Elicitation: What Is It and How Can You Use It to Your Advantage?

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Elicitation is the subtle art of obtaining desired information from a person without posing direct questions. Both dialogue and non-verbal cues are used to prompt truthful responses. While this may conjure mental images of law enforcement interrogators in windowless rooms with two-way mirrors, elicitation is likely a strategy that you utilize in your day-to-day life without even knowing it. It is also used in the employment context, usually during workplace investigations.

Let’s illustrate elicitation in action: imagine that you are in a waiting room with several others. You glance over and notice that the person across from you has on the best shoes. They are uniquely stylish, they are great for the office, they will add 2 inches in height, they’re great for golf, and they even look comfortable! As you’re admiring this amazing footwear, you realize you must have them…except you have never seen such shoes before, and have no idea where to find them. The only way to have the shoes is to get the person wearing them to tell you the designer, style, and where they were bought.

How do you solve this impasse? You could simply walk across the waiting room and say “Can you tell me the designer of your shoes and where you purchased them?” However, you may come off as robotic, awkward, or intrusive. You may ultimately obtain the information you need, but only by violating acceptable standards of social interaction and making yourself vulnerable to an embarrassing interaction if the person does not respond well to your directness. You decide that you’ll need to strike up a conversation with the shoe-wearer. What is the easiest and most surefire way to engage the person (and also probably get the information you want)? Flattery: “I love your shoes!” Flattery, the most commonly used elicitation technique and will likely result in the information you need (the designer and seller of the shoes) without your risking a negative social interaction or revealing your desperation for the shoes.

Elicitation uses conversational techniques to acquire information. Such techniques are effective because, as human beings, we often share predictable desires and tendencies: we have a desire for praise and recognition, a desire to complain and gossip, and a tendency to correct someone who is wrong, for example. Elicitation techniques capitalize on these natural propensities and cause targets to share information even if a question has not been asked. Elicitation strategies can be employed to obtain specific factual information that is the topic of the conversation, to obtain information that the witness is unwittingly providing which is related to but not exactly the information which you have requested, or to test the veracity of the target person or of other information you have received.

These are some of the most common elicitation strategies:

  • Expression of Mutual Interest involves using background information or observations you gather about your target. Using this information, you express a common interest, so as to create a connection and generate conversation. For example, noting the target’s coffee mug logo, you state, “I’m a huge Bears fan, too!”
  • Naiveté involves feigning ignorance regarding a topic about which the witness is knowledgeable, which generally causes the witness to provide instruction and thus provides a conversation opportunity to obtain the information you need.
  • Erroneous Statements of Fact involves sharing information that is factually incorrect and will encourage the witness to respond with a correction and thereby open discussion, which is directly or indirectly related to the information you need.
  • Mirroring/Word Repetition involves repeating a target’s words and phrases back to her, which can encourage a talkative witness to continue sharing information. “He had 4 glasses of wine, huh?” “So, what you’re saying is…” Mirroring messages to the witness that you are engaged and attentive will encourage her to continue to share information.
  • Oblique References involve making general comments about a related topic in an effort to encourage a witness to reply in a more specific manner: the reference in question is actually an attempt to understand facts about something else entirely. For example, asking a target about the catering at a work party may actually be an attempt to understand the type of access outside vendors have to the facility.

There are various purposes for which elicitation techniques can be employed. An obvious example is in law enforcement: to obtain information from an unwilling witness that can lead to an arrest warrant. However, other opportunities for using these strategies abound: a business owner can use elicitation techniques to obtain information from a competitor about their future marketing strategies. A sales person may use elicitation to determine the price a customer can pay. An employee may use these techniques with a manager to obtain information on how to obtain a raise or promotion or ensure that an assignment is received. A parent may use such techniques with a teen to obtain information about their child’s social life.

I often use such techniques in conducting internal investigations on behalf of employer clients. Such strategies can help circumnavigate barriers that witnesses create (intentionally or unintentionally) to obtaining information. Often, in this context, witnesses are unwilling to provide information out of fear of retaliation. Building a rapport through use of elicitation techniques can help to minimize these concerns and obtain information on workplace wrongdoing so that it can be stopped.

Utilizing elicitation techniques can help transform a silent, stoic person, who can scarcely uncross his arms or provide anything other than one-word answers, into someone who is relaxed and smiling, eagerly sharing the information you need.