The Power of Understanding

Increasing Negotiation and Leadership Performance through the Power of Understanding

Laws of Power 12: Perfect Elicitation Strategies

By Karen S. Walch, Ph.D.

In the realm of classic power, the most preeminent negotiators are those who strategically plan to control the future. This ultimately means a negotiator must be able to predict another’s intentions in order to pressure them to do things they would not necessarily do. Sun-tzu in the 4th century B.C. reminded strategists that foresight comes not from the spirits or astrology, but can only be derived thorough insight into another’s mind. This week’s law of power explores classic interview and interrogation tactics and the ways in which they increase negotiation leverage. Gathering information through spies or through one’s own superb elicitation skills are the most classic “mind reading” tools available.

Napoleon’s foreign minister Talleyrand, for example, perfected his art of conversation as a way to elicit critical information about a target’s plans, beliefs and character. Armed with this knowledge, he was able to predict another’s actions, and precisely manipulate them into submission.

Twenty-first century negotiators with significant social capital are able to utilize their extensive network of contacts to gather critical information through their primary source intelligence collection. Most effective negotiators today utilize this resource not to manipulate their counterpart, but to leverage such information in order to lead a problem-solving process toward an efficient mutual gains outcome.

Many successful negotiators today continue to utilize interview and conversational techniques that have emerged from classic national security intelligence practices and law enforcement investigation approaches. Inquiry techniques from psychology and investigative questioning taught in journalism schools also serve as a basis for effective elicitation.

These approaches engage basic human instincts and increase the quality of understanding about a counterpart through conversation.

Here are a couple basic classic interview techniques:

1. Trade information or “give to get.”  This is the basic currency of almost any free exchange of information, whether it’s about the market, a gambling tip, or a great restaurant.

2. Leveraging people’s instincts to instruct and explain. We all know people who seem predisposed to want to tell you everything they know, and will do so if prompted in the right way. People who fit into this category often have a need to have their “inner teacher” activated.

3. Leveraging people’s instincts to want to correct information they know to be wrong. Some people live in a more black-and-white world than others, believe in the facts as they know them, and have a need to state corrections “for the record.”

4. Playing to people’s expertise, which activates their response to flattery. Most people appreciate being recognized for their particular expertise, access, or achievements.

5. Sympathizing with complaints, which allow people to air grievances. Complaints have to be filtered carefully, of course, since people will also allow their personal biases to color the facts and insights they pass on, but good listening skills can help control for this.

6. Asking for help and guidance. This technique plays to the desire on the part of some people to be good Samaritans.

In a cross-cultural context, remember that the acquisition or exchange of intelligence is impacted by corporate or national cultural preferences. Keep in mind the following cultural dimensions:

1. Environment: An individual from a culture in which control is more prevalent than working in harmony will likely perceive information as something that he or she has a personal right or responsibility to share or withhold in the pursuit of a goal. On the other hand, someone from a culture that is predominantly harmony-oriented might be more inclined to see the same information as something that is the responsibility of a larger group and may not feel that he or she has sufficient authority to discuss such matters.

2. Communication: A potential source from a low-context, direct and informal culture, such as the United States, would likely be open to a direct, straightforward approach that makes clear what was personally in it for them. On the other hand, an individual from a high-context, indirect cultural preference would probably require a much more low-key approach based fundamentally on establishing a level of comfort first and perhaps demonstrating the value of an exchange for the organization the individual works for.

3. Power: Approaching a source from a culture with a preference toward hierarchy would put a premium on confining questions to that person’s precise role in his or her organization and span of responsibility.  Whereas, an individual from a culture of equality would likely feel empowered to respond to a wider range of inquiry.

4. Individualism: Potential sources of intelligence from cultures that trend toward individual versus a collective preference are probably more approachable with an appeal to how they could benefit personally with disclosure of information. Those whose cultural preferences are collectivist, on the other hand, might be more open to avenues that make clear the potential value of the conversation for their organization or business unit, rather than themselves personally.

5. Competitiveness: Here, too, potential sources from cultures that trend toward competitiveness are more likely to see valuable information as a personal differentiator and would perceive themselves to be “in the know” and “right” in a competitive debate. On the other end, individuals from cultures that trend toward more cooperative preferences might be more open to approaches that play to advancing their collective interests and organizations.

Strategic planning about your elicitation skills can bolster your negotiation power. Here are a few tips to remember as you gather primary source information for your next negotiation:

Law 12 Exercise

1.  Evaluate your own preferences regarding communication and how to elicit information from others.

2. Apply cultural gap analysis to your intelligence gathering skills.

3. Analyze how you ask questions and elicit critical primary information.

Extra Credit
For a more extensive article on these techniques, read Competitive Intelligence, Volume 12, No. 5/6, September/December 2009, “Cultural Orientation Indicator: Drive More Effective Elicitation Strategies Across the Globe.” Also visit the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) at

48 Laws for 21st Century Global Negotiators: Join Thunderbird Professor Karen S. Walch, Ph.D., as she explores the laws of power for 21st century global negotiators. Each Monday she discusses one law and provides an exercise to identify and enhance individual negotiation power. Go to the main menu for the series.