Elicitation is a conversational means to gather information which builds on human nature to encourage the other person to share. According to J. C. Carleson, author of Work like a Spy, “Elicitation is the bread and butter of human intelligence – it’s the act of obtaining information…the goal is to systematically obtain actionable information.”

Elicitation is a planned conversation, a conversation that flows and induces people to voluntarily tell you things without you having to ask. Overall you want to minimize the threat to the other person’s ego when talking to them, and elicitation does just that. It is one of the skills from the intelligence community that works very well in business conversation.


Where in Business Do You Use Elicitation?

Elicitation can be used in business situations where you are looking to expand your knowledge base by talking to another person. I use it in research projects which vary from market opportunity assessment calls to Win Loss interviews to in-person trade show collection. I suspect many people use elicitation, and don’t realize it since it builds off of the human condition. Those in research, sales, marketing, public relations and product managers are most likely to use elicitation.

Why Elicitation Works

People remember questions better than they remember conversation. If you’re conducting an interview where you don’t want people to remember what they have shared with you, elicitation is particularly useful. For example, pure elicitation is often used when you would rather people forget who you are when you cold call for information or collect information at a trade show.

Competitive intelligence isn’t the only place where elicitation works. Sales is in a great position to gather intelligence from customers, suppliers, and others they encounter in the field, since they are in dialog with them continuously. Once they learn elicitation, they can add intelligence gathering as part of the sales process. Sales enjoys this empowerment, and often realize that they are already using some form of elicitation when selling.

Elicitation at its core recognizes certain human tendencies which promote sharing. I will focus on my eight favorites:

  • Recognition
  • Appreciation
  • Curiosity
  • Gossip
  • Complaining
  • Correction
  • Self-Effacement
  • Over Talking when Emotional

Recognition – Everyone from the switchboard attendant to the CEO responds when you recognize something positive about them. They like to show off their knowledge and share it with you. There aren’t enough listening ears these days, especially with all the digital connection. When you listen and encourage people to share more about something they’re proud of, they will talk.

Appreciation – Showing appreciation is related to recognition, and everyone responds to this. Show appreciation for the person’s profession or role in decision-making.

Curiosity – People just can’t help themselves. We are all curious. If you can arouse curiosity during a conversation, sharing simply flows.

Gossip – People can’t resist the urge to gossip. This is related to curiosity and is the reason why most people can’t keep secrets. I have noticed that people just can’t resist being an expert, which often leads to gossiping.

Complaining – This is another human tendency. If you notice someone is particularly gruff, working from an angle of complaining about something is very effective to entice them to share more. By simply agreeing with their complaint, they will often expound on that issue.

Correction – People like to think they are the expert, and that they are right and you are wrong. They often can’t resist the urge to correct you. They want to make sure that you understand what they are sharing. They aren’t sure you have the ability to understand the knowledge they will impart since they are an expert in the field and you are not.

Self-Effacement – This is the human tendency to downplay accomplishments. While people want to be known as an expert in their field, they often display the, “Aw shucks, it was nothing,” around significant issues or accomplishments. If you don’t know the person very well, find something about this person or their company that you know they’ll be proud of before you call them.

Over Talking when Emotional – This is an interesting phenomenon. When you capture a though or feeling that strikes their passion, they gush. This is a home run in interviewing, and doesn’t happen that often these days since people feel so pressed for time. However, it does still happen and you need to be sensitive to this emotional shift as an interviewer.


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