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April 12, 2006 Volume 6, Issue 15
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When You Aren't Supposed to Say:
Part III


Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or even more sensitive than that. Sometimes people who want to know what we know try to suspend our ability to think critically. Here are some of their techniques.

When we aren't supposed to disclose things we know, and when that information is sensitive, we might encounter people who try to extract it. This is Part III of a little catalog of 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, and "When You Aren't Supposed to Say: Part II," Point Lookout for April 5, 2006, for methods that use misdirection.

To decide whether or not to disclose something to someone, we must determine whether such disclosure is appropriate. Making that judgment requires critical thinking — the ability to reason, to think clearly, and to form valid conclusions or make sound judgments. Here are some methods for eliciting information that rely on suspending the target's ability to think critically.

Shaking the tree
Shaking an orange tree

Shaking an orange tree. Photo courtesy US Department of Agriculture.

By creating in the target a state of emotional upset, seekers hope to generate out-of-control behavior just to see what falls out. Emotional states that are especially fruitful are anger, fear, and romantic rejection.
Good cop, bad cop
In this method, two seekers pursue the target. One uses pressure and fear, while the other uses a kinder and gentler approach. This method still works, despite its being a well known (and overused) plot device in fiction, film, and television.
Some questions come gift-wrapped: "Let me ask you…," or "Can I get some information about…," or "I'd like to learn about…," or "Let me pick your brain about…," or "You're an expert on X, can you tell me about…" The wrapping is intended to trigger a desire to cooperate.
By interfering with
our ability to think
critically, seekers of
information can
sometimes get
what they want
When we're in contact with someone over a long period of time, as on an extended business trip, we tend to become less guarded. Be alert to probing questions that seem unrelated to the tasks at hand. Limit conversation when you're fatigued or stressed.
Authority or command
Sometimes used by those with organizational power, these methods are also available to certification, legal, and enforcement authorities. An example of the latter, from The Firm, by John Grisham (Order from Amazon.com), is "Wayne Tarrance," played by Ed Harris in the film directed by Sydney Pollack (Order from Amazon.com).
Blackmail, bribery, and extortion
Targets of blackmail, bribery, or extortion can experience feelings of extreme helplessness. These methods are favorites of the Firm's enforcer, "Bill DeVasher," played by Wilford Brimley in the film.
Substances and wining-and-dining
Seekers might use alcohol, food, or other substances in what seems to be a social context. In The Firm, "Avery Tolar" (played by Gene Hackman in the film), uses these methods to make "Mitch McDeere" (played by Tom Cruise) vulnerable to the setup involving the prostitute on the beach.

Over the next month, notice these techniques in use at work. You might spot them more easily when they're used on others. Once you become aware of these methods, you'll be less likely to reveal what you ought not. Go to top Top  Next issue: The High Cost of Low Trust: Part I  Next Issue
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The terms we use at work to talk about practices, policies, and procedures are serviceable, for the most part. But some of them carry connotations and hidden messages that undermine our larger purposes.
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Continuing our exploration of embolalia — filler syllables, filler words, and filler phrases — let us examine the more complex forms. Some of them are so complex that they appear to be actual content, even when what they contain is little more than "um."

See also Effective Communication at Work and Ethics at Work for more related articles.

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Disagreeing with the majority in a meeting, or in some cases, merely disagreeing with the Leader, can lead to isolation and other personal difficulties. Here is Part II of a set of tactics used by Leaders who choose not to tolerate differences of opinion, emphasizing the meeting context. Available here and by RSS on December 2.
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At times, groups can become so embroiled in destructive conflict that conventional conflict resolution becomes ineffective. How does this happen? What can we do about it? Available here and by RSS on December 9.

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