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Crack the Code on Trust: Insider Techniques for Leaders

By Kristin Withrow posted 11 days ago

Learn how to negotiate with ease, influence with trust, and detect deception with confidence.

Trust Strategist and Body Language Expert Pamela Barnum, a former undercover police officer and federal prosecuting attorney, is a keynote speaker at the upcoming 2022 CSDA General Manager Leadership Summit. Communications Specialist Vanessa Gonzales sat down with her for our March/April edition of California Special Districts magazine. 

Tell us about your background as a former undercover police officer and federal prosecuting attorney.

My policing career began way back in the early 90’s. I started out in uniform and spent a few years there, and I really loved criminal work – especially in drug enforcement. When I was recruited, I was the only undercover woman in a unit of 92 specialized police officers. I worked drugs for almost a decade. When I say I worked undercover, it wasn’t just dressing in plain clothes; I’d live for months at a time with a different identify, a different name, and in different locations. We’d start a street level project, go on a complete unknown where we had to meet people and work our way up the hierarchy in these drug organizations, starting with smaller buys and going to larger buys that would go up to hundreds of thousand-dollar deals. I’ll share some of those stories when we are together in June.


It was a very interesting time of my career. I actually met my husband through this as we were set up together; we call it our “government prearranged marriage.” We had never met before, were in two separate drug units, and had to live together as a married couple. We were new to the town, didn’t know anyone, and set up in an apartment together. Long story short, we did this ten-month long project; and at the end of the ten months, we were a real couple. We got married after and decided to have a family. I got pregnant shortly after law school; and being that the job was not a mom-friendly one, I changed directions and left the drug unit to become a federal prosecutor. I started out prosecuting at the provincial level, which is your state level then moved to federal level and specializing in drug prosecutions.


How did interpreting body language play a role in these careers?

Whatever we do, in all our professions, we are dealing with people. Often what people say and what people mean are different things. In policing, I had to watch for behavior of violence and aggression. This is a real part of a lot of different professions, unfortunately; we must look for those signs often. Deception was a part of something I was looking for as well. Many of us are looking for that as we are negotiating and communicating with people. Sometimes it is not intentional; memories get confused. I saw that a lot as a prosecutor when I was interviewing and cross-examining witnesses. People would say things, recall things, and get confused so I would have to watch for the tells in what they were displaying along with the words that came out of their mouth. Oftentimes, there is a disconnect you can pick up on if you’re paying close attention. The majority of people in the population are very bad at doing this so the chances of them picking up on deceptive behavior through the body language and nonverbal cues is as much as a toss of a coin or roll of a dice. At the General Manager Leadership Summit, we will be going through a few strategies that will help you detect deception, at least when people are going off course so you can bring things back. We will be going through what to watch for in those cues of hesitation and uncertainty.


It’s hard to believe you made hundreds of drug buys from the street level! Share some of the most impactful moments from those experiences.

A lot of people think the most impactful moments are the ones you may have heard of from my first TED Talk, like jumping out of a moving car or being locked in a drug house, but those were not the most impactful moments when you think of violence or danger. The most impactful moments were the most mundane because that’s how people really live their lives. It’s not like on television; it’s often survival in life based on all these choices. For the people I dealt with in that career, their choices were often between bad and worse coming from a history of neglect and abuse. Of course, not everyone who comes from this background chooses a life of drugs and crime. We hear many inspiring stories of people who had these rough beginnings and who have done remarkable, phenomenal things. All the people I spoke with didn’t know who I was; they thought I was one of them. So, they were usually sharing stories with me from a place of honesty because we were connected in that way; we had a common place we were coming from. This is what I learned: there was always a history of neglect and abuse with these individuals. In fact, I never met a drug dealer or a heavy user in that line of work who had come from a loving, supportive family who were encouraged to go for their dreams and provided every opportunity available. The most impactful moment to me was recognizing that when people have limited choices, often between bad and worse; judging them harshly and expecting them to make better decisions is very short sighted, and that we need to be more open and empathetic. My second TED talk, that I recently recorded, takes a deeper dive into that and how as leaders, especially community leaders, empathy is the number one communication strategy that can build bridges and take us to the next level.


What benefits are there for local government leaders to better interpret non-verbal cues?

I studied local government to a small degree in my graduate program (all of you have that expertise and I’m looking forward to hearing from you on this). From my understanding, local government leaders interact with members of the public way more than other government leaders. They know the people in the community; they are entrenched in it and are a significant part of it. With this much interaction, watching for those cues when connecting with people provides endless benefits to better understand constituents. Research shows that the majority of communication is non-verbal. Clearly, none of us start with words. All parents recognize the sounds and movements infants make mean they’re hungry, or they’re in pain, they need a diaper changed, or they just want attention. We know that without words. This is just like knowing the look our colleagues give us when they want a meeting to be over, or our significant other gives us a look and we know that they want to leave the dinner party – or that they’re having a great time and want to spend the whole evening with those people. We understand the non-verbal cues that come our way. We will get into the brain research behind this more in June, but again, most of communication is non-verbal. If we don’t pay attention to this with our constituents and the people we interact with on decisions that impact their lives on a regular basis, we are missing more than half of the conversation. How much more benefit would it be to the people we serve and to ourselves as pillars in our community to be able to communicate better, more effectively, and to be able to receive more information so we can interpret better. Then we can respond in a more open and effective way.


Share more about what attendees can look forward to learning from you at the General Manager Leadership Summit in June.

I’m going to be talking about Crack the Code on Trust: Insider Techniques for Leaders. Studies show that the higher levels of trust, the more successful the outcome will be. Non-verbal communication is a significant data source that can be used to make decisions around trust. I’m going to give you insider techniques that I learned in my 20+ years in the criminal justice system.


We will be going in depth into A, B, C’s:

  • A - accurately access other’s non-verbal cues, their body language. We will be walking through the steps and learning how to build trust quickly and easily.
  • B – behave a way that communicates confidence and trustworthiness in every situation. We will development those non-verbal communication techniques that make people feel validated and appreciated.
  • C – create an environment that fosters authenticity and trust. Learn how to turn those first impressions into winning impressions.


If there is one piece of advice you’d give to our members, what would it be?

Become exceptional at listening. Building rapport and expressing empathy effectively all begins with listening. There is a lot of research around this positive leadership that happens – but it comes from active listening. I spoke about this in my second TED Talk, and I will share the latest research with you at the General Manager Leadership Summit. You will take a lot away from that on building rapport and elevating the leadership that comes from empathy.


Is there anything else you would like to share?

This opportunity we’ve been given to meet with our colleagues in person is a gift. We’ve all missed it very much. I’m thrilled to be with you in Coronado, a favorite place of mine. I live in the Canadian Rocky Mountains where there is a lot of snow but beautiful. It will be incredible to be with you and share these actionable strategies. These are going to be real things that you can do right away in that moment. The best part is we will have a lot of fun in the process. I look forward to seeing you in June!