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The One Technique That Will Help You Find Out Anything You Want to Know Without Asking Questions Here's what you need to know about the art of elicitation.

By Lena Sisco Edited by Chelsea Brown

Key Takeaways

  • Use this technique to get information from people and create a comfortable environment that persuades them to want to open up to you.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Have you ever been in a conversation, and even though you intended to be empathetic and respectful, the moment you asked a question, especially about a sensitive topic, you felt disrespectful, possibly even rude?

You had to ask the question, but now the person you were trying to make comfortable seems irritated and worried. They may even back away from you, cross their arms and ask you why you asked them that question. You didn't intend on coming across as pushy, intrusive or insincere — but you did, unwittingly. Now you are left wondering, what did you do wrong, and how do you save this relationship?

Asking questions to get information can make people nervous and concerned, even if our questions are valid. For example, if your significant other comes home much later than expected without notifying you, your first inclination may be to ask them where they have been and why they were late. Although benign, those questions could be considered accusatory by the other person, and the response may be defensive. You deserve an answer, so how can you get it?

Related: Use This Mind Trick to Get Someone to Tell You the Truth

What other choice do you have to find out information from someone if you can't ask a question? You use a provocative statement — instead of a question — and elicit the information. And the best part is that the other person won't even know you are seeking information because they don't hear any questions. This may sound a little cloak and dagger, which it is not. This technique is a brilliant conversational skill.

Let's say you are trying to sell your product to a potential new buyer whom you do not know. To get to know them, you ask them specific questions to find out leads you can use to build rapport and discover their pain points. If you just met them and you do not have their trust yet, they may feel that you are too curious. Instead of connecting, they view your interrogation as suspicious, and because they feel uncomfortable around you, they don't trust you.

The other thing to consider about questions is that they can draw attention to the type of information you are trying to collect. You may not want your stakeholders to know what you are after because they may clam up.

There is a better way to collect information while concealing your objective and creating a comfortable environment that persuades people to want to open up to you. It is called elicitation.

The art of elicitation

Elicitation is often associated with human intelligence, or HUMINT, and classified under titles such as "tradecraft" or "collection activity." However, elicitation is not just for military intelligence professionals. It is a skill set that can be used both in the private and public sectors and is becoming increasingly popular as a much-desired skill set in business intelligence. This technique is an art form because you need to practice and get comfortable using it to maintain credibility and confidence.

So, what exactly is the art of elicitation? It is simply rephrasing questions into narrative statements that provoke another person to respond. If done correctly, a person will tend to either agree or disagree with your provocative statement or offer more information to correct you, clarify what you said or expound on that topic. Either way, people generally feel compelled to converse with you when you use elicitation.

So, instead of asking someone, "How much are you willing to spend on your future success?" you say, "I bet you invest upwards of 30K a year on programs like this because you understand the value these programs bring to your future success." I guessed about how much they spend a year. If I am wrong, they will correct me. If I am right, they may just nod. Either way, I will know if I'm in the ballpark area. I also put in some flattery to make them feel good.

The bottom line is that people will feel more comfortable sharing information when you don't ask for it.

Related: How to Apply Military Intelligence to Entrepreneurship

Why does elicitation work so well?

The reason why elicitation is so successful is because it exploits aspects of human psychology. Typically people like to be heard, honest, flattered, feel important, correct others when they are wrong and offer information when information is offered to them (quid pro quo). Elicitation helps build rapport and can create a comfortable, relaxed environment. The other person is unaware of your intentions and believes you are having a casual conversation. Therefore, they tend to remain at ease and are forthcoming with information.

I was trained in elicitation early in my career as a human intelligence officer. I used elicitation when I conducted interrogations at Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Although I was trained in approach methods and question techniques to gather intelligence information, elicitation allowed me to gather more information. It worked brilliantly because the detainees assumed I wasn't collecting details, only having a conversation. As a result, they opened up more about what they knew.

I have used elicitation since 2002 in many situations: during interviews with litigants, requirements analysis and networking opportunities. Elicitation has helped me get the truth, purchase wisely and sell competitively.

The next time you feel that questions will do more harm than good, change your question to a provocative statement and elicit that critical information instead. You will maintain rapport, gain their trust, keep that person comfortable and disguise what you are after. What could be better than that?

Lena Sisco

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

CEO and Founder of The Congruency Group

Lena Sisco is an expert in body language, communication techniques, lie detection, and leadership. She is a published author, keynote speaker, TEDx speaker, and TV personality. Lena is a former Navy Intelligence Officer and DoD interrogator and is certified in the Psychology of Leadership.

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