Sometimes people either aren’t willing to engage or not good at opening up themselves. You can blast past this by using forms of elicitation, in which you put forth a topic or question in a way that a person will feel compelled to engage or elaborate.
These take the form of prompting the person to reply to your recognition, encouraging mutual complaining, assisting your naiveté, and correcting your incorrect assumption or information.
- Better Small Talk: Talk to Anyone, Avoid Awkwardness, Generate Deep Conversations, and Make Real Friends By Patrick King
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Sometimes, despite all the groundwork you’ve put into setting a friendly tone, making the first move, and even digging out some underrated similarities, people won’t engage too much. Some people just aren’t very forthcoming. Conversing with them can be like talking to walls for no apparent reason. You can ask them something seemingly innocent, and they just dodge, demur, or give you a one-word answer. Whatever the case, conversation has now come to a full stop.
Unfortunately, they have set the tone to treat you as a stranger and hold you at arm’s length, which is something we are making sure we don’t do ourselves. The reasons for this can vary, but most of them are not related to you. Moreover, often we cannot control this. But that’s okay, there are ways to move past this type of engagement (if you are certain that they are actually interested in engaging with you, versus stonewalling you in the hopes that you leave them alone). In a sense, this is you manufacturing a connection out of nothing at all—at least, whatever your conversation/small talk partner is giving you.
This is 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 was quickly adopted by corporate spies to obtain confidential information from competitors.
Its origins will probably give you pause, but all of these techniques can be used for both good and evil. The methods themselves are neutral and are a result of taking a look into the human psyche.
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 and creating engagement.
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? Ellen Naylor, in her 2016 book Win/Loss Analysis, wrote about a few elicitation techniques to get people talking.
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.
We’ve covered this a bit in talking about how people love mutual dislike. People also 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 establish 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.
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.
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 percent 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 stop themselves from jumping in.
In the spirit of elicitation, here are a few indirect methods that I’ve discovered work quite well for me personally.
When you ask a question you think may not be answered, act as if they answered it and react to that hypothetical answer.
You: So I hear that project didn’t go so well at work?
Bob: Yeah. Not great.
You: Yeah, I heard things were going excellent minus that little snafu at the end of the quarter. But that’s no one’s fault. That part of the project is super complex. It’s crazy. I can’t believe it even got the green light.
When you put all of this on the table, it’s going to be nearly irresistible for them to step in and answer, reply, correct, confirm, or deny. That’s the important part—you are (1) asking a question, (2) acting as if they answered the question, and (3) then seeing how they react to your assumption of their answer. Don’t wait for them to react to your question; just give them the opportunity to react to your subsequent answer. The premise here is that even if they don’t want to talk to you, they’ll be forced to engage and step in to intervene in some way. You may not get the merriest of answers, but the important thing is that you’ve gotten them to open their traps in the first place, and that can be the hardest part of all.
There’s another variation on this method of getting people to engage or otherwise speak up. When you ask someone a question, assume they are going to answer a certain way and keep elaborating on that sentiment. Again, if you’re lucky, people will feel compelled to correct you and clarify what their actual answer to the question is.
You: So how was the vacation? I bet it was terrible with all of those worms and alligators. I hate the water and humidity so much.
Bobby: Well, actually…
Gotcha! In the same vein, you can elicit people to speak and open up more by talking about something you know is obviously wrong and waiting for them to jump in.
You: That relationship seemed so good because he has a nice car, right? That’s all you need. I guess when it’s a Corvette it’s enough. Money is life.
Bobby: Well, actually…
These methods capitalize on people’s instinct to set the record straight. Even if they don’t want to talk about something, they don’t want the incorrect or negative perception floating around about them. If you were only getting one word out of them, and you are able to eke two sentences out of them by using this tactic, consider it a win to keep building on.
Remember that the tone of an exchange is something you have 100 percent ability to set. Many of us feel that conversations are a matter of luck—you strike it lucky by finding a mutual topic of interest or similarity, and those instances are necessary to create rapport. Of course, if you believe this to be the case, it will be the case for you.