The Helicopter Technique Metaphor: 10 Useful Options For Navigating Difficult Conversations

Helicopter Technique

If you have ever felt lost or stuck in conversations with others, you can easily turn it around by using the Helicopter Technique Metaphor.

This post was authored by Anne-Maartje Oud and Joe Navarro.

We’ve all been there. Stuck in a difficult conversation. Whether you are a manager mediating a conflict between team members, a parent figuring out what happened between playmates, or a sales representative trying to understand a disgruntled customer.

Suddenly there is this moment in the conversation where unexpectedly you get stuck. The facts may not be clear, each side is saying something different, and you don’t know what to do or say. Try out the “Helicopter Technique”; it’s perfect for those occasions.

The helicopter, in this case, is merely a metaphor to remind us of all the things you can do during a difficult conversation to get unstuck, move about, and maneuver. And like a helicopter, you don’t have to go in one direction, you can quickly maneuver, circle out wider to encompass more details, go high for a better overall view, draw near for greater focus, or even fly backward to revisit a topic.

It is also a reminder that you have a license to be more agile in your approach, where you can try different vectors to get information or to get people to open up. 

The helicopter technique or analogy is a helpful image in those moments when you feel like you are not making progress when feelings overwhelm, or emotions start to dominate. In those moments when you feel that something different is needed, let that image of the helicopter act as a mental catalyst to get you back on track.

Helicopter Technique: Here is how it plays out in practice:

1. Flight agility

A helicopter basically can go anywhere, with precision, and you don’t even need a runway. People try to prepare for “difficult” conversations, and it is recommended, but that’s not always possible. Sometimes you’re suddenly in the middle of something you were not expecting, and it is up to you to bring clarity.

If you get stuck, think of that agile helicopter. It can reassure you and remind you: I got this, I can lift off and take a look from above, take myself out of it for a minute, circle about while I think about what to do next. Just like a pilot, take the time to develop situational awareness so that you can better engage but always in control even if at the moment we are not making headway.

Related: The Art of Conversation: 25 Great Conversation Starters

2. Precise yet delicate steering

Flying a helicopter requires that you be focused while fully engaged. You need both hands and both feet to subtly steer. This metaphor helps us to remember that during a difficult conversation, we need to be subtle and thoughtful, with a focused mind, but we also need to be precise. Make sure you are calm and neutral.

Your phone is off, your desk is clear, make sure you take notes if necessary. Be aware of your own body language. Show an engaging posture and make eye contact. Nuance is key to flying helicopters and also for dealing with others—your movements are smooth as is the conversation.

3. Flying high

Flying high gives us an opportunity to have a greater overview. You can look at content/feelings/thoughts/setting like a helicopter from above. You assess the situation more broadly to see what else or who else is a factor. You listen and observe by expanding the view as if high above. 

Analyzing all the topics that are mentioned or not mentioned while also looking at nonverbals. Ask exploring questions to create an outline of the “problem.” As with a helicopter, you want to have a general familiarity with the general area as well as where you are headed. 

4. Flying low

Flying low is an analogy for taking the opportunity to scrutinize the matter being discussed with greater precision. When you see or hear something that stands out, you go into detail during the conversation.

What needs to be investigated according to you? Ask exploring questions. “What do you mean by that? Could you elaborate on that? Why do you raise your voice on this particular topic? As with a helicopter, flying low makes you see the details that need greater scrutiny.

5. Hovering

A helicopter has the amazing ability to stay in one place virtually motionless. Hovering gives you that extra time to observe and analyze more deeply. When using this technique, you pause and don’t say anything. You loiter. You listen, watch and observe, but you do not act.

Sometimes we need to hover to get the facts straight. We are there but just off to the side as participants talk and discuss. We use silence strategically to get others to open up.

Related: 48 Deep Conversation Starters To Know Someone Better

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Joe Navarro M.A.

Joe Navarro spent 25 years at the FBI, working both as an agent and supervisor in the areas of counterintelligence and counterterrorism. Through his work, he was able to study, refine, and apply the science of nonverbal communications. Retiring from the FBI in 2003, and meeting overwhelming demand for his notable insights into human behavior, Joe Navarro has dedicated himself to speaking and consulting with major corporations worldwide. Today he is recognized as one of the world’s foremost authorities on reading nonverbal communications and he has interviewed on programs such as NBC’s Today Show, Fox News, ABC’s Good Morning America, CBS’ Early Show, BBC News, and for publications such as The Washington Post, South China Morning Post and Psychology Today.View Author posts