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Distant Profiling – Knowing how your opponent works

Are you rather the dominant, vigilant or self-centered type? And what about your counterpart? Is he or she manipulative, conscientious or even a psychopath? The ability to decipher people is fundamentally critical to success. Even if behavioural profiling, or “Distant Profiling” without direct access to the negotiating partner, is commonly known from the US-American criminal environment, the tools are also extremely helpful in preparing for difficult negotiations. Because if you know your counterpart, you can positively influence the course of the negotiation.

However, Distant Profiling is not only useful in extreme situations like a blackmail case, when dealing with a perpetrator who threatens to place poisoned products in supermarkets if he does not receive a ransom. Or in a kidnapping case with the threat to execute a hostage. In such cases, one has to decide to what extent the perpetrator “only” threatens or whether he might also follow through with his treats. This is when the psychological tools of behavioural analysis are applied from a distance.

Since it is advantageous to know well  the opponent in complex negotiation situations, these tools are also used successfully in political negotiations. Deciphering the profile of the negotiating partner in order to deal with him or her precisely, is a critical success factor in every negotiation.  Traditionally, the psychological methodology for the clear identification of personality includes the application of psychological tests and clinical conversations with the respective person. In behavioural analysis without direct access to the negotiating partner (Distant Profiling), other tried and tested tools are applied to use the “human factor” in negotiations.

Origin in the United States in the 1970s

In fact, Distant Profiling was originally developed to psychologically assess criminals and political activists.  In the USA in the 1970s, the CIA set up a special group of psychiatrists and psychologists to better understand the behaviour of foreign politicians and terrorists by creating personality profiles. This was especially indispensable for the development of negotiation tactics or the assessment of political disputes.

A milestone in the history of Distant Profiling were the Camp David negotiations in 1978, when US President Jimmy Carter spent several days with Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar as-Sadat at his country retreat to negotiate the Middle East peace agreement. Carter wanted to know: How could the CIA help him prepare the peace negotiations between Israel and Egypt at Camp David? He particularly wanted to penetrate the characters of the two main protagonists, he said. Together with the Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behaviour (CAPPB), the Office of Central Reference (OCR) drew up the personality profiles of the two actors: Sadat’s profile bore the unflattering title “Sadat’s Nobel Prize Complex” and emphasized the Egyptian head of government’s increasing interest in his historical legacy. He was attested a narcissistically exaggerated self-image by CIA profilers which stemmed from Sadat’s obsession with his own role in history: He would tend to see only the great historical connections and ignore the details. He would also see himself as a great strategist and would only make concessions if he was convinced that his long-term goal of being a relevant person in contemporary history would be achieved.

He was therefore not interested in the details, but rather in a major breakthrough in order to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and to be honored on the political world stage. The profile of Israel’s Prime Minister Begin, on the contrary, stated his fixation on details and precise regulations in line with his fundamental mistrust. Based on the profiles of the two politicians, the CIA then developed a strategy for the negotiator Carter, which prepared specific tactics for different scenarios.

Carter was finally able to develop a new and successful approach in the discussions by telling Israel’s Prime Minister that his Egyptian negotiating partner feared losing sight of the big picture if too many individual issues were addressed. Begin then confirmed that he too was able to look at the big picture and left the clarification of the details to the negotiators of the two delegations. After twelve days of negotiation, this actually led to the signing of a peace treaty – and to the Nobel Peace Prize for Sadat and Begin.

Also effective for professional negotiation situations

Even off the political world stage there can be numerous negotiation situations in which you can gain a strategic advantage through the early assessment of a negotiating partner – even before meeting in person for the first time. In general, Distant Profiling is always a good choice if you do not have direct access to your negotiating partner.  On the basis of psychological knowledge, a profile of the target person is created in order to predict their actions, attitudes, psychological characteristics and the likelihood of persuasion. After the psychological profile has been created, a specific action strategy will be developed in a second step, in order to be able to act as successfully as possible during negotiations.

In order to be able to carry out a very precise and differentiated evaluation of your negotiating partner from a distance, it is necessary to scan multiple data sources. Each profile is only as good as the data on which it is based. In times of social media, however, it is usually not a problem to get the appropriate information and perform this task professionally. Sources such as accessible social profiles, websites, images, commercial databases and open electronic information systems are used to create the profile. As a further resource, there is almost always a person who has had closer contact with the target subject and who can reveal psychologically important information when being questioned professionally.

Using different media and sources, a variety of information can be collected and analysed in order to determine a personality profile and coordinate actions based on it. Within the CfN (Center for Negotiation) we use a scientific methodology from criminology and psychological intervention planning. Based on that, individual personality profiles are created for your negotiating partners, depending on the requirements, objectives and the information available.

The following dimensions are taken into account:

  • Appearance: e.g. self-centred, dominant, controlled
  • Motives: e.g. status, power, affiliation
  • Psychobiography: e.g. influential life events, successes and failures
  • Attitude: e.g. values, beliefs
  • Characteristics: e.g. control, sociability, ambivalence of sociability
  • Affects: e.g. aggression, joy, anxiety
  • Cognition: e.g. introspection, perception, information processing
  • Verbalization: e.g. specific word frequency, syntax, speech pattern
  • Facial Display Rules: specific handling of mimic signals such as anger, joy, grief, etc.

Deciphering the profile of the negotiating partner in order to deal with him specifically is a critical success factor in every negotiation. Based on a Distant Profiling profile, behavioural predictions for different scenarios can be calculated and influencing strategies can be developed in negotiations and discussions. It can also help you better understand your interlocutor and communicate more effectively.

Distant Profiling is used in many different ways in the corporate context. It is used to anticipate strategies and behavioural intentions of managers or executives of the competitor or, in the event of an attack on the company – for example by means of a lawsuit – to grasp the motives of the respective persons and then design appropriate counter-strategies.

In summary, Distant Profiling can lead to success in many critical business situations. The psychological tools are proven and tested. Based on that, further tactical procedures are determined. If one can read people, one can also persuade them more easily and guide them more precisely in negotiations. In my seminars of the Center for Negotiation you can learn how to use Distant Profiling to prepare for difficult negotiation situations.



  • geralt, Pixabay | CC0 Public Domain

Thorsten Hofmann, C4 Institute, Quadriga University Berlin

Thorsten Hofmann leads the CfN (Center for Negotiation) at the Quadriga University Berlin’s Institute for Crisis, Change and Conflict Communication C4. He is an internationally certified Negotiation Trainer and advises corporations and organisations in complex negotiation processes.