Everyone in the world, from Americans to Austrians to Aboriginals to African bush people, share universal emotional highs and lows, even if the physical manifestation is different. This can start with talking about how happy or sad something makes you—that’s all it takes to open a deeper dialogue.
Share stories from your own life. Even though it doesn’t feel like it, we all go through similar circumstances and struggles every day. We all brush our teeth, hate waking up, and commute to some kind of job. We all have common experiences. You have some part of your life story that others can relate to. We all remember when we learned to ride a bike, embarrassing moments in high school, or disasters in dating.
Ultimately, you want to just get into the habit of talking about yourself more and you’ll reap the rewards.
Cracking People Open
At this point, you might be convinced of the notion that you need to disclose more of your inner workings and thoughts, but that doesn’t mean that others will naturally reciprocate. Some will, and some will not. In fact, some people are like talking to brick walls. How can you get others to disclose in order to get to the point of mutual intimacy and closeness?
There are some basic, tried-and-true ways. You can ask questions such as “How do you feel about this weather?” instead of asking yes or no questions, as these will just get you monosyllabic answers. Instead, engage people by asking in-depth questions that provoke them to think and come up with a detailed response. There might seem to be little difference, but one version asks about emotions and can conjure up memories about the weather. Ask better questions and get better answers.
You can appeal to their interests. People love to chat about what they enjoy doing. Ask a person about his favorite hobbies and request that he teach you about them. Ask someone about his job as a flight attendant and how flying all the time feels. You will get a person to open up if you try to talk about things they care about or like. Everyone has a narrative to their life—stories that sum up how they ended up where they are. Ask about their stories and they will be more than glad to document the twists and turns.
Finally, you can stroke someone’s ego. This will make him or her feel good and want to open up to get even more positive ego-stroking. So you might tell a person, “I find your career fascinating. Tell me all about it!” Or you might say, “You have the most gorgeous garden. How do you get your crocuses to bloom so late in the year?” Prompt them to speak by first building them up with a compliment.
If none of the above work, that’s where the practice of elicitation comes in. It is a type of questioning that uses a specific conversational style to encourage people to share and speak more. It was originally developed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for use during interrogations but quickly began to be used by corporate spies to obtain confidential information from competitors.
Its origins will probably give you pause; isn’t this exactly the type of sneaky, underhanded, and manipulative stuff that we want to avoid? We can see them that way, but in reality, all of these techniques can be used for both good and evil. The techniques themselves are neutral and are a result of taking a look into the human psyche. And remember, we already engage in many sneaky tactics to make people like us—they’re just more socially acceptable ones, like wearing makeup or making our job positions sound more significant than they really are.
To use elicitation, you make a statement that plays on the other person’s desire to respond for a variety of reasons. The other person will feel driven to respond, even if they had no prior interest in engaging. They will almost feel like they have no choice. A direct question will not always get an answer; thus, it becomes important to ask indirect questions to encourage opening up.
Here is an example of how elicitation works. You are trying to plan a surprise party for someone, so you need to know his schedule, his friends’ contact information, and his food and drink preferences. Of course, you can’t ask him for this information directly. So how might you indirectly obtain this information from him?
You might say, “I’m going to buy a grape soda. Do you want one?” This will seem like a random, harmless question but it can show you his drink preferences when he replies, “Is there root beer?” or “Sure, grape is fine.”
Then you can go on to ask, “My friend is looking for someone to help move. Are you available weeknights at 6:00 p.m.?” He just might tell you his work schedule as a result: “I’m usually off work at 7:00 p.m., so I can’t help out, sorry.”
For a friend’s contact, you can say, “Hey, is Josh’s phone number 555-5695?” Here, you are intentionally asking him about an incorrect number, which will prompt him to correct it for you: “No, his phone number is actually 555-3958.”
You’ve now obtained three essential pieces of information through indirect means. Ellen Naylor in her 2016 book Win/Loss Analysis wrote about six specific elicitation techniques to get people talking.
Recognition. People thrive when you recognize something good about them. Mention “I love your sweater” and you will get a story about how the wearer obtained the sweater. Mention “You are very thorough” and you will get a story about how the person went to military school and learned to be thorough at all times. They may have been tight-lipped before, but any chance to enhance praise is welcome. People have a natural desire to feel recognized and appreciated, so give them an opening to show off a little.
You can also show appreciation to someone and compliment them. This is similar to recognition; people rarely turn down an opportunity to explain their accomplishments.
Complaining. People love to complain, so it is easy to get someone to open up by giving them something to commiserate with. You complain first, and they will jump at the opportunity. If they don’t join in, they might open up the other way by feeling compelled to defend what you are complaining about. Either way, you’ve opened them up.
You might tell someone at work, “I hate these long hours without overtime pay,” and he will agree and go into more detail about how he needs money from not being paid enough. This may lead him to disclose more about his home life and how many kids he has and marital issues he has related to finances. It may also lead him to defend the long hours. Either way, you have more information now.
Key to this technique is creating a safe environment for people to brag, complain, or show other raw emotion. If you complain first, you create a judgment-free zone. They don’t feel like they will get in trouble with you. You don’t have to complain to kickstart this; just express your own negative emotions, vulnerabilities, or disappointments.
Correction. People love to be right. This is truly the backbone of any Internet argument. So if you say something wrong, they will gladly jump at the chance to correct you. If you give people an opportunity to flex their ego, most will seize it happily.
An easy way to do this is to state something you know to be obviously incorrect to see if they will step in and break their silence. See if they can resist this primal urge.
Naïveté. To be clear, this does not mean to act stupid; it means to act like you’re on the cusp of understanding. Acting naïve makes people feel compelled to teach, instruct, and show off their knowledge. People just can’t resist enlightening you, especially if you’re 95% of the way there and all people have to do is figuratively finish your sentence. “I understand most of this theory, but there’s just this one thing I’m unclear on. It could mean so many things…” People won’t be able to resist jumping in.
Shift the window. This is where you say something slightly outrageous that you know won’t be answered, then pretend like you didn’t bring it up. Why does this work? Does it even work? It’s because you have put something out there to dramatically change the tone of the conversation but then taken it back to not be addressed.
Think of it as a cumulative effect—when you do this a couple of times, these are the types of questions people will engage with and answer even if they were ice cold beforehand. You haven’t actually committed a faux pas per se, but you’ve shifted the boundaries of the conversation. It’s a good combination that can get people to lower their guards without them even realizing it, and eventually their window of what they feel is appropriate to be shared can shift and widen.
Silence. Give people space to speak. When you take a step back, people will feel compelled to take a step forward and break the awkward tension. If you signal that you expect someone to speak and are waiting for them, they may open their mouths to meet your expectations.
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