When You Aren't Supposed to Say:
by Rick Brenner
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
- 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
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. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- You and I
- In tense discussions, the language we use often contributes to the tension. If we can transform the statements we make about each other into statements about ourselves, we can eliminate an important source of tension and stress.
- When we take time to express to others our appreciation for what they do for us, a magical thing happens.
- The Costs of Threats
- Threatening as a way of influencing others might work in the short term. But a pattern of using threats to gain compliance has long-term effects that can undermine your own efforts, corrode your relationships, and create an atmosphere of fear.
- Nasty Questions: Part I
- Some of the questions we ask each other aren't intended to elicit information from the respondent. Rather, they're poorly disguised attacks intended to harm the respondent politically, and advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part one a catalog of some favorite tactics.
- On Facilitation Suggestions from Meeting Participants
- Team leaders often facilitate their own meetings, and although there are problems associated with that dual role, it's so familiar that it works well enough, most of the time. Less widely understood are the problems that arise when other meeting participants make facilitation suggestions.
See also Effective Communication at Work and Ethics at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 7: Contextual Causes of Conflict: Part I
- When destructive conflict erupts, we usually hold responsible only the people directly involved. But the choices of others, and general circumstances, can be the real causes of destructive conflict. Available here and by RSS on October 7.
- And on October 14: Contextual Causes of Conflict: Part II
- Too often we assume that the causes of destructive conflict lie in the behavior or personalities of the people directly participating in the conflict. Here's Part II of an exploration of causes that lie elsewhere. Available here and by RSS on October 14.
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