There are techniques as old as society itself which are one of the mainstays of the spy world, which always have and always will yield great results.  These techniques require no special hardware, no highly technical training, and can be practiced by anyone, at any time, starting right now!  These highly effective techniques are grouped together and known as elicitation. They can also be referred to as guided conversations, and are a major aspect of the field of social engineering. With training and practice, spies can use elicitation to gain the trust of someone quickly, and influence them to divulge sensitive or personal information without even realizing what they are doing.  A great elicitor will find out everything they want to know from their target, without the target ever realizing what happened; perhaps even thinking they just made a new friend! 

What is elicitation? Broadly speaking, it is a method for drawing specific information out of another person during a casual conversation without that person realizing it was the spy’s intent to discover this all along.  Elicitation techniques offer anyone the means to subtly steer a conversation in a specific direction. When done correctly, the target will never catch on to the fact that they’ve been approached or elicited. They will go on about their day without ever realizing what just happened. 

Elicitation techniques fall into two different categories. The first is building rapport with the target so they feel comfortable opening up to you about something personal or confidential. Techniques one and two utilize rapport to lull the target into a false sense of security. The second category relies on turning the target’s ego against them, so that they spuriously give away sensitive information in order to validate themselves, to impress you, or to win an argument, etc. Techniques three through five all give you means to exploit the target’s need to be right, or appear interesting and important. Ego-based techniques are usually more difficult to pull off, so once you have mastered the friendly and non-confrontational methods, you can move to the next level. 

Once the intelligence collector has gotten the specific information they want, they then steer the conversation away once again. This is just as important as getting the information in the first place, because you don’t want the target to realize that your interest waned as soon as they mentioned something specific about their job or personal life. This could lead to suspicion and harm the mission. 

Planning Your Elicitation Operation

Now that you’ve been introduced to the concept of elicitation and its applications, let’s talk about what to do before you put the techniques to use. Remember, using elicitation without having a key objective in mind beforehand simply leads to a meandering and possibly useless conversation.  Practicing elicitation in any setting is recommended; but conducting real elicitation with intent but no forethought will reduce your chances of success.

There are three main factors to consider during the planning phase. 

  • What information are you seeking?
  • Who will you target for that information?
  • How will you approach them?

You may wish to start with an acquaintance and ask about their day. Choose someone who you know tangentially, but with whom you have not yet had an in-depth conversation. Ideally this will be a person who has no reason to be guarded or suspicious of you, but who also would not freely discuss any subject with you without first being ‘warmed up’ through the use of elicitation. Also take into consideration the amount of time you have with this person, the setting, and privacy concerns. If nothing stands out to you during your planning phase, consider moving on to a different target. Or save your elicitation routine for an advantageous but unexpected encounter. Elicitation opportunities can present themselves at surprising times, and as you practice more and more you will find that you can start your approach at a moment’s notice on virtually anyone you encounter.

Technique One: The Good Listener

Simply being a good listener will naturally cause others to be more likely to open up to you, or to confide in you more over time. An important aspect of being a good listener is to understand that it is a habit that must not only be developed, but practiced over time.  Paying real, meaningful attention towards others will reward the elicitor both in the short term and the long term.  

Being a good listener does not involve steering the conversation at all, as do the other techniques covered in this guide. Good listening is the most passive of all elicitation techniques, and therefore the easiest to put into practice immediately for the beginner.  

So what does it mean to be a good listener? It’s more than simply not speaking or controlling the conversation. There are a number of ways to passively influence another person during a conversation, to reward them for continuing to speak, and to make them want to continue sharing with you. 

We’ll start with the listener’s body language. Body language, also known as nonverbal communication, is a fascinating and deep field of study with an impressive pedigree. An understanding of body language will be a crucial asset for any serious elicitor. However, it is such a nuanced subject I won’t be covering it in this guide, and instead recommend you research body language after you finish this book. For an outstanding primer on nonverbal communication, I highly recommend the book “What Every Body is Saying” by Joe Navarro. For the purposes of this guide, I want to cover just a few techniques you can use to subtly communicate your interest in the speaker.

Some other points to keep in mind:

  • Whether standing or sitting, display a relaxed stance. Demonstrate to the speaker that you are at ease with them, are enjoying the conversation.
  • Face the speaker directly. Don’t turn at an angle towards the person you are engaging.
  • Keep your eyes on the speaker. It’s important to make sure the speaker knows you are focused only on them for the duration of the conversation.
  • Mirroring is a more subtle method for influencing the other party.  When you mirror their body language, they feel more receptive towards you without knowing why.
  • Don’t interrupt or talk over the speaker. Always wait until you are certain they have paused to gather their thoughts or are giving you a chance to respond.
  • Be empathetic. Remember, a major part of elicitation is playing a role that makes you more attractive and interesting to the other person.
  • Keep the conversation centered on them. don’t ever make the conversation about you. It’s about the target and what they know.

Technique Two: Flattery

The next technique is an easy one to initiate, which pays off in nearly any situation. Flattery is one of my personal favorite elicitation methods because virtually everyone responds positively to compliments and praise. Flattery by itself can be a great ice-breaker, and can in fact be the first words out of your mouth when first making contact with a stranger.

An easy way to initiate this technique is simply to pay attention to detail when first meeting or observing someone. You may wish to start by drawing attention to something they own or are wearing. Men and women display different types of possessions in order to attract attention or praise. Take this into consideration before speaking. For example, men will generally respond well to compliments from a stranger regarding their car or wristwatch, but less so to compliments about their clothing or haircut.  Whereas women may be more likely to be flattered if you compliment them about their shoes or earrings. 

One of the most interesting things about using flattery, and what makes it so useful to the elicitor, is that even when people recognize it as a blatant rapport-building technique, they still respond positively to the praise. For that reason, I tend to be a bit over-the-top when I flatter people, to the point of hyperbole. Around friends or coworkers, I will flatter them by saying, “wow, you’re amazing. I want to be just like you when I grow up.” Although it might seem overbearing at first glance, this type of excessive flattery has never failed to elicit a positive response, even from my coworkers in the intelligence community who understand exactly what I am doing.

Technique Three: Making Deliberately False Statements

Making deliberately false statements is a technique which plays to your target’s ego, and desire to be right. This technique represents an excellent bridge between the easier and less-intrusive techniques and the more advanced elicitation strategies. 

Utilizing deliberate false statements will be our most provocative technique yet.  Making use of this technique requires that you diligently research the target and the subject matter at hand, so that you know what buttons to push. False statements are designed to draw out the desired information by taking advantage of the target’s need to correct your supposed misconceptions.  It is also an excellent technique to use against people who have difficulty lying, especially under pressure. For example, you can say, “I heard you were looking to expand into that property near the corner of Market and 4th.” If the target is looking at a completely different property, they will be caught unawares by your statement, and probably try to correct you. If they reply with a flat denial, they are left wide open to your follow up question: “Oh, not on Market and 4th? Then where do you plan to move?” 

This is also an excellent time to either understate or exaggerate the statement if you think it fits.  Your target may be more interested in correcting apparently outlandish information. If your statement is nearly on the mark they might just say, “yeah, pretty much.” That leaves you in the position of having to deliberately dig again, which might set off some internal alarms for them as to the true nature of this conversation.

Technique Four: Disbelief

Disbelief can be expressed very subtly, without conveying a confrontational demeanor. Disbelief works best on those who have a strong desire to demonstrate their own value to other people. Ironically, people who are known as experts in their field are often those whose egos are most sensitive to disbelief. They have become accustomed to being respected for their knowledge and position, and can be taken by surprise if someone expresses doubt in their claims. Academics and researchers in particular are very vulnerable to disbelief because they are frequently expanding their fields of study, and their social circle often consists of people in the same field.  Therefore, using disbelief against them in a casual setting will cause them to want to defend their professional accomplishments and goals. 

Focus initially on building rapport, as you should with virtually every elicitation attempt. Wait until the target displays pride in their accomplishment or position. Then begin expressing mild doubt. If employed correctly, you will force the target to double down on their assertion. A flattering statement can become a disbelieving one simply by changing your tone of voice. For example, stating, “wow, you’ve really accomplished a lot in your first year at this job…” can be either flattering or disbelieving, dependent entirely on the tone of voice you use. 

The most difficult aspect of employing disbelief is using just the right amount to keep the target talking. To accomplish your goal, the target must feel the need to prove themselves to you, even at the expense of common sense. Try to convey the sense that you want to believe them, but that their claim is a bit too far-fetched for most people to accomplish. The target will then feel even better about themselves once they convince you beyond the shadow of a doubt that they have done all they say they can, and are able to prove it to you. 

Expressing too much disbelief will be a conversation-killer in many cases. Don’t become aggressive or passionate when using this technique, unless you can sense that the target needs an added push in order to finally give up the info you seek. If the person you are eliciting is highly self-confident, they may not feel the need to prove themselves to you, no matter what the circumstances are. They might simply respond, “I don’t care if you believe me or not, I don’t even know you.” This may happen if you push too hard, too quickly. 

The easiest way to insert disbelief into the conversation is to use it in combination with flattery. I’ve already mentioned how the two techniques share many similarities. You can phrase your disbelief so that it sounds like flattery. For example: “You wrapped up that project in only three and a half months? I would have thought it would take twice that long.” This example of disbelief shows a growing respect for the target, but also allows you to dig further, and ask details about how they accomplished their goal so quickly. It paints the target as a miracle worker rather than a boaster. This validates the target’s ego and allows you to continue the line of questioning.

Technique Five: Criticism as Bait

I find Criticism as Bait to be the most difficult of all techniques to execute successfully. Criticism as an elicitation technique is not for the faint of heart. It requires you to destroy any rapport you have previously built with the target, potentially wiping out days or weeks of careful preparations. This technique represents a sort of last resort for me. My guess is that everyone reading this has at one time or another said something in the heat of the moment that they later regretted. It may have been an insult, or it may have been an unexpected and surprisingly personal admission of some sort. If so, then you recognize how effective criticism can be at drawing someone out. Oftentimes if you use criticism to bait your target into blurting something out in the heat of the moment, they won’t likely forget what transpired.  They may even realize after the fact that you were manipulating them, especially if they replay the heated conversation over in their minds afterwards, as many of us tend to do. 

Nevertheless, criticism works as an elicitation technique because the target’s pride can be very sensitive, and they may feel the need to defend themselves and win the argument at any cost.  Ironically, you will ultimately be the winner, no matter that they think they may have won in the end by successfully proving you wrong. Virtually all of us have blurted something out in the heat of the moment that we later regretted. As an elicitor you must recognize this tendency and take advantage of it. 

In some cases you may not care about reestablishing rapport after criticizing the target. This may essentially be a ‘drive-by’ elicitation in which there is no chance you will cross paths with the target again. Or perhaps you are certain the target only has a single piece of useful information to provide no matter the circumstances. 

However, if you want to try to reestablish rapport after criticizing the target and causing them to give up the information you seek, the best way to do so is to check your ego. Allow yourself to be proven wrong once you have what you need from them. Display a sense of surprise and regret once you learn that you were wrong. You may even choose to apologize to the target for doubting or criticizing them. At the very least, you should show them a grudging respect, and a newfound belief in their capabilities. As the conversation ends, they will likely feel that not only did they establish their capability or even superiority, but also won you over as a new convert or admirer. They will likely begin to forget your initial criticism if you prove to them that you now believe in them. 

You can then begin the process of extricating yourself from the conversation on a positive note. Bear in mind that no matter how successful you are in this elicitation operation, you may not be able to use the same technique and strategy against them again, or they will start to notice a pattern.  It would be difficult to be proven wrong, then be impressed with the target, only to come back later on with a similar situation. This would incite suspicion in all but the most naive of persons.

Conclusion: Take Action

Now that you’re armed with some of the tools of the trade, you have to put them into practice. Reading about elicitation is of limited use if you don’t work on it during your daily interactions. You’d be shocked at how quickly these techniques can become second nature once you start to view every interaction as an opportunity. Whether it’s with family, friends, or complete strangers, elicitation will help you improve your relationships, situational awareness, and capabilities.

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