The Complete Guide of Elicitation and Counter Elicitation Techniques
This article about elicitation techniques is written by Angelo Alabiso
Elicitation & Counter-elicitation: the two sides of effective communication
Elicitation is a sophisticated technique used to gather useful information through the power of human communication, more specifically in its various forms – conversations, interviews, and interrogatories. From the point of view of intelligence-gathering the aim of information elicitation is to “gather information of intelligence or law enforcement value in a manner that will not alert the source to the true purpose of the exchange”. In other words, it is a complicated and sophisticated way to extract information from people without giving them the feeling that they’re being interrogated, by strategies based on anthropological, biological, psychological studies of the human being and its complex mechanisms. Indeed, as means of gathering information by HUMINT (acronym for human intelligence), it should be noted that the better the knowledge of human behavior, ways of thinking or personality, the more efficient the process of elicitation from these sources will be (obviously with all the particularities and uniqueness of the case).
Therefore, it will be necessary to consider not only the amount of new information elicited but also the source’s perception of and response to that particular exchange.
In this sense, for example, it could be useful to understand why your interlocutor is talking or moving in a particular way, using specific terms or showing one emotion rather than another. Nothing should be taken for granted, especially since the agent has to put him or herself in the other’s shoes to understand their reactions. More specifically, “perspective-taking can be defined as the cognitive capacity to consider the world from other viewpoints, which allows an individual to anticipate the behavior and reactions of others”. These important things will make the process of elicitation easier because the agent can extract information, by human processes and feelings, logical or not, through use of strategies aimed to arouse the subject’s involuntary responses or urges. Using the elicitation techniques means steadily keeping a certain degree of discretion, or confidentiality in the activities of information collection. “The general rule is that a technique is more effective if it leaves the source believing that he or she revealed very little (or nothing), when, in fact, the interviewer was able to elicit an extensive amount of useful information”. It is an invisible effort in which the intelligence agent tries to keep the conversation under control without revealing its goal. It presupposes a good relationship with the interlocutor, a deep knowledge about human behavior and needs, as well as strong experience in the art of communication.
After this introduction, entering into the heart of topic, the elicitation process can be summarized in three phases:
- Establish a relationship: to obtain good information you must keep good relations with the target (this process could last years). It is an essential key to accessing the interlocutor’s information assets, released during the conversation, knowingly or not. The more information the agent has about the target, the easier this kind of process will be.
- Use of effective communication techniques: these are all the strategies useful in obtaining good information without revealing your real aims. A good agent must be prepared to know as much information as possible. This information will let him develop the best plan to keep the conversation more effective. In other words, before starting the interrogation, he will have studied the best practices to break down any barriers between him and the subject.
- Conclusion: the process of extraction of the information from target to agent. It includes a specific phase of collection and reorganization of the information obtained. In general, the questions an agent should ask himself after the conversation are as follows:
- What did I collect?
- What else could I have done?
- How I can get more information?
- Did everything go according to plan?
Strategically therefore to carry out the mission successfully, the agent needs to consider some important guidelines before starting a conversation
Some steps such as designing, preparing and planning the most efficient and effective approach possible in terms of control of the conversation, obviously based on knowledge of the target. Indeed, only in this way the agent will be prepared for the conversation and for any unforeseen events that could limit the flow of information. Specifically, details shouldn’t be underestimated, including the agent’s feelings in a specific adverse situation. In addition to that, it will be essential to have clear in the agent’s own mind not only the specific goal of the mission but even how it might be obtained. According to that, the empathetic role, played by agent, could be so important to convincing the target that he or she is grasped and understood. Trust must be built piece by piece. As has been explained before, in this process, any adverse words, feelings or behavior, spoken or shown also by agent, could result in closing a topic. For this reason, the agent should note the so-called “hot words” (words constantly repeated during the conversation), used by the interlocutor, to persuade him or her through use of similar language. The same speech could be given about the para-verbal and non-verbal attitude and a technique called “Mirroring” – a rather powerful tool able to use the “positive effect” produced by target’s mirror neurons.
“Mirroring is simply the process of mimicking subtle behaviors within whoever we are communicating.
It can be achieved by copying any of these things: speech patterns, body language, pace, tempo, pitch, tone, volume, vocabulary style or specific choices of words”.
It depends of human empathy (ability to understand and share the feelings of another) and its functioning through mirror neurons: “Mirror neurons provide an inner imitation, or simulation, of the observed facial expression. They send signals through the insula to the limbic system , which provides the feeling of the observed emotion”.
Alongside this invisible method, another variable that a good agent must consider are the interlocutor’s needs.
These are like engines useful to push most of the untrained people toward the agent’s aim. In this regard, can be useful to keep in mind the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs so, from top to bottom, as he described them:
- Self-actualization: morality, creativity, problem-solving, acceptance of facts and own life;
- Esteem needs: confidence, achievement, respect of and by others;
- Belongingness and love need: family, friendship, sexual intimacy, etc…
- Safety needs: about own or other’s body, health, family, property, etc…
- Physiological needs: breathing, food, sleep, water, etc…
All of them, if well studied by the agent, could be used to convince or manipulate targets especially if guided by an understanding of the subject’s weak points.
In other words, if the agent knows that his target wants to be flattered, he could use words or behaviors to please her or him. Hanns Joachim Scharff, who worked at the Luftwaffe’s Intelligence and Evaluation Centre as an expert in interrogation, studied and made use of many of those principles that have been described above during his interrogations. Famous for his familiar and friendly attitude with the prisoners, he succeeded in obtaining a great deal of useful information from his interlocutors. This, once again, demonstrates how violence or torture turns out to be completely unnecessary, or even counterproductive, for obtaining reliable information. Especially when on the other side there is a subject unaware of the elicitation method. Obviously, as you can guess, the principles previously described and those that will come, do not take into consideration interlocutors trained to give false information to mislead. This would deserve a separate discussion.
Once the general characteristics of the elicitation have been defined, its main techniques are dealt with in detail:
- Avoid direct questions: better to use simple comments with the right intonation, and silence. People, generally, don’t respond well to direct questions. They just become reluctant to give answers of a certain type. The key is to make them as unsuspicious as possible by simple comments.
- False statements: wrong sentences can be useful to put the target in the position of correcting you with important and sensitive information. With scientists, doctors, and researchers, this technique is a powerful means to push them beyond their borders.
- Verbal tracing: the set of target’s words, concepts or ideas that could be useful to an agent to make his interlocutor understood and listened too. In this case, after the summary of what was exposed by the target, the agent can push the interlocutor to carry on the explained topic through the use of new words or arguments.
- Provocative statements: hostile attitudes or words capable of making your interlocutor nervous or angry. Sometimes people can lose control of the communication just because they are angry, saying things very useful for the agents, especially if they must or want to defend their position.
- Half sentences: an important technique by which the agent can say half period of the sentence, hoping that the target will complete it. In this case, the echo use can force people to admit something unwanted. As with all the other techniques, also this needs to be used with discretion.
- Disbelief: ask more information on the accuracy, validity, and truthfulness of the target’s speech. Many people firmly believe in what they say protecting their ideas at all costs through details of no small importance. The advice is to be careful about the use of disbelief.
- Bracketing: to be able to obtain a specific number from the interlocutor, the agent can try to provide a range of possible answers (through low and high estimates), hoping to get a precise statement.
- Use of the third person: especially in some situations, could be essential to cite an external source to avoid exposing yourself too much. Sometimes the process is this:
- Start a topic;
- Use a third source contrary to the interlocutor;
- Share the target’s concept;
- Push him/her to talk more and more to defend his/her position.
- Reciprocity: if the agent needs to have good information, he must give to target something in return as a concession that could make the exchange seem as sincere and intimate as possible. It’s important because communication requires an interpersonal exchange that cannot be univocal. “Giving and receiving” is the rule.
- Flattery: every person appreciates compliments, especially if they are sincere and real. The key is to make the person feel appreciated in what he or she is doing at that moment, by comments that must not exceed a certain limit. Generally, will be enough to highlight his or her real strengths.
- Macro to Micro: “Start a conversation on the macro level, and then gradually guide the person toward the topic of actual interest. Start talking about the economy, then government spending, then potential defense budget cuts, then ‘what will happen to your X program if there are budget cuts?’ A good elicitor will then reverse the process taking the conversation back to macro topics”.
- Ask permission: mainly when the agent must ask something important for the interlocutor. This will be useful for two reasons:
- Gives the target the power to choose whether to talk about it or not;
- Appears sensitive and respectful.
- Silent technique: trying to be silent is always a very difficult thing to do, especially when you want to have your say. For this reason, an agent must be trained to use silence as a useful strategy to force the interlocutor to speak on a certain topic.
- Use whisper: saying something quietly, reducing the physical distance, at a certain point in the relationship, can greatly increase the trust of our interlocutor. In this case, the power of reciprocity will do the rest.
- Pay attention to verbal, para-verbal, and non-verbal attitudes: obtaining reliable information depends very much on the sympathy, trust that we built or transmit. Closed positions or wrong tones of voice can influence the communication process.
- Memory techniques: that set of strategies useful to putting our interlocutor in the position to remember with more difficulty the information released during the conversation. In other words, due to some proactive and retroactive inferences, it will be possible to undermine the memory process with one important rule: generally, people are used to not remembering what is said in the middle of a conversation. To better understand why this occurs, the interference theory of B. J. Underwood is mentioned:
“We tend to forget information in short-term memory when they are subjected to interference from previously learned information.
Experiments conducted by Underwood and Peterson suggest that in the former case, information you have learned before encoding new, similar information into long-term memory can worsen recall of the new information. This is called proactive interference. Similarly, when newly learned information conflicts or interferences with more recently learned information, the more recent information tends to obscure overwrite the previous information. This is called retroactive interference”.
So, if the agent wants to try to keep the information more secure, he or she must put the most important sentences or questions in the middle of communication.
In addition to that, to prevent the target from remembering what he said or what the agent asked him, it will be necessary to use long sentences with few pauses. These precautions will serve to avoid the storage of the conversation in long-term memory. In general, the coding process of memory depends even on other factors, including the characteristics of the stimulus and the emotional-cognitive-motivational factors of the subject. Therefore, the following strategies should be avoided:
- Attracting the target’s attention too much;
- Repeating things for too long;
- Allowing the target to associate the information with some images or memories;
The use of one technique does not mean excluding another, often these must be combined to be more effective in the collection process.
The result will vary from how they are implemented during the conversation. “Patience is the virtue of the strong”, so nothing should be forced or hastily obtained, including the phase of consolidation of the relationship.
As a separate discussion, in terms of communication strategies, the seven principles of Robert Cialdini deserve further study. In fact, taking advantage of the mental shortcuts inherent in the human being (called heuristics) are excellent points of reference for those who want to make elicitation strategies more effective. In detail, these are:
- Consistency and commitment: this principle requires coherence of thought in the conversation and gradual steps especially in the requests that are intended to be proposed (“Foot in the door” technique). People don’t like to be contradicted, especially if they spent energy and time on that project (it’s called cognitive dissonance), for this reason, they should be supported by favorable comments.
- Reciprocity: it plays on the natural need of the human being to reciprocate something he has received from someone. For example, people are more likely to say yes to those who have helped them in the past.
- Social proof: it is based on the natural tendency of human beings to more easily accept something already approved by others. Whatever it is, a product or an idea, group thinking has a very strong influence on the process of acceptance by a person. In this sense, Asch Salomon’s paradigm could be useful: it was born of a series of experiments on conformity conducted by psychologist Asch in the 1950s. These experiments tested the way individuals responded to group-think, and to what also extent social pressure could push a person to conform.
- Authority: generally we tend to follow people who have a certain authority more willingly, even if we don’t completely agree with them. In short, the characteristics of charm, power, and authority play a definite role in the process of acceptance by other persons.
- Linking: As explained above, naturally we will like more those people who appreciate our work, who share certain interests with us and who pursue goals similar to our own.
- Scarcity: Generally when something is offered as limited, it not only increases its value but also the desire to have it. In other words, less there is the availability of that thing (principle of uniqueness), the more the value perceived by the human being increases (just think of the charm of limited editions on the buyer).
- Unity: this principle is based on the sense of belonging. More specifically it acts on the natural predisposition of the human being to feel good, not judged, accepted, within a community that he or she perceives as familiar or similar in interests.
As you can guess, the Cialdini’s statements could be very useful to those who intend to pursue a specific goal through by overcoming the target’s critical barriers.
“These cognitive shorthands are especially needed when individuals haven’t the inclination or wherewithal to engage in more mindful message processing”.
After explaining the techniques and precautions that can be put into practice during the conversation, the elicitation process can be summarized in three main points:
- Active listening and understanding: useful to understand the target’s needs, feelings, gestures, “hot words” and meaning systems.
- Evaluation: the best techniques, comments, or answers to use respect not only what has been studied previously but also to what is happening during the conversation.
- Put into practice: by attitudes, silences, words and sentences as clear as possible. Even in this phase, the agent’s critical process must not be put aside. In fact, the questions he must ask himself during the conversation are many:
- Is the answer clear?
- It is complete?
- What did my contact mean?
- How did the interlocutor react to my answer?
- Should I stop or continue?
Finally, another topic to discuss is that of counter-elicitation: the situation in which the agent or a simple employee must defend themselves from the principles previously described. In other words, it is a counter-tactical defense against hostile principles of elicitation.
First of all, they must know what are the cardinal principles of the elicitation, the probable intentions of the enemy while, at the same time, trying to protect the information they consider very sensitive. it is a complex chess game: each player, in addition to studying where to place bait, must predict the movements of his opponent, if he wants to win the competition.
Those involved in strategic communication, within the battlefields, know very well how much the behavior of the other matters in these cases:
“To influence or change a behavior, PSYOP Soldiers must first understand that behavior. While identifying conditions, the PSYOP Soldiers are focused on trying to understand why the target is behaving the way it is (not engaging in the desired behavior) by looking at the causes and effects of the current behavior”.
Sometimes, elicitation attempts can be simple or even obvious, other times instead, they can be imaginative, persistent, and difficult to perceive and counter. For this reason, it is important to know a series of targeted counter-eliciting strategies such as the following:
- Make use of limited responses: these must be just enough to make a meaningful sentence. In this way, the enemy is forced to ask increasingly specific questions (which, step by step, could clearly show what his objective is). In addition to that, thanks to this strategy is sometimes possible to push him or her toward an uncomfortable zone. A good agent knows that he cannot carry out an interrogation, for this reason, he will prefer to abandon the conversation to design a different plan.
- Build a mental palace: a perimeter of well-defined words and thoughts on which to move easily during the conversation. In this condition, the person will appear less hostile to the agent’s elicitation strategies while continuing to force him, in some way, to expose himself and his aim.
- Pretend not to know: in some circumstances, especially to defend against more aggressive elicitation strategies, claiming you don’t know something is the best way to win the confrontation. The trick is not to fall into the trap of provocation. Sometimes in this case, giving a reason to your opponent could be another strategy to use.
- Lead the conversation: it is useful to take possession of the conversation. In general, even if your contact wants to talk about something or forces you to do it in some ways, this doesn’t mean that you have to follow him: it will be enough to find some ways, strategies or answers to direct the conversation into something else.
- Answer a question with a question: deflecting a question with one of your own, an example would be “Why do you ask?”
- Define a comfort zone as neutral as possible: avoid harsh opinions, uncomfortable positions or too closed attitudes. Feeling comfortable is crucial to not giving much information. In reverse, do not say something, then try to hide it, which can already be a clue to our enemy. For this reason, the person must try to appear very natural and spontaneous, also through the use of irony. Especially in some uncomfortable circumstances, a sarcastic joke can help you not lose control of the situation.
As seen in the previous pages, elicitation is a powerful technique used to discreetly gather information
it can be used, in any field, by anyone who intends to appropriate information of a certain type. In this sense, everyone must be aware of what is going on during even a simple chat. Especially those companies that are strategic for state interests, should organize training courses for their employees. Alongside the cyber threat is the human one. If at this moment you are thinking of have suffered the principles of elicitation at work, report it to your manager.
What is described in this article is a very complex strategy that obviously cannot be fully explained in these few pages. It requires a study of innumerable variables which, in addition to changing from case to case, most of the time, are difficult to evaluate or simply predict. In fact, alongside simpler forms of human interactions in terms of strategic and tactical planning, other very complex ones require advanced strategic consideration and tactical processing skills. Especially, if we consider that the elicitation strategy can be applied to any means of communication overcoming, in this sense, the constraint of physical presence.
From the point of view of human intelligence, it has the fascinating power to deal with people and their complexity, for this reason nothing should be left to chance.
Especially in this information age, there is a strong need to work on the awareness of human beings, in any fields, through these main points:
- The true value of the information;
- How to defuse them;
- Know what information must not be shared;
- How to be sensitive to information theft techniques;
- How to remedy the problem once you have fallen into the trap.
As has been said many times, the purpose of this study is to analyze and make available to everyone a topic – that of elicitation – often mentioned in many studies but seldom really studied in depth.
- Anatol Valerian Itten, “Overcoming social division: conflict resolution in times of polarization and democratic disconnection”,2018.
- Barbara Pease, Allan Pease, “The definitive book of body language”, Bantam, 2006.
- Bhatt, Brandon and Kleinman, “Justice”, 2010 p.11.
- Daniel Kahneman, “Thinking, fast and slow”, Penguin, 2012.
- FM 3-5.301 (FM 33-1-1), “Psychological Operation Tactics, Techniques and Procedures”, Headquarters, Department of the Army, December 2003.
- Frank Stopa, “The human skills: Elicitation and interviewing”, second edition.
- Hayden J.Power, “Comunicazione persuasiva”, Trilogia (Persuasione,manipolazione mentale e linguaggio del corpo),2020.
- Herbert Simons, “Persuasion in society”, Sage publication pag 136.
- Marco Iacobini, “Mirroring people: the science of empathy and how we connect with others”, Picador USA.
- Par A. Granhag, Sebastian C. Montecinos and Simon Oleszkiewicz, “Eliciting intelligence from sources: The first scientific test of the Scharff technique” Department of Psychology, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.
- Pietro Orizio, “Elicitazione, interrogatori e torture: approcci diversi per l’intelligence”, AnalisiDifesa, 2018.
- Roberto Cialdini,”Le armi della persuasione”, Giunti, 2013.
- Roberto Rasia Dal Polo, “I trucchi della comunicazione efficace: dall’ascolto ai neuroni specchio, come vedersi al meglio”, Jouvence, 2018.
- S. Department of justice, “Elicitation”, Federal Bureau investigation.
 Bhatt, Brandon and Kleinman, “Justice”, 2010 p.11.
 Anatol Valerian Itten, “Overcoming social division: conflict resolution in times of polarization and democratic disconnection”,2018.
 Par A. Granhag, Sebastian C. Montecinos and Simon Oleszkiewicz, “Eliciting intelligence from sources: The first scientific test of the Scharff technique” Department of Psychology, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.
 Marco Iacobini, “Mirroring people: the science of empathy and how we connect with others”, Picador USA.
 U.S. Department of justice, “Elicitation”, Federal Bureau investigation.
 Frank Stopa, “The human skills: Elicitation and interviewing”, second edition.
 Herbert W. Simons, “Persuasion in society”, Sage publication pag 136.
 FM 3-5.301 (FM 33-1-1), “Psychological Operation Tactics, Techniques and Procedures”, Headquarters, Department of the Army, December 2003.
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