Charles Crawford CMG
Download PDF

At the Movies: Listening to What They Don’t Say

Charles Crawford CMG is a communication consultant who has drafted speeches for members of the Royal Family, Prime Ministers and other senior figures.  He gives masterclasses in negotiation technique and public speaking / speechwriting. He is an expert on central Europe, having served as British Ambassador in Warsaw, Belgrade and Sarajevo.


One of the subtlest movie dialogue exchanges comes in Heat, when fanatical detective Al Pacino and unredeemable criminal Robert De Niro meet in a diner and muse about the life of a hardened robber:

What are you, a monk?
I have a woman
What do you tell her?
I tell her I’m a salesman
So then, if you spot me coming round the corner … you just gonna walk out on this woman? Not say good-bye?
That’s the discipline

Every profession has its ‘discipline’. The one thing you have to get right to make everything else work. For negotiating and mediating alike, that discipline is listening.

And it’s not enough that you listen. You need to show the other side that you’re listening.

One way to do this is to reflect back key words, ie repeat a word or phrase that’s just been said to you.

Look at this tense dialogue from Once Up a Time in Hollywood, when stuntman Brad Pitt asks malevolent hippy Dakota Fanning if he can come in to see an old friend:

I’d really like to say a quick hello now while I’m here. Came a long ways. Don’t know when I’ll get back this way again.
Oh, I understand, but I’m afraid that’s impossible.
Impossible? Why is that impossible?

Here the tension is cranked up by this and other deliberate repetitions. They both know and show that they’re listening intently to everything being said.

Listening in these contexts is a lot more complicated than you might think.

You listen to what they say. You listen to what they don’t say.
You listen to what they do. You listen to what they don’t do.

This is hard. We all have deep-seated confirmation biases of different forms. We naturally focus on what someone says and does, as we can hear and see them. Spotting what they haven’t said or done requires quite different levels of concentration and insight.

But there are techniques you can learn for achieving this. One is to be careful to ask one question at a time. Then STOP. Listen and watch to whatever answer comes.

We’re all clever. It’s so easy to slip into asking several questions in a row, or elaborating on a question to press for ever-more precise answers.

But the more complicated the question(s), the harder it is to work out what the answer(s) given in fact was saying. Was the question answered directly, or was there a sly evasion or deliberate ambiguity? Or maybe an unintended ambiguity? Or a hint that the answer was complete, but maybe something else important is there to be said? Or an almost imperceptible nuance indicating unexpected flexibility?

A fine example from The Dark Knight shows how this works. Coleman Reece (Joshua Harto) discovers links between Wayne Enterprises and Batman, and tries to compel Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) to pay for his silence:

What are you building for him now? A rocket ship? I want ten-million dollars... a year... for the rest of my life.
Now, let me get this straight. You think that your client, one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the world, is secretly a vigilante who spends his nights beating criminals to a pulp? And your plan is to blackmail this person? Good luck.

Reece collapses and retreats in confused humiliation.

But notice what Reece missed.

He asked for a large sum of money as the price for keeping quiet. And Lucius Fox basically just blathered in reply. He didn’t say no.


Access. Engagement. Resolution.

The Ambassador Partnership LLP is a unique international partnership of former Ambassadors with unrivalled networks of influence in almost 100 countries.  We provide discreet services to resolve your international problems and to improve your capacity to operate effectively wherever you need to.

We are dispute resolution specialists and political risk experts.

To discuss how we can help you to manage your political risk please call:
Tracey Stewart
Partnership Secretary
+44 (0) 7950 944 010