Discover the fortune-teller-approved negotiation tactics used by executives at Samsung, McDonald’s and more


You don’t have to be a mind reader to get a good deal. But it may pay to think so.

By using a psychological technique called the Forer effect (named after psychologist Bertram Forer), which often involves making flattering but general statements about the person you are trying to influence, you can quickly develop a rapport with people – and you can they get to open up. It’s a trick Washington, DC publicist Deirdre Adele Cehrs and New York City-based former FBI crisis hostage negotiator Chip Massey usually teach their clients through their consulting firm, Convincing Company.

The applications for technology in business are countless. Imagine high-stakes moments from making a sales pitch and managing a difficult employee to negotiating a big deal or landing an investor. “From a business perspective, using these types of techniques can give you an incredible competitive advantage,” says Cehrs.

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Her first experience of the Forer effect came as a teenager in New Jersey, when a fortune teller addressed her high school English class. (It’s a long story that has to do with Bruce Springsteen, she says.) The woman chose Cehrs from her class by chance, making a bold statement, “I see someone with the letter J, and they’re holding their chests.” Cehr was beaten. Her father, John, had recently undergone triple bypass surgery. At the time, she believed this meant the fortune teller was the real deal — so she bought everything she said afterward. Since she personally agreed with the woman’s statement, Cehrs quickly trusted her.

It took years for Cehrs to see that what she was experiencing that day was the Forer effect. While researching for an ongoing book on negotiation tactics, Cehrs and her business partner, Massey, tried to come up with professions that require excellent persuasion skills. Remembering her experience with the fortune teller, Cehrs began Googling around to learn more about the secrets of the trade — and she found her answer in the Forer effect.

The technique involves making a statement that is broad, firm, yet specific enough for listeners to think it applies to them. The goal is for the listener to feel seen by the statement – and this in turn increases her confidence and emotional openness. In his work at the FBI, Massey used the same technique for a long time. He would use it in tense situations such as corruption investigations and hostage negotiations. “It’s a way of making people feel understood and heard, and [that] even their inner life is recognized,” he says.

Cehrs and Massey, among others, teach this trick to their clients, including executives from companies like Samsung, McDonalds and DuPont, as well as officials from universities like Columbia and Princeton. Here’s how you too can use this fortune-telling technique to benefit your business — no insider gift needed.

Make broad statements.

How did the fortune teller know that Cehrs’ father had a J name? “I’m Italian from New Jersey,” she says. “She started by saying she felt the letter J or M — and that covers a lot of potential names.” If Cehrs hadn’t responded to either letter, the fortune teller could have easily followed another suggestion that may have stuck: “What about P?”

What Cehrs, as a teenager, seemed like a magical moment, was actually incredibly strategic. The chances of her having a connection to a man with a J name were pretty high, and the image of a person holding his chest could be read a number of different ways — it just so happened that the most literal reading resonated with Cehrs then. “If you make a statement that someone agrees with, they become addicted to everything you say after that,” she says.

Create an emotional pull.

The key to using the Forer effect is making statements that can inspire someone to open up. Usually that means making an emotional connection, Massey adds, “It’s a shortcut to understanding and creating a bond.” Examples of statements that might encourage a business contact to open up are, “I know you pride yourself as an independent thinker” and “You have a lot of untapped capacity.” Compliments, when used strategically, can help wave someone by your side — don’t overdo the praise so that it looks like you’re sprinkling unwarranted flattery.

Pay attention to non-verbal cues.

When making a Forer statement, look at the body language of the person you’re talking to; that will help you determine if you are on the right track. “If you see subtle facial expressions of disinterest or closed body language, you can throw other ideas away,” Massey says. “You have to have a very keen sense of perception.” The person may not have responded to your comment that they are very individualistic, but if you say, “I know a lot of people depend on you,” they will open up.

Personalize it.

While the Forer effect is an incredibly useful tool to use when talking to someone you don’t know, Cehrs says, it’s also beneficial for those you already know. And if you do have enough background information about a person, you can make your statements even more personal, with more results. “Think about what matters most to that person, and why that would bring them to your brand,” she says. In a business meeting, that could be as simple as saying, “I know how much you appreciate XYZ,” and allowing the other person to agree with you — then moving on to see how that information relates to your pitch.

Especially in a virtual environment like Zoom, Massey and Cehrs say the Forer effect can be incredibly valuable to entrepreneurs trying to close deals and build relationships. “You have to make a real connection or the relationship won’t last,” says Cehrs. “But by using these skills, you can increase someone’s interest in what you have to say.”

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