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:
- There Is No Rumor Mill
- Rumors about organizational intentions or expectations can depress productivity. Even when they're factually false, rumors can be so powerful that they sometimes produce the results they predict. How can we manage organizational rumors?
- When You Aren't Supposed to Say: Part II
- 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.
- The True Costs of Indirectness
- Indirect communications are veiled, ambiguous, excessively diplomatic, or conveyed to people other than the actual target. We often use indirectness to avoid confrontation or to avoid dealing with conflict. It can be an expensive practice.
- What, Why, and How
- When solving problems, groups frequently get stuck in circular debate. Positions harden even before the issue is clear. Here's a framework for exploration that can sharpen thinking and focus the group.
- Reframing Hurtful Dismissiveness
- Targets of dismissive remarks often feel that their concerns are being judged as unimportant, which can be painful when their concerns are real. But there is an alternative to pain. It requires a little skill and discipline, but it can work.
See also Effective Communication at Work and Ethics at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming September 2: That Was a Yes-or-No Question: Part II
- When, in the presence of others, someone asks you "a simple yes or no" question, beware. Chances are that you're confronting a trap. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for dealing with the yes-or-no trap. Available here and by RSS on September 2.
- And on September 9: Holding Back: Part I
- When members of teams or groups hold back their efforts toward achieving group goals, schedule and budget problems can arise, along with frustration and destructive intra-group conflict. What causes this behavior? Available here and by RSS on September 9.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
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