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
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- When we use threats and intimidation to win debates or agreement, we lay a flimsy foundation for future action. Using fear may win the point, but little more.
- Irrational Self-Interest
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- The Ups and Downs of American Handshakes: Part II
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See also Effective Communication at Work and Ethics at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 31: The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: Part I
- Anecdotes are short stories — sometimes just a single sentence. They're powerful tools of persuasion, but they can also be dangerous, to both anecdote tellers and anecdote listeners. Available here and by RSS on December 31
- And on January 7: The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: Part II
- Anecdotes are powerful tools of persuasion, but with that power comes a risk that we might become persuaded of false positions. Here is Part II of a set of examples illustrating some hazards of anecdotes. Available here and by RSS on January 7
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