There are linear phases in life, characterised by an acceptance that things are as they are and that nothing will change. We pigeonhole ourselves into an endless cycle of repetition, becoming what we once dreamed of being but, once reached, never surpass. I was transitioning through one of these phases when I received what would soon become a life-changing email.
It was a standard job—agency work, from another agency to my own. This brief was, well, brief. The client, who was kept secret, provided only a location and a contact name. All I knew was that I was there to film content for internal usage. Upon arrival, I was greeted by said contact and immediately presented with legal documents and an NDA. It felt like completing immigration forms at the arrival gate of a new world, an alien corporate land. I’d done a lot of that, exploring new lands. But more on that later.
I’d done a lot of that, exploring new lands. But more on that later.
The secret client, it turned out, was the entire C-suite of a corporation that would very soon experience a billion-dollar IPO. Eight sets of high-powered and calculating eyes watched me enter the room. I felt an odd sense of comfort in this discomfort—the situation was as new for them as it was for me—equaling our metaphorical playing field. Each employee handed me an invisible resume explaining who they were, how they defined themselves, their purpose in the world, and the strengths, weaknesses, and beliefs hindering their personal and corporate growth. Emotional language physically expressed—corporate pheromones of a sort.
I learned to read a room a long time ago, around the age of 6, because I had to. Busted lips, death threats and a brief homeless stint after fleeing an abusive patriarchal figure required it. I developed tactics to pick up on people’s energy for survival. Later, I created a healing and healthy way to extract desirable results from any situation by reading and interpreting the desires of others. With the chaos at home, my concentration in school was sparse at best. So I learned to answer teachers’ questions solely by the formation or phrasing of their questions, the intonation of their voice, or their body language. Confirmation bias in reverse. I mirrored their behaviour by understanding their coveted outcome: to be a good teacher. This boardroom was no different; to satiate one’s desires, we must simply observe who they’re trying to be.
My role as a videographer was set, and with the camera rolling, the briefing began. The agency’s team transitioned between instruction and interview, ensuring key messaging from the client’s legal team was woven into every answer. All public figures worth their weight in gold do such training before entering the limelight, and billion-dollar valuations leave no room for error. The process fascinated me. It was a dance between answering questions and informing their audience, all in fifteen-second soundbites. Memorable, branded snippets created for media consumption.
For the most part, the employees were great, but as I quickly realised, “for the most part” isn’t good enough. Warren Buffet said it best,” It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” Everything must be tightly glued together, welded then pressure tested. One negative snippet, one slip-up, will be taken by the press and can run shares and brand reputation into the ground.
As I sat behind the camera, filming these mock interviews, I saw each interviewee’s areas of discomfort. It was as if someone had turned on emotional subtitles. They were strewn across the centre screen for all to see, a display to our subconscious which says, “I don’t believe what they’re saying, but I don’t know why.” like an overdubbed movie, the voices didn’t match their physical actions. Shifts of position, tone changes in the voice, and taps and twitches afflicted the best of them.
We break for lunch, and I strike up a conversation with the lead interviewer. She’s worked with all varieties of public figures, from Olympic athletes to presidential candidates, and is a well-seasoned and highly professional interviewer, media trainer and communications instructor. “So I noticed a few non-verbals the interviewees were telegraphing. I don’t want to get out of my lane or in your way, but if you feel comfortable or feel it may be valuable to interject during the review stage. I’d be happy to contribute,” I voice. She informs me that she would love any feedback, and by the end of the workday, we decided to work together going forward. What qualified me to make these observations? Life—an odd set of skills accidentally acquired through a bizarre series of events paired with a keen emotional faculty.
A few years back, I arrived at an airport past midnight. I approached the airport customs desk sweaty and jet-lagged, only to be refused entry for having too little space in my passport for an entry visa. I read the posturing of the human being playing an official. The overzealous, authoritarian figure before me spewed out excessive totalitarian aggression and upset; it was exaggerated for effect. Apparently, my overloaded passport was a significant problem. Not only was it impossible to remedy—but it was an end-of-the-world eventuality, equal only to an apocalyptic immigrant invasion.
I had no plans other than meeting some friends to surf, so I called his bluff with nothing to lose but the cost of a flight. “I’m so sorry for inconveniencing you, sir,” I started. “I’ll call my office—there was no office—and get them to book me on the next flight out of here. I won’t delay you further so you can return to your important job.” Affirming power, ego-bracing, and playing into the “superior-inferior” dynamic at hand, reduces the chance of hostility and encourages collaboration over dominance. Amicable conflict resolution is always the most straightforward tactic to use but requires, at times, the most mental awareness. I had around $800USD in my pocket, a wad the border guard would be all too happy to pocket if he caught a glimpse of it.
“Well, let’s see if there’s something we can do to figure this out,” he replied. “No, no, I feel awful. You’re doing such an important job, I just got to your country, and I’ve already made trouble,” I say apologetically. I explain (bluffing) that I should catch a flight out to not create more issues, picking up my luggage from the floor for effect. Accepting responsibility and showing ethical behaviour of “doing the right thing” is a crucial pillar to consciously circumventing pre-existing boundaries—moving the “game” away from head space towards heart space. “How much is it worth for you, sir?” he inquired, with desperation cracking through his voice. I had him. I knew from his initial reaction to flicking through my passport, but he sealed his fate with the financial opportunity line. The regular entry visa was $100USD.
I wouldn’t pay more than double that for a way into the country. “It’s not a problem. Work will cover it. I’m only here for a few days between jobs, and they’ll understand. Is there any way I can speak with your superior to apologise and explain what a good job you’re doing? I would love to clarify how helpful and kind you’ve been by offering me a way to resolve this financially,” I explain with a light smile. Straightforward reverse psychology; a continual statement of guilt-bias and affirmative action. My legs are stretched out under the sizable interrogation desk, allowing me to freely move my hand around the inside of my pocket. I have mostly $50 bills (most developing countries don’t have change for hundreds). I thumb through the stack of crisp warm banknotes, keeping eye contact with the officer until he breaks it—another domination tactic and ethical superiority play that establishes position in an exchange. I count out four notes, slowly moving them to my left pocket, then, standing up, I again begin collecting my belongings and heading toward the door.
the sound of crinkling paper between finger and thumb causes salivation in the officer
Indistinguishable from a Pavlovian response, the sound of crinkling paper between finger and thumb causes salivation in the officer. I show him the cash and ask, “do you think this is enough for a flight, or would my work have to wire money directly to the airline?” I show my ignorance whilst asserting control of the money. The mere sight of cash blinds him to the reality of my global collection of passport stamps, which suggests I’m well-versed in foreign travel. “How much?” the words drool from his wanting mouth. “Well, this is everything I have. I wouldn’t be able to buy food or anything,” I say, re-counting it slowly in front of the officer so he can almost feel the cash. He’s already imagining spending it. Sensory interaction—a newly formed bond of fiscal connection. “Wow, $200, that’s all I have left! My company is going to be furious that I’ve spent everything already,” I respond. “Not enough,” he says, looking deflated. “Not enough for a flight?” I enquire. “Not enough for fix the problem,” he replies in broken English. “Okay,” I say, putting the money back into my pocket and reaching once more for my luggage. “Need seven hundred, only for the entry,” he replies with building frustration. “This is all I have. No problem, sorry to waste your time,” I utter, walking out of the official’s office—a risky move, but I’m fatigued from a fourteen-hour flight, and jet lag is starting to set in. It’s now or never.
He’s not getting one more cent out of me, and I need him to understand that I’m serious. In a dance of liberty, I find myself walking through customs as if I own the bloody place. An immigration officer moves aside for me as my interrogator, now somewhat in disbelief, comes after me, quietly asking for the money. I turn and put my hand on his shoulder, apologising and reaffirming my position. “I’m going to go now,” I state firmly but non-aggressively. Flabbergasted and confused, he whispers, “Okay, $200, and you go hotel now.” I count out the $200 and slip it into his shirt pocket, purposefully choosing the one adorned with the embroidered title “Chief Immigration Officer” to remind him his job is at risk. “Wait here,” he says before returning with a stapler and visa hastily. He wants me out of here as soon as possible. I’m ushered hastily through baggage collection to a smiling taxi driver outside. I get into the cab, and with my surfboard hanging out the window, a warm oceanic breeze flows into the incense-filled car: the scent of freedom.
Aside from breaking international immigration laws with an opportunistic bribe, all I did was strategically disclose and respectfully withhold certain information to serve my desired outcome. I mean, having too little space in a passport was hardly smuggling. My real power was in drip-feeding the authorities intricately parcelled truths in a carefully chosen order that aligned with a pre-decided, personally desired outcome. All whilst allowing the officer to think he won. We both had goals and got what we wanted through collaborative conflict resolution tactics.
As my passport proved, I’ve been on many trips around the globe, often finding myself in countries where linguistics became a communication barrier rather than a facilitator— a 48-hour train journey through China from Vietnam with no Mandarin was a prime example. I’ve felt the energy shift in a carriage when someone walked in or out, undergone incessant police checks of my luggage and person—to the point where they no longer cause concern—I’ve learned who I could tell to go away and who I could indulge with patience. These experiences increased my sensory facets—chiefly my situational awareness, known as street smarts. While knowledge is available to anyone—through a book read or a course took—wisdom comes through experiencing that knowledge first-hand in the real world at the experiential level.
Through these various journeys, my negotiation skills developed—built like a muscle through training. Sometimes I had to take control of situations with authoritative figures or respectfully defend myself in the presence of dangerous people without escalation. I learned balance: how to walk the fine line between aggression, assertion, and respect. All without conversational understanding, solely by picking up on non-verbal cues and observing individuals’ traits and how they carried themselves. I am yet to meet someone from whom I can’t learn.
Let’s get back to the client and my new, unexpected gig. I began working as part of the team, finding individuals’ tells, analysing phrasing, and dissecting verbal and non-verbal cues. I explained conflict resolution tactics, gave clients homework and management tactics and—for extreme cases—coping mechanisms to get through pressing rounds of interviews. It was incredibly fulfilling work. Our clients could utilise these skills throughout their careers and personal lives, communicate more concisely and effectively in their relationships, teach healthy communication patterns to better relate to their families, and ultimately, bring value to anyone they encounter. Best of all, we could achieve this in just a couple of hours of training.
The value of this for a customer-facing brand is insurmountable. Immediate ROI is shown as a reduced chance of legal ramifications— saying or doing the wrong thing in an interview. It all encourages risk reduction and positive mental health in the workplace. The long-term ROI is a direct brand-building strategy through forming an exceptional reputation. Another unforeseen return is that as people better understand themselves, they better understand their fitment to role requirements and career direction. I get to meet and interact with fascinating commerce leaders, provide them with a skill set to assist them throughout their lives and leave them happier, more successful, and with a better understanding of their authentic selves. All this adds up to happier employees, being far more valuable and loyal to the company that employs them as they are better understood and utilised.
There are many facets I’ve spent the last fifteen years of my life travelling the world, studying what I like to call the science of self and journey to purpose. During this time, I bought and sold properties in Europe, worked as a travel photographer in Asia, studied under a NYU communication professor in Canada, opened a surf school in Central America, and created a six-figure marketing agency in California before living as a Vipassana monk.
The sum of these experiences led me on a trajectory into the communications and self-development sector, where I’ve worked with the C-suites of some of the world’s largest companies, including Red Bull, Med Men and Team USA Olympians. As well as my corporate work, I’m building a Web 3 education program, which financially incentivises people to learn about all aspects of themselves. Working as a photographer taught me the importance of understanding visual narratives. Investing in property showed me the worth of showing value. Meditation unveiled the dysfunction of a disconnected body and mind and solutions to remedy it. The realisation that we’re all experiencing the same thing differently based on our life experiences and expectations allows me to connect with clients on their level because, ultimately, it’s our level, shared. Studying communications, psychology and sociology filled in the rest.
I work with clients one-on-one, conduct group seminars and facilitate live events. I recently led workshops at Coachella Music Festival and just finished training Olympians for Team USA. My website www.murrayash.com has more information and availability.