In the previous two Persuasion articles we looked at how using psycholinguistics can get people to agree to bad deals or stop office drama, and how to succeed in persuading people by phone (which is much harder.) Here I’m going to focus on getting people to confess things they’ve done wrong or give you important information they’re hiding. This can be useful when you’re dealing with other companies or organisations.
Getting them to talk
This is where most of us go wrong. We get angry and demand that a co-worker admit what they’ve done wrong, or we probe an organisation with lists of questions. This interrogative strategy will never work (or at least you’ll never be in a situation where it could work for you. Unless you’re a cop.) Getting people to talk means just that- let them drone on. Someone I once knew said “Silence can be the best tool in getting information.” This is what journalists do when they’re not under a time constraint; they act chatty and interested. This was Sacha Baron Cohen’s strategy in Borat; he acted like he agreed with bigots so that they would reveal their hatred. There’s no need to act like you agree with someone as it’s a bit unethical, but letting the person do most of the talking and asking questions at key moments is a great idea. The more they talk, the more you’ll know what questions to ask them.
Let them talk you out of pursuing it
It sounds crazy, but this works. Why? Imagine a company has misrepresented what you agreed on in a meeting or has broken a deal. You phone or meet with them demanding they change the minutes or meet the contract terms. They will try to persuade you that they’re not wrong or at least play down what they’ve done and talk you out of pursuing the matter through legal action or whatever way you might pursue it. They’ll be focused on talking you out of it and if you act like you’re open to letting the matter lie, they will fall for it. Imagine their excuse is “We’re really sorry, we tried to do the right thing but sadly X occurred.” Act like you’re clarifying their excuses by repeating a portion of their excuse by saying “Oh, so that’s why you broke our deal- X happened! And you did Y”. They’ll admit to doing Y without realising or caring, because they want you to swallow their excuse. If you keep doing this for every excuse they make throughout the meeting or phone call, you’ll amass a lot of info that all together could be an important confession (or prevent them changing their story later). And of course once they admit to doing Y, you can get them to admit to doing Z by asking more questions about Y, and so on.
Offer to drop it
Music to their ears! Of course, you’ll need an ultimatum. Say you’ll drop it if they can explain one thing or answer one question (or make a written apology). You can make this sound trivial by acting like it’s a mere formality; for example that your manager would be annoyed with you if you couldn’t come back to her with an explanation of why it happened. Your speech and relaxed body language should convey that you feel the matter is effectively over, and want to wrap up this tedious discussion quickly before heading back. This works best if it’s done as a last resort, but it can work in the middle of the discussion too; if it fails, just go back to being silently interested, being chatty or letting them talk you out of it. A related move is pretending that you want to end the matter behind your boss’s back (if he doesn’t want to end it).
Remember how I said that interrogative styles of questioning don’t work outside of police stations and films? Well, it has worked for me against a public organisation in getting them to finally admit to their misconduct- BUT it must be used carefully to work. Everyone gets offended, defensive and hyper-alert when they know they are being challenged or interrogated. That’s why politicians get flustered or annoyed when journalists use this style. You should never use the interrogative style until all others have been exhausted, and that includes appealing to someone’s ethics, or any other ways of pleading with them to give you the information or (if it is ethical to do so) tricking them into giving it. The interrogative style is difficult to do properly and is best accomplished in conjunction with a confident tone and mocking, e.g. by asking them if they want to change their story or critiquing how good they are at lying to you. (You can even praise how good at it they are, as this tends to annoy your opponent.) The purpose of all this is certainly not to have a laugh at their expense; it’s to make them annoyed because annoyed and surprised people lose focus and let things slip. That’s why you should remain calm and never let yourself get angry when they try to distract you, lie to you or talk you out of pursuing the matter.
All the above techniques require confidence and remaining calm and focused. They also require not becoming distracted or persuaded by your opponent. And some acting skill is a plus in those situations. Therefore, these tips will only be helpful to you in proportion to your abilities. It is your responsibility to behave ethically and use these pointers responsibly. These tips should only be used on those with similar or more privileges and authority than yourself; they are not intended to be used in situations where there is an unequal power dynamic.