The behavioural change staircase is a deceptive model.

It looks so simple, and yet it can be the key to navigating seemingly impossible conversations.

In case you think we’re overselling it; this model was originally designed by the FBI and is now used by emergency services personnel and hostage negotiators in countries around the world.

And it works.

The behavioural change staircase: a deceptively simple model for complex communication

And it isn’t only for high-pressure, life or death situations. It taps into a deeply human desire for connection and understanding to help you to change another person’s mind and behaviour. In that respect, it is universally applicable for any challenging conversation: from frustrated colleagues to angry teenagers!

The Behavioural Change Staircase

1. Active listening. The first step in pretty much all communication is listening. Really listening. Giving someone your full attention and letting them speak without interrupting them or finishing their sentences. Let someone speak and let them see that you are paying attention to what they are saying.

2. Empathy. Showing empathy doesn’t mean that you have to agree with the person you are talking to. Usually, difficult conversations happen when there is some fundamental disagreement. Showing understanding and respect for someone’s position and feelings is enough. If you want to change someone’s behaviour, you won’t get there with judgement.

3. Rapport. The first two steps will bring you closer to the third. You build rapport by being positive and finding common ground. This step is often missed by people trying to leapfrog to the end of the conversation – active listening and empathy can make someone quite calm and reasonable, but that doesn’t mean you should jump straight to what you want them to do. It will probably fail.

4. Trust. Only when you have a genuine rapport with someone can you start building trust with them. You can start to talk about the options for what happens next. Not as instructions, and without judgement, you can look together at opportunities and potential consequences.

5. Influence / Persuade. Finally, having built up empathy, rapport, and trust, you can start to bring the other person round to your point of view. They know that you have heard them, that you care about their situation, and that they can trust you. Only now do you start to actually influence what the other person is doing – in the first 4 steps you are just providing space, empathy and ideas. Now you can make suggestions and start to affect the other person’s behaviour.

The idea is to help get the other person to see your point of view by showing them that you understand theirs.

The simplicity of the model hides one thing, though. Applying the behavioural change staircase takes patience, focus, and practice. It isn’t a case of ticking off the steps and magically having the effect you want.

Remember: you don’t take each step on your own – you have to take the other person with you.

In fact, you will often find that the best thing you can do is go back a step when that is what the other person needs. It is a real skill to read another person and respond respectfully.

This technique is a powerful tool to help you become an influential and persuasive communicator. But in many ways, the model is just a handrail that supports your communication skill and emotional intelligence. It is difficult to hone these skills, but it starts with commitment and practice. You can take the first step by thinking about the behavioural change staircase the next time you have a difficult conversation to handle.

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