honesty, you’re not going to develop a relationship. You’re not going to build trust and it’s not going to move forward.

It’s a good of years ago when I was still working in New York, I had some decent successes working with one individual that was a go-between that introduced me to some potential foreign spies that wanted to align with buying my product of American patriotism. And I was all set to do another interview with another individual that had been lined up for me and my friend put us in touch, said that, “Yeah, this guy, he’s showing a lot of interest in potentially wanting to share information.”

I get to this meeting with that guy, we sit down and we’re having a beer. And I remember saying, “Hey, thank you so much. Our friend put us in touch. Here’s what I have to offer. I have government investors and I have private sector investors. Each has different amounts of money they’re willing to pay, but they’re looking ground truth on what’s actually happening on the grounds in the regions of the world that you actually come from and hail from. Is that something that you’re interested in?”

And I remember, that’s an opening line for someone who might be willing to cooperate and share information in exchange of services. I remember him looking back at me and said, “Actually, I have people in my part of the world that are interested in your thoughts and opinions from your part of the world.” So in other words, he was trying to sell me the same product. He was trying to recruit me and I was trying to recruit him.

As soon as I recognised it, I took a big smile, because I listened to him and I said, “Wow.” I said, “It looks like we actually have exactly the same agenda, but I’m actually trying to sell you my product and doesn’t look like you looking to buy right now. But I’ll tell you what, think about my proposal and in three months, if you want to get together for another beer, great. We’ll chat. If not, enjoy the rest of this one and have a great life, see you later.”

Oscar Trimboli:   

So for a lot of those listening that have to sell concepts in the workplace, whether that’s the reason to change or the reason to explore new markets to sell goods and services, I’m curious if you were to give them a few tips, Robin, about listening in the way you’ve been trained.

Robin Dreeke: 

Years ago when I was still in the Marine Corps, I struggled at leadership. I was not that good. I got ranked last out of all the second lieutenants in my squadron. I remember going to the major who was in charge at the time saying, “All right, sir, I get it. I’m doing something wrong. What am I doing wrong?” And he said to me, he said, “All you need to do is be a better leader and make it about everyone else about yourself.” And I was like, “All right. How?” And he goes, “I don’t know, just do it.”

It’s that subjectiveness that drove me nuts because some people are born naturally doing this and some people aren’t. I was one of the ones that wasn’t, but it made my life study of doing it. How do you make a conversation about everyone else but yourself? It’s very, very simple. And here’s four things, if you include one of these four things in everything you either say or write down, the entire conversation becomes about the other person, their dopamine, and all the pleasure centres in the brain are firing.

And their brain is saying, “This person is good for me because they want to be affiliated and they’re demonstrating value.” And here’s what you got to do, seek their thoughts and opinions because we only seek the thoughts and opinions from people that we want to affiliate with and that we value. Second, talk in terms of their priorities, of what’s important to them. If you don’t know what they are, a key priority of all human beings is safety and security and prosperity for themselves first and foremost.

Every person is doing the job they have because they’re trying to provide safety and security prosperity for themselves. If they’re a little more altruistic, their family. A little more altruistic, their town or community. But talk in terms of the priorities of others. Three, validate the thoughts and opinions that they have without judging them, who they are, what they are, their ethics or morals.

Because if you stand in judgement  of anyone’s words or actions, I guarantee you, their shields are up and they will not be in alignment of anything. And finally, if appropriate, you empower them with choices because you only give people choices that you value and that you want to affiliate with.

Oscar Trimboli:     

Robin, I just want to jump back a little bit into life in the Marine Corps and the conversation with the major. That’s really what got you to that point. Before you went to the major and said, “It’s not working for me.” What were you noticing in the way you were leading that told you it’s not working?

Robin Dreeke: 

This point in my life, being a very hard charging 23, 24 year old, we went out on a deployment, we’re getting ready to go out to the desert and we’re all staying in these tents about 14 of us. Second lieutenants are all staying in these big tents on a cut in the middle of the woods. I remember it’s the middle of the night, it was chilly, so I had the sleep Meg up of my head and I heard a little shuffling here, a little snickering.

And all of a sudden I get took right down, take my sleeping bag and they started wrapping duct tape, really good sticky tape around me and the sleeping bag, kind of duct taping me into this thing. And then they lift me up on the cut, all duct tape in there and out we go out of the tent. And after about 20, 30 minutes of them jostling me around and taking me somewhere and laughing along the way, they set me down and they go running off.

And after all got quiet again, I was able to wiggle my arm out the top and I had a multi-tool in my thing, it would have had a little knife on. I was able to cut my duct tape and kind of pop my head up and top. And they left me in the middle of a bombing range where we’re dropping bombs the next day. And so, I hauled all my stuff back to the tent and they’re all laughing and everything.

That was a very great A-ha moment because that was my first moment where I said, “All right, I think I’m this great guy, but these people just see a moron.” And so that thinking [gruens 00:10:42] between what the rest of the world sees and what you think. So I really, really pay attention to the things I hear about myself that other people might be saying. And not in a way of what was me or anything else, just like, what does the world see when they see me? If it’s accurate, okay.

If it’s not, what do I want to do about it? Because that was the same time where that major said, “You need to make it about everyone else about yourself.” I didn’t understand exactly what he meant or how to do that. I always said, “All right. I did something to cause this, what behaviours do I not do and that I need to add myself in the key, then crux all of it was listening.”

Oscar Trimboli:   

So there you were on the bombing range with your utility knife slicing up the duct tape, I’m just curious to come into that moment with you and go, what thoughts were actually going through your head in that moment?

Robin Dreeke: 

That I must be doing something really wrong. There’s something really off. At first, my first thought was, “Oh, this is just a welcome aboard kind of thing that they do to all the other second lieutenants that report to the squadron.” But the interesting thing was they didn’t do it to anyone else, the entire deployment. It was just me. And so I took that as … and again, there was no hate or malice.

It was just a message. The behaviours I was exhibiting were off. Off from what it meant to be a leader, off from what it meant to be a team player. Because the language I was using, I was broadcasting my thoughts and ideas without listening to the thoughts and ideas of others.

Oscar Trimboli:   

Are there any other examples from your Marine career of great role models of listening?

Robin Dreeke:           

I actually just bumped into my Colonel I worked for at Parris Island, South Carolina a couple weekends ago. He’s a Naval Academy graduate as well and he’s having a class reunion. I hadn’t seen him in about 25, 30 years. I remember years ago, he told me a very simple thing. He says, “Captain, never tell me no, only tell me yes. But just tell me what it’ll cost me so I can make a choice.” And I really found that very profound because in order to give him choices, I had to listen and be aware of all the things that were going on.

So any time he wanted me to do anything or accomplish anything, all I ever told him was, “Yes, sir. I can do it. But here’s what it’ll cost you in the areas of your other priorities.” I had to understand what all his priorities were by listening, and then I had to present him all the options so he could make a choice about how he wanted to prioritise each of these things above the other.

Oscar Trimboli:  

Would you like to learn a bit more about what gets in your way when it comes to listening? What are the barriers that are stopping you from completely listening to yourself and to the other person? Go and visit That’s and take the seven minute assessment and you’ll receive a unique report with three tailored actions to help you move from a distracted listener to a deep and impactful listener. You joined the behavioural unit of the FBI. How did they listen to you during the recruitment process?

Robin Dreeke:    

Any behavioural programme inside the FBI is luck for one thing, because you don’t get hired to join. A lot of people think, “Hey, I’ve watched Criminal Minds on TV, or I see all these great profiling things. I want to join the FBI and do that.” It doesn’t work that way. No one gets hired as a profiler, no one gets hired to join the behavioural programme. You actually have to spend years and years on the street as a special agent investigating whatever it is your speciality is.

And then if there’s an opening, then if you’re at the right location they need someone, and if you had the right experience and skills that you put in, and they like you and they listen to you, like you said, you might get on the team. I was in New York and I’d spent, before I got on our behavioural team, I think it probably had about anywhere between five and 10 years of actually doing what I did on the street where you’re talking to human beings, doing a lot of interviews, a lot of counter-intelligence work and a lot of recruiting.

And they happened to have a need on the team at the same time for someone with a skill set I had been developing. They listened to my stories about my background and what I had been doing and they thought it was valuable for the team at the time. And that’s how I got on.

Oscar Trimboli:     

What’s the intent of the behavioural unit?

Robin Dreeke:         

I’m a counterintelligence team and we’re the behavioural analysis programme. And I would say 99.9% of the time, we know who we’re going to be talking to and know who we’re going to engage, and so we’re not trying to find someone we don’t know. But what we’re doing is we’re using organisational psychology, social psychology to strategize how to have a good, healthy engagement with someone that we know. Whether it’s recruiting someone, interviewing someone, doing a double agent operation, false flag operation, all the hooky spooky spy stuff.

Oscar Trimboli:    

What are the tips to help people move somebody they’re trying to listen to from a state of really high emotion to something where a productive dialogue can exist?

Robin Dreeke:    

Lot of the times you can’t control the environment, if you go into someone else’s office or you’re out for coffee or something like that. But if someone starts getting emotionally hijacked, first of all, I try never to let it get there because I want to make sure I’m using what I call accommodating nonverbal behaviour, where I’m making sure I’m smiling, but not overly so, so you look goofy. Throw a little head tilt, so your head is angled to the side a little bit so you’re exposing the carotid artery.

So you’re saying, “Hey, I trust you as another mammal not to rip out my throat.” Palms up. So we’re chatting and you’re sharing your ideas, don’t be poking a finger at them, but place your palms up so your Palm is facing the ceiling. So when you’re expressing your ideas, you’re using a palms up display. Eyebrow elevation, so that you’re saying I’m very comfortable with the things I’m saying rather than eyebrow compression, where you’re glaring at them, staring them down.

So it’s all these open ventral displays are very, very good. If they take a step back from you, or they seem like a little off putting, or they start taking an angle, don’t move in on it. That means you’re being aggressive. Give them space as well. If all of a sudden you say something a little off and you see a little compression, or they take a step back, give them space, like a little step back as well. You’ll see that they’ll move back into you. In other words, just be very accommodating of them and their physical needs in the space while you’re engaging.

Because you can make all your exact points the same way, because when you’re doing these accommodating nonverbals, it now it becomes about them rather than about yourself. Because I always think in terms of how can I inspire someone to want to listen to me rather than how can I convince them to? Because if I’m trying to convince someone of something, it becomes about me.

If I’m trying to inspire them to do something, it becomes about them. And so that’s what I do with myself and my own nonverbals and I’m watching their nonverbals. Then in the physicality of the room itself, if you’re able to remove any barriers between you and them, like if you’re sitting at a table having a cup of coffee or something like that, if there’s something on the table like a flower placement or something like that between you two, move it aside.

If you can put your chairs angled so that you have a little more space toward each other without being too intrusive, that’s always good. Basically, you want to eliminate any barriers between them and you as well.

Oscar Trimboli:    

Robin, how conscious are you of noticing their breathing?

Robin Dreeke:    

Pretty conscious. I used to be a nonverbal expert in the sense that I only looked at nonverbals when interacting from the tip of the toes to the top of the head. But over the years, when my focus became on interacting with human beings in general and to make alignments of relationships, I can’t be watching your entire body and also listening to your words. Because the words to me are much more important than everything your body is saying.

So I now focus mostly, completely really, on the face and anything that comes in within proximity of it. Like if you have hand movements up there or something. And breathing will definitely be part of that. I won’t notice breathing unless it is outside of the basic norm is a good way to put it. Same thing with eye blink rates, flutters, lip movements, anything that’s … because when you first meet someone, your body naturally establishes a nonverbal baseline for that individual.

And then during the course of the conversation, you’re going to start identifying things that are now becoming incongruent with what’s normal for them during that baseline establishment. And so breathing is definitely part of it though.

Oscar Trimboli:   

How do you play with silence while you’re listening?

Robin Dreeke:  

I love silence. It is a great, great tool. Yes, silence and me do not go hand in hand naturally, but what’s very fascinating is that when you’re going live and you’re doing these interactions, and I’m constantly thinking I’m listening to their words, which is the most important thing. Because when I’m listening to the words I’m hearing about their priorities, and then all I’m doing is seeking ways about their priorities. Explore how, when and what kind of challenges.

In other words, I’m always thinking about how to understand this human being when I’m actually consciously doing that and thoughtfully doing that, it slows me down from talking too much. Because I’m actually listening to the words and exploring their content. So silence gets interjected naturally because I’m always thinking about them and the things that they are saying.

Oscar Trimboli:     

When we think about the fact that we can speak at about 125 to 150 words per minute, yet we’ve got any way between 900 to 1,000 words stuck in our head that we’re trying to speak, what kind of questions are you using to pull out more of what they haven’t said?

Robin Dreeke:

I love what I call challenges questions. That is, I ask people about their challenges because everyone’s got them and everyone’s always willing to share them. And the things that come out of their mouth are the things that are most important at that moment. Whether you’re talking to someone that, say you’re in a city like New York and you knew they commuted in to see you somewhere or commuted into the city, a simple question like, so what kind of challenges did you have getting to work today?

Oh, you have kids? What kind of challenges do you have raising your kids today? What kind of challenges do you have paying the bills this month? What you’re going to hear nearly following that is all the things that are important to that person that really spiked up. Someone that’s consciously listening will hear all that and start aligning and thinking in terms of, “Okay, what resources do I have? What commonalities do I have?”

If you ever are at a sticking point, you don’t know what to say or don’t know what to talk about, ask them what kind of challenges they have in any aspect of their life. I guarantee you, you’re going to get lots of answers.

Oscar Trimboli: 

I just wanted to jump in and highlight something. Robin’s about to describe the dramatic listener in very minute detail in fact. If you don’t know which listener you are, you can visit and quickly discover which one of the four [inaudible 00:22:08] of listening is you’re listening to [inaudible 00:22:11]. But not only does he describe the dramatic listener in minute detail, he also explained how to notice it and when you’re showing up as the dramatic listener. And more importantly, he provides some really practical tips about what to do about it.

Robin Dreeke:  

The simplest thing in the world is listening. You only have to do one thing, and it’s not just shutting up because just not talking doesn’t mean you’re listening. It just means you’re not saying anything. What happens in human beings when they interact is really fascinating because we’re constantly testing our affiliation with others. How do we do that? We’re always exchanging anecdote and story.

As soon as someone has an anecdote or story that they start sharing, within microseconds, if not a couple seconds, we also now have an anecdote or story that we’re dying to tell them because our dopamine in our brain is saying, “We got to share. We got to share. We got to share.” And you’re not listening to their story. You’re waiting for them to stop so you can share yours because you’re seeking that acceptance and validation.

Here’s a simple, simple thing to listen, take that story that you can’t wait to share or that anecdote and toss it completely out of your mind and redirect your energy of paying attention to theirs. It’s amazing. You’ll remember every single thing they said when you take what you want to say out of your entire brain, not just shutting up, and tossing it and paying attention to their anecdote or story and then being ready to ask them, “How did you decide to do that?

“When did you decide to do that? What kind of challenges did you have along the way?” When you remember to just keep following up and validating, and validating means seek to understand their story, their sharing, one, you’re listening. And two, you’re going to remember absolutely everything that this person said. When I’ve consciously done this in my life, I remember stories from 2005 when I first started doing this.

When I was talking to this guy, Albert, he was a desk guy and he’s a manager at a Hertz rental car place at the San Antonio airport. And I asked him, “Albert, what kind of challenges are you having this week?” And he said his wife just died from a brain aneurysm. He just moved from Philadelphia.

He doesn’t know what he’s going to do. This is a conversation with this guy I met once in my life at a Hertz rental car counter, all because I’d listened and I sought his thoughts and opinions. I talked in terms of his priority and I validated it. And when you do that consciously, because you have nothing to say but pay attention to them, the world opens up.

Oscar Trimboli:

Robin makes many powerful points that changes my mind about listening. Ask questions about their challenges rather than asking challenging questions. Notice where your attention is focused. Are you giving attention or are you mainly paying attention? Robin prompted me to consider how I listen for these primary form motivators. This desire for affiliation, what’s important to them and their priorities, the role of safety and security for them, their family, and their country.

And finally tip number four was empower them with choices because it gives them a choice about what they really value. Finally, I love Robin’s reflection about validate their thoughts and opinions without having to judge them. I think this reinforces the point that listening is the willingness to have your mind changed. We have a great space, it’s our deep listening community of practise, where you can safely practise listening to others.

In the deep listening community of practise, you’ll be in a real time online space with between 10 and 20 other people where each of us are looking to improve our listening just a little bit more. If you visit,, you can learn more. These community of practises happen every month. And in this very focused space, we discuss themes as it relates to listening.

In our most recent one, we talked about the role of distraction before the conversation starts and setting yourself up for success before listening commences with the other person. With other people in that space, we learn about what they struggle with and more importantly, what they do about it as well. We discuss what’s the evidence from various literature around how you will deal with distractions and how you can improve.

The thing I love about the space is when we move into the breakout groups, people form new relationships that get dramatically different insights when it comes to their own listening in two ways, as they practise listening to others and as we discuss how others were listening to them. So if you’d like to register for the community of practise, visit I always love hearing from you.

I’m in the middle of analysing the 2020 survey results. We’ve had an enormous range of different perspectives with people providing me feedback. It’s a reminder from me to say, you can always send me a message. Tell me how you’re applying what you’re learning. Or as Robin would say, what are your challenges? What are you struggling with? What did you take away from Robin’s discussion today?

Maybe you want to send me a little note, visit There, if you like to record your voice, you can leave the voicemail message there. Or if you want to send an email, you can do it from that page as well. Please, I am really keen to listen to you. And you know the difference between hearing and listening is taking action. So I say to you, if you send me a message, it will definitely be incorporated into future episodes. Thanks for listening.


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