Secrets to Get What You Want Out of Life

Use elicitation to obtain sensitive information.

Posted Oct 12, 2020

Iacob Bogdan-Forin/123RF
Source: Iacob Bogdan-Forin/123RF

Everybody wants the best out of life — best business deals, best shopping deals, best relationships. Getting the best out of life requires you to acquire the information you need to make the best decisions on how to get what you want. In many instances, the information you need remains a secret to only a few individuals.

The first step to getting the best out of life is to identify the people who possess or are likely to possess the information you need. The second step requires you to obtain the desired information without alerting that person to your intent. The last step is to use the information to your advantage. This process is called elicitation. Elicitation is the art of directing a conversation to obtain the secret information you need to get the best out of life.

Elicitation techniques are relatively easy to master because they are based on normal behaviors people rely on during conversations. These techniques involve a conversational style whereby you use words in a way that encourages people to reveal the truth without them becoming aware of what you are attempting to accomplish. Over my career as a Special Agent with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Program, I developed several elicitation techniques designed to surreptitiously glean sensitive information.

The following example illustrates several elicitation techniques. My son wanted to buy a car. He was in his early twenties and did not have a lot of money to spend. He came to me and asked me how to get the best deal on a new car.

I remembered a conversation I had with a car salesperson at a conference I attended. I joined the salesperson at dinner and elicited hidden information about how to get the best deal when buying a car. Buyers who possess this special knowledge will get the best price for a new car.

Car salespeople are not going to tell you what I am about to reveal. Remember, the dealership is out to get as much as they can from car buyers. A portion of the conversation went as follows.

           Me: Selling cars must be a tough way to make a living. (Presumptive Statement)

[The presumptive statement presents a fact that can be either right or wrong. If the presumptive turns out to be correct, people will affirm the fact and often provide additional information. If the presumptive is incorrect, people will typically provide the correct answer, usually accompanied by a detailed explanation.]

           Salesperson: It’s not so bad once you figure out how things work.

           Me: Sounds like you know all the tricks of the trade. (Presumptive Statement)

           Salesperson: I know a few tricks.  

           Me: Well, with the high markup on new cars, you only have to sell a few cars a week to earn a living.

           Salesperson: A few cars a day is more like it.

           Me: Wow, that’s a lot of cars. (Feigned Disbelief)

[A mere expression of disbelief will often result in further enlightenment when it comes to eliciting the truth. Statements such as “You’re kidding! Really?” or “That can’t be true” puts the targeted subject in a position of defending his or her statement. In doing so, information of value can be revealed.]

           Salesperson: It’s not how many cars you sell. It’s the profit you make on each sale.

           Me: So, there’s a lot of wiggle room on the price. (Presumptive Statement)

           Salesperson: The only number that counts is the price the dealership paid for the car. No salesperson will show you that invoice.

           Me: So, you are telling me there’s more than one invoice. (Presumptive Statement)

           Salesperson: Most car buyers think the factory invoice is the lowest price a dealer will sell a car for. That’s not true. I sell hundreds of cars under factory invoice. Here’s how it works. There’s the MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price), the price the manufacturer sets for a car, and then there’s the factory invoice. The factory invoice is supposed to be the price the dealer paid to get the car on the lot. The difference between the factory invoice and the MSRP is supposed to represent the profit the dealer makes. This is just an illusion.”

           Me: An illusion. (Word Echo)

[The word echo technique repeats the last word or two of what the person said. The repetition of words encourages people to elaborate further on the topic they are talking about.] 

           Salesperson: Yeah. Dealers get a lot of hidden perks. Let me give you an example of how a typical sales exchange goes. I tell the buyer, “Look at the factory invoice price. We’re only making a few hundred dollars on the car if we sell the car at the price you want to pay. You’re getting almost 1500 dollars off the MSRP.” The buyer typically replies, “Oh, so, there’s nothing more you can really do with the price.” My answer is, “Exactly. You know you’re getting a good deal on this car, and we’re making a few dollars on the deal.” The buyer walks away thinking they got a terrific deal. Not so. What the buyer doesn’t know is that the dealer gets a holdback.

           Me: A holdback. (Word Echo)

           Salesperson: Yeah. The manufacturer created the holdback to help dealers offset administrative costs. The holdback artificially increases the dealership’s cost on paper. The typical holdback is between 1 percent and 3 percent. That means a 3 percent holdback on a $38,000 vehicle is $1,140. On top of the difference between the factory invoice and the MSRP, the dealership makes an additional $1,140.

           Me: Wow, that’s unbelievable. (Feigned Disbelief)

           Salesperson: That’s only the beginning.  

My conversation with the car salesperson went on for another 45 minutes. I learned a lot and I didn’t ask nary a question. By using a few elicitation techniques, I was able to obtain sensitive information my son could use when he negotiated for his new car. In the end, my son felt good because he drove a new car off the lot, and he was confident that he got the best deal possible. 

Elicitation is a powerful technique to reveal the truth. For more information about elicitation and additional elicitation techniques, refer to The Truth Detector: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide for Getting People to Reveal the Truth.