You think pitching a new client over remote video during quarantine is tough? Try diffusing a shootout via a 6 a.m. cold call. 

Before Chip Massey went to work in corporate crisis communications, he was a negotiator for the Federal Bureau of Investigation--the agent called on to talk down a perpetrator when violence seemed imminent. 

Over staticky cell phone lines, often with mere seconds of time, Massey had to build rapport with desperate, angry people. He remembers a morning in the Bronx when his team had raided a gang member's apartment too late--the perp was gone by the time they got there--but they managed to get him on the phone. Massey looked around the man's bedroom and tried to imagine what it was like to live there for years. 

"Hi ... I'm Chip, from the FBI. I'm here to help." Silence. He delivered his next words with as much sympathy as he could muster, trying to build rapport through empathy: "How bad does your life suck right now?" 

These days, Massey is frequently on video calls with clients in the midst of a public relations crisis through his work with When and How, a firm he operates with his business partner, Adele Cehrs. For Massey, who spent much of his law enforcement career coaxing targets on analog phone lines, these high-definition video calls are a luxury. 

"For me it's almost information overload," he says. "It's like a fire hose of vibrancy and color!" 

Here's Massey's advice for those of us still getting the hang of bonding with strangers via video call, even if it's not a life-or-death situation. 

Prepare to stay calm.

Your own voice and expressions will influence the other person's mood more than practically any other factor. Before a call starts, take a few moments to breathe deeply and collect yourself. Note any potential "mental tripwires"--subjects or statements the other person might bring up that might throw off your focus or mess with your mood. Finally, distill your main goal for the conversation--the place to which you'll calmly return if stress starts to get the better of you. 

"Whatever it is--improve relationship, finalize the contract--it has to be a neon sign in your head" as you talk, says Massey. 

Conduct forensic chit-chat.

In business conversations, Massey tries to start with small talk filled with open-ended questions. They can be about hobbies, celebrities, or (because of his own personal interests) old TV shows and comic books. It's a way to hear the person speak about what they love and who they admire, which, by proxy, can communicate their deeply held beliefs and values. 

"Is this a social justice person? Is this someone who's all about power?" says Massey. Identifying shared values rapidly leads to a more intimate personal connection. 

Voice concise encouragement.

Phrases like "I see your point" and "That's right" are music to a talker's ears. Sprinkle them in and then get out of the way. 

Repeat after them.

Massey uses a technique he calls "three magic words": after listening to a person, he parrots back the most important three words they said--or just the last three words of their last sentence--to show them he understands and finds value in what they're saying. 

Give difficult subjects a wide berth, but don't be afraid to circle back.

If you're conversation includes sensitive matters--you're negotiating a contract, say, or holding an employee accountable--it's best to create a cooling-off period. The more time you can spare, the better. If that's not possible, then try shifting the conversation to topics that put the person at ease before returning to the contentious point. If conflict is unavoidable and immediate, simply say accommodating phrase that ceases fire and acknowledges them ("You bring up some valid points.")

"You're giving them space to breathe," says Massey.

Label emotions.

If you sense an emotion in the other person, positive or negative, happy or stressed, say so out loud. It seems simple, but a phrase like "It sounds like you're feeling overwhelmed" makes people feel recognized and leads them to lower their barriers.   

"I'm telling you, it's like magic," says Massey. If you sense it and then describe it sincerely, the person will feel like you're making an honest, human effort to connect with them and understand it. 

The ultimate goal is empathy. By understanding their deep-seated needs and fears, you earn their trust, loyalty, and, if it makes sense, their business, too. It can work on business video calls--just as it worked for Massey when he successfully persuaded that guy in the Bronx to surrender peacefully.