The Art of Elicitation (Part 1): Get Answers Without Asking Questions

People often hesitate to answer direct questions, especially when the questions probe sensitive topics. Elicitation techniques encourage people to reveal sensitive information without asking questions. In many cases, people do not realize that they are divulging closely held information. This is the first in a 5 part series in which I will present powerful elicitation techniques that can be applied in professional environments, social settings, and with your kids.

The presumptive

The presumptive presents a fact that can either be right or wrong. People have an innate need to correct others. If the presumptive is correct, people will affirm the fact and often provide additional information. If the presumptive is wrong, people will provide the correct answer usually accompanied by a detailed explanation. The presumptive can be a question disguised as a statement by lowering your voice at the end of the sentence.

Recently, I wanted to buy my wife a piece of jewelry, but I did not want to pay retail. In order to negotiate the best price, I had to know the markup on the jewelry in the store where I was going to make the purchase and the clerk’s commission, if any. For obvious reasons, this information is closely held. I knew if I asked direct questions, I would not get the answers I needed to negotiate for the best price so, I used elicitation.

Clerk: May I help you?

Me: Yes, I’m looking for a diamond pendant for my wife.

Clerk: We have lots of those. Let me show what we have.

(The clerk handed me a pendant. I look intently at the pendant)

Me: How much is this?

Clerk: $190.

Me: Woooo, the markup must be at least 150 percent. (Presumptive)

Clerk: No. It’s only 50 percent.

Me: And then your 10 percent commission. (Presumptive)

Clerk: Not that much. I only get 5 percent.

Me: I suppose you don’t have the authority to discount. (Presumptive)

Clerk: I am authorized to give a 10 percent discount. Anything after that, the manager has to approve.

(At this point, I could either take the 10 percent discount or press further. In today’s poor economic conditions, I suspected the manager would be willing to give me a further discount, if he still made a profit.)

Me: Ask the manager if he will sell this piece at 40 percent discount.

(I waited patiently as the clerk went into the back room. She returned a few minutes later.)

Clerk: He said the best he can do is 30 percent if you pay cash.

Me: It’s a present for my wife. (Presumptive)

Clerk: No problem. I’ll gift wrap it for you.

(I not only saved $57, but I got gift wrapping too!)

In this case, using elicitation instead of direct questions yielded valuable information. The markup on the jewelry is 50 percent and the clerk’s commission is 5 percent, which allowed me to negotiate with confidence. If I did not want to negotiate, I could have taken the automatic 10 percent discount for a savings of $19. Had the clerk not divulged this information, I would have paid full price. Based on the clerk’s behavior, she did not realize that she revealed closely held information.

The following example demonstrates how parents can use elicitation to obtain sensitive information for their kids. When using the presumptive with your kids, you should always have an escape clause. An escape clause allows you to retreat without losing parental authority. If the presumptive is off the mark or the reaction from your teen is overly defensive, you can back off to avoid an unnecessary confrontation. Consider the following exchange:

Dad: Good morning.

Son: Morning.

Dad: Where did you go last night?

Son: Nowhere.

Dad: I noticed mud on your truck. Looks like you’ve been down by the river. That’s where a lot of people go to drink. (Presumptive)

Son: Are you accusing me of drinking and driving?

Dad: No.

Son: I wouldn’t take that kind of risk. If I get caught drinking and driving, I won’t get into med school. It’s not worth it.

Dad: I’m not accusing you of anything. I’m just remembering when I was your age. Back then a lot of kids went to the river to drink. (Escape clause)

Son: Oh.

The son corrected his dad’s presumptive and provided a good reason why he would not drink and drive. However, he did not say he does not drink or that he may be a passenger in a car driven by one of his friends, who may or may not drink and drive. That topic should be further explored at another time. Notwithstanding, the dad obtained information from his son that he probably would not have divulged under direct questioning. 

Fibs to Facts: A Parental Guide to Effective Communication contains additional elicitation techniques for parents.

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