What Drug Dealers Taught Me About Trust: Pamela Barnum (Transcript)

Following is the full text of former undercover police officer Pamela Barnum’s talk titled “What Drug Dealers Taught Me About Trust” at TEDxCollingwood conference. In this talk, she shares three trust hacks she learned while working in dangerous and unpredictable situations that we can apply in our everyday lives.

Pamela Barnum – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

Can I trust you? This question has the potential to impact every part of our lives, from who we love to how we learn, how we take care of our health and invest our money.

And, if mastered, building trust strengthens relationships and can improve our health and lead to more financial success.

Now, it may seem strange to learn about trust from someone who spent an entire career pretending to be someone she wasn’t. For years, I woke up and stepped into an underworld, and sometimes in leather pants, that could not know who I was.

Being beaten, raped or even killed were possibilities if that was the day a drug dealer found out that I was an undercover police officer.

What’s even stranger is that, unlike in the movies, I rarely carried a gun, and I never wore a wire for my protection. Trust — and the ability to build and maintain trust — was the only weapon I used.

My goal is to present a learnable skill to you so that you can then build the foundation of trust around everything you do because when you leverage trust hacks, it makes risky, stressful relationships easier, even the ones with your in-laws.

Before I became an undercover officer, I had to attend this intense training course. You take it and you learn about techniques on how to use drugs, and what the pricing is, and the terminology, and you learn about building trust.

Although they don’t call it “trust building,” that’s essentially what you learn. And you have to learn it in really uncomfortable and often unpredictable situations. So for example, tough biker-looking officers are taken to gay bars, and young female rookie officers, are taken to busy strip clubs.

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Now, it’s been quite a few years, so if you’re having trouble connecting the dots, I was the one who went to the busy strip clubs. About 48 hours remained in a long term, about 10-month-long undercover project, and we were getting ready for all of our rips.

And rips are essentially what they sound like. You order up a large quantity of drugs, and then you go to meet the dealer and you rip them off. Sounds fun, right?

It usually is, unless it means you have to jump out of a moving car being driven by a really angry drug dealer. When that happens, it’s nothing like on TV. I didn’t roll and tuck and gracefully spring into action. I just fell out, like a bag of cement.

Later on, a drug dealer was calling and threatening to kill my partner. My partner was actually an undercover officer that I met for the very first time when we were assigned to live together as husband and wife.

Now undercover eventually went under the covers and we got married for real at the end of the project. We call it our “government prearranged marriage,” and I’m happy to report that almost two decades later, we are still in a happy and very trusting relationship, and no one has called and threatened to kill him, at least recently. So, life has progressed quite happily.

Now, when you’re thinking about these trust hacks, you’re wondering “Do I have to put myself in danger to learn this?” Absolutely not. Just think of me as your stunt double as we journey through some examples of trust hacks.

Keep in mind that I have changed the names to protect the not-so-innocent. Julie – not her real name – was a full time bartender and a part-time drug dealer who had connections to the Hell’s Angels. But that’s not what made her so interesting.

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Every night, I’d go to the bar and I’d sit and listen, trying to overhear conversations that’d provide some perspective and information about the local drug scene. I learned a lot about that, but what I learned even more was how to become an effective, active listener.

Julie was incredible at this. She would lean in and ask questions for clarification; she’d nod and utter affirmations, mirror their body language, and as a result she has built some really great relationships and got a lot of information.

But the piece that really stood out for me, because all of those are great ingredients for a wonderful listener, but the piece that really stood out was that Julie let go of all pre-judgement. She didn’t pre-judge anyone when she was speaking with them.

And when we let go of pre-conceived ideas about what a drug dealer should be like, or what our spouse, our kids, our partners, co-workers should be like, we make room for new ideas.

And even more importantly, we build a bridge of trust that enables the other person to feel heard and valued. Although active listening is an important trust hack, it’s also one of the easiest, yet least frequently used hacks.

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