When You Aren't Supposed to Say:
by Rick Brenner
Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or possibly even more sensitive than that. Sometimes people who try to extract that information use techniques based on misdirection. Here are some of them.
When we possess information that's "company confidential" or politically sensitive, protecting it can be a challenge, because seekers of that information can be very clever and persistent. This is Part II of a catalog of the methods they use. See "When You Aren't Supposed to Say: Part I," Point Lookout for March 29, 2006, for methods based on special resources. This article examines techniques that use misdirection to prompt the target to disclose valuable information. Some examples:
- By disclosing something that seems personal or sensitive, seekers can gain the trust of the target. They might offer information that disparages or even harms political foes. When you sense that someone trusts you too easily, consider the possibility that you're the target of a trust-building seeker of sensitive information.
- Illusionists commonly use diversion tactics. In the workplace, what happened to Mike might be typical (see "When You Aren't Supposed to Say: Part I," Point Lookout for March 29, 2006), but even a fire drill provides opportunities.Using misdirection, seekers
of information induce
their targets to willingly
disclose valuable information
- Flirtation, flattery, and romance
- When deftly used, flirtation, flattery, and romance are especially effective with those who are vulnerable or naïve. Between socially incompatible types, and when initiated by the more adept of the pair, these tactics could be indicators of information-seeking.
- By saying something that's wrong or incomplete, or by setting up the target to demonstrate superior knowledge, the seeker might induce the target to disclose sensitive information. Because many high achievers dislike being corrected or being shown to have inferior skill, accepting correction with little comment and no resistance could be an indicator of this tactic.
- Feigning disinterest, either by interruption or by appearing to be distracted, the seeker presents a cue to the target that what was just said was unimportant. Alternatively, the seeker might focus on an unimportant detail of the conversation to mislead the target about what the real point of interest is.
- Cultivating friendship over a relatively long period of time, especially when accompanied by a flow of useful information from the seeker to the target, could be an indicator of this tactic. Those most vulnerable have few friends and might even be isolated by internal politics. Managers who allow isolated individuals to remain so are creating a vulnerability to this tactic.
- By drawing the target into a secret relationship, the seeker forms a tight bond with the target. One famous example of this technique is Connie Chung's 1995 interview of Newt Gingrich's mother, in which she said, "Why don't you just whisper it to me, just between you and me?" When a seeker suggests confidentiality or secrecy, and revealing the information could be harmful to the target, the seeker could be using this technique.
The last group of tactics for uncovering sensitive information includes those that depend on inducing the target not to think critically. We'll explore them next time. Top Next Issue
Some of these tactics, such as flirtation and bait, are even more effective when they're used in an indirect manner. See "The True Costs of Indirectness," Point Lookout for November 29, 2006, for more.
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- The Power of Presuppositions
- Presuppositions are powerful tools for manipulating others. To defend yourself, know how they're used, know how to detect them, and know how to respond.
- The Uses of Empathy
- Even though empathy skills are somewhat undervalued in the workplace context, we do use them, for good and for ill. What is empathy? How is it relevant at work?
- Changing the Subject: Part II
- Sometimes, in conversation, we must change the subject, but we also do it to dominate, manipulate, or assert power. Subject changing — and controlling its use — can be important political skills.
- Publish an Internal Newsletter
- If you're responsible for an organizational effort with many stakeholders, communicating with them is important to success. Publishing an internal newsletter is a great way to keep them informed.
- Communication Refactoring in Organizations
- Inadequate communication between units of large organizations is one factor that maintains the dysfunction of "silo" structures in large organizations, limiting their ability to act coherently. Communication refactoring can help large organizations to see themselves as wholes.
See also Effective Communication at Work and Ethics at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Ethical Debate at Work: Part I
- When we decide issues at work on any basis other than the merits, we elevate the chances of making bad decisions. Here are some guidelines for ethical debate. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Ethical Debate at Work: Part II
- Outcomes of debates at work sometimes favor one party, not only at the expense of the other or others, but also at the expense of the organization. Here's Part II of a set of guidelines for steering debates toward wise outcomes. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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