Collecting Primary Intelligence: Elicitation Techniques (Part 2)

In part 1 of this post, I explained the concept of elicitation—a process of collecting non-public information from unsuspecting people by indirect means. In this second part, we will cover some specific elicitation methods.

As I said before, these techniques are not always legal or ethical. Please consult your legal team before using any of these techniques. We are covering all of them here because you need to be able to protect your own firm from the use of these techniques by others. We will refer to these techniques again when we discuss counterintelligence.

Elicitation techniques motivate people to communicate information voluntarily. In this post, I will discuss twelve of these techniques.

  • Flattery
  • Naiveté
  • Purposely-Erroneous Statement
  • Quotation
  • Active Listening
  • Feigned Disbelief
  • Quid Pro Quo
  • Sympathy
  • Provocation
  • Oblique Reference
  • Bracketing
  • Criticism

Simple flattery:

This technique motivates sources to disclose information by making them feel good about themselves and about the conversation with the collectors. Simple flattery can be a particularly effective technique for gathering information when it is used as one of several techniques in a stack, and it works across the corporate ladder, from the gardener to the CEO.

How to use this technique: Open a conversation by acknowledging the source’s expertise—for example, by making a sincere compliment close to desired topic, like “I thought you did an excellent job addressing the question about XYZ.” Then allow the source the opportunity to discuss his or her favorite topic. In doing so, they are likely to disclose non-public information.


This technique can trigger an ego response or a desire to be helpful. It is particularly useful when the source loves to talk or is involved in education, as when the source is a professor or sales representative.

How to use this technique: Make a statement indicating you really need help, such as “You could help me understand XYZ.” This technique must be consistent with your overall approach, and you must appear to be less accomplished or less knowledgeable than you otherwise are.

Purposely-erroneous statement:

A purposely-erroneous statement can draw a correction with true information. This technique capitalizes on a tendency to correct others, a desire to teach someone, or a desire for precision.

How to use this technique: Make a statement that you know is incorrect in order to draw the correct response—for example, “A factory like that couldn’t possibly make more than five hundred units per week.” Then wait for the source to correct you and provide the correct manufacturing capacity.


of reported facts from another source: This technique operates in the mind of the prospective source because usually, the person thinks, “If the information is already in the public domain, then why shouldn’t I talk about it?” The principle works whether the quoted information exists in the public domain or not. As long as the source believes it does, that belief can motivate the source to talk about it.  This technique is also useful to create credibility and to position you as person “in the know.”  Furthermore, attributing information to a person can provoke a positive or negative reaction, as desired.

How to use this technique: Make a statement and attribute it to a specific source. For example: “I just read in the New York Times that …”

Active listening:

This exploits the human tendency to like talking and sometimes the tendency to dislike silence. There are plenty of courses on active listening out there, so I’m just going to introduce one example of how to use active listening in elicitation.
You probably know that repeating a key word of phrase (or the last word) spoken by a conversation partner is supposed to send the message that you are paying attention, encouraging more conversation. However, in elicitation, you don’t want sources to feel that you are placing any specific importance on what they are saying.  Therefore, in elicitation, instead of parroting back what sources say, we think about it and then find synonyms for the words they said or find ways of paraphrasing their statements.   This significantly reduces the potential that sources will recognize the repetition of their own words, but it achieves the same effect.

Feigned disbelief

(or real disbelief) is a variation of active listening that draws elaboration of a topic while making a subtle appeal to ego. Nearly everyone has a desire to be believed, whether or not they have high standards, so using this technique will draw further details from the source.

How to use this technique: Respond to a statement by expressing incredulity that such a thing is possible. For example: “I can’t believe they would start recruiting if revenues are decreasing.”

Quid pro quo:

This is an old Roman intelligence technique that we could translate as “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” It exploits the tendency to reciprocate. This technique requires planning to decide how much information to share and what topics to share. Also, you have to be aware that once you share something, the source may ask you for further details about what you have shared, so you need to prepare for that. Often collectors make a mistake and share information about their own company. I’ve found it easier to share information about a competitor that the source and I have in common. If the source asks for more questions, I can just say, “That’s all I know.”

How to use this technique: Offer the source some information and pause. For example, “I heard that XYZ Competitor plans to cut their sales force by 20 percent due to the price cuts forced by the government.” The source at this point may provide more information about the competitor or share what his or her own company is doing to mitigate the price cuts.

Expressing sympathy

Expressing sympathy, where appropriate, triggers the instinct to complain. We are not talking here about the difference between happy and disgruntled employees. (Disgruntled employees have always been a great source of information.) Instead, with this technique, we are trying to listen carefully to what the source is saying, and if the opportunity presents itself, to pick up a part of the conversation where we sense that a topic of interest is causing emotional tension, so that we can provide a sympathetic ear.

How to use this technique: Express sympathy over an adverse situation involving the source. For example: “That must have been very difficult and frustrating to do all that work and then …”


This technique can be as simple as saying one sentence, either at the outset of a conversation or at a point of your choosing in the middle. Despite its name, the provocation does not have to be offensive, although sometimes it can be if that is useful with a particular source.

The purpose of the provocative statement is to get your source to ask you questions, so that you can set the stage for another technique. It is also useful for providing cover later; if the source gets suspicious about why you are having this conversation on this particular topic, your natural and innocent response is quite simple: “Well, I don’t know. You’re the one who asked me about XYZ.”

How to use this technique: Make a statement about something interesting or controversial that you think the source will respond to. The source may then initiate discussion of the topic by asking you about it. For example, a conversation containing both provocation and disbelief would sound something like this:

  • Collector: “I just can’t believe that the widget market is ever going to recover from this latest hit overseas. What’s more, I can’t believe that we allowed ourselves to get into this kind of fix.”
  • Source: “What do you mean?”
  • Collector: “I mean we had a pretty good run in China, with profits growing, until the government came in to regulate and implemented X law.  It seems the government is there to hurt us.”
  • Source: “You know, the same thing happened to us …”

Oblique reference

Oblique reference is the quintessential elicitation approach. Most of the techniques covered so far are “oblique,” since they are not direct. (We won’t be using direct questions except at the beginning and end of contacts, and then only about macro or general topics. We will cover this in more detail in upcoming blog posts.) However, in using oblique reference, we are going a step beyond avoiding questions. Oblique reference involves making comments about a related topic in order to take full advantage of people’s tendency to transition from general to specific in conversation.

How to use this technique: Refer to a topic close to the topic you want to discuss in order to draw the source into bringing the topic up. For example, if you know the source is doing confidential research on a particular Drug Y, then you can say something like this: “It’s really amazing, some of the diverse discoveries that are coming out related to Class X …” Then the source will likely respond with personal experience: “Yes,  particularly, Drug Y …”


Bracketing is used during a series of conversations to narrow a range of possibilities. This technique is particularly useful for collecting any kind of quantifiable information. Instead of asking for a specific number, you suggest a “number bracket,” with one low number and one high number.

How to use this technique: Suggest an order of magnitude for the unknown number that will draw a response. The number has to be in a realistic broad range.  For example, instead of asking, “How big is your sales force?” you would say, “I heard your sales force is between 500 and 1,000 reps.” The source then would probably tell you, “It’s closer to 500.” Then you would use the same technique with another source and say, “I heard your sales force is between 500 and 700 reps.” And so on, until you got a number that answered your KIQ.


Finally criticism can be useful by exploiting the tendency to correct or prove a point. This is a highly effective technique with employees who are loyal, who have a long career in the company, who are at higher management levels and thus have a considerable investment in the company or its employees, or whose options outside the company are limited. To be able to use this technique, the collector needs to be able first to establish a rapport with the source sufficient to allow for some pushing of the envelope. It is best to start by poking fun at small or inconsequential things in order to get a quick and accurate reading of how well he deals with criticism.

How to use this technique:  Once you have a sense of how much criticism the source can take, then make a pointed criticism that will draw a response. (It is often useful to determine the source’s thinking or see how they will defend a point prior to delivering the criticism.)  For example: “I don’t know how you can say that, when your product is being manufactured thousands of miles away, in a third-world country with no quality controls …”

How to Measure Success

Interviewers, market researchers, and elicitors all measure their success by the amount and quality of information they collect. But elicitors have a special standard for success.  Interviewers measure their success by the quality of the articles they have written or the employees they have hired. Market researchers measure their success by the quantity of customer insights they have generated or by how accurately they have predicted trends within a customer segment. Elicitors, however, measure their success by how well a source reacts. If the source comes away from a conversation still fully comfortable, not concerned that he or she has communicated anything valuable to the elicitor, the interaction was a success. It’s an even greater success if the source is willing to talk to the elicitor again in the future.

Now that you have seen several elicitation techniques, you probably think it is time to start using them to gather non-public information. However, like any process, elicitation has a number of building blocks. It requires planning and study; you have to plan carefully for an elicitation session, and you need to understand some of the human dynamics underlying a successful elicitation. In the upcoming blog post, we will discuss planning for elicitation, understanding human dynamics in elicitation, and other factors that you need to succeed.