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Volume 19, Issue 49;   December 4, 2019: Implicit Interrogation Tactics

Implicit Interrogation Tactics


When one person tries surreptitiously to extract information from another at work, an implicit interrogation is taking place. Here are seven tactics that people use to interrogate others without revealing what they're doing.
Benches at the beach

Two park benches at the beach. The setting for an implicit interrogation need not be an office or conference room. In some sense, the more unusual the setting, the less likely is the implicit interrogation to be recognized as such. This particular setting probably isn't the best, because it's so isolated. A setting with more people might be much better.

In the workplace, we use formal interrogations as components of investigations to determine whether or to what extent organizational policy has been violated. As we discussed last time, fairness is a goal of formal interrogations. The process is sanctioned by the organization and policies govern how they're conducted. For example, the person being interrogated knows that an interrogation is underway, and the organization might even provide assistance and advice to him or her. "Interview" might be a better term for the process.

But there's another form of workplace interrogation — one for which the term "interview" fits not at all well. I call it implicit interrogation because the person interrogated — whom I've been calling "Reese" (R for Responder) is rarely aware that an interrogation is underway. In implicit interrogations, the person seeking information — whom I've been calling "Alex" (A for Asker) — takes steps to conceal the interrogation, or failing that, to conceal the objective of the interrogation. When an implicit interrogation is well executed, Reese remains ignorant of what information Alex was seeking, and indeed, unaware that an implicit interrogation is happening.

In this The essence of implicit interrogation
is deceptive inquiry into what
a person knows or doesn't know
part of our exploration of implicit interrogation we describe seven examples of tactics and strategies the interrogator (Alex) can employ to obtain the desired information with a low probability of the respondent (Reese) recognizing that an interrogation has occurred. I'll also use the name Incident to denote the situation that is the subject of the Implicit Interrogation. By a coin flip, I determined that Alex is female and Reese male.

Choice of interrogator
Before the interrogation begins, those who seek the information must choose an interrogator. If Reese has a trusting relationship with someone among the people who want the information, then that trusted person will usually be the designated Alex. Otherwise, someone else Reese trusts will be recruited for the role of Alex.
If Reese notices that someone (Alex) with whom he ordinarily has little contact is suddenly interested in spending time together, and if Reese is aware that he knows something about the Incident, he would do well to approach with caution any conversations with Alex. Such a change in Alex's behavior could be an indicator that an implicit interrogation is underway.
Casual setting
To allay Reese's fears and to prevent him from suspecting that an interrogation is in process, Alex will choose a casual setting for their conversation — one that's familiar to Reese. The setting will be public, but it will be one in which they have "enterprise privacy" — no one from the organization is likely to be able to overhear their conversation. Examples: restaurants, cafes, or perhaps a walk outside on a nice day. Alex will adopt a casual demeanor, or she might even appear to be distracted by the scenery, the menu, or the food or drink.
Disclosing a "confidence"
By disclosing a confidence, Alex hopes to build Reese's trust in Alex. Such disclosure creates a pseudo-conspiracy between Alex and Reese. A naïve Reese will experience this conspiracy as power over Alex, because Reese would then be in a position to report to someone that Alex has disclosed the confidence. Confidences used in this way are rarely of any value. Although they might be secrets unknown to Reese, they're likely well known in the circles in which Alex travels.
Asking for advice
Alex can ask Reese for advice on a topic Reese regards as within his area of expertise. Alex might or might not actually need the requested advice — that isn't the point of the request. The point of the request is flattery. By flattering Reese, Alex hopes to further assuage any uneasiness on Reese's part.
Similarly, Alex can ask Reese to assess a situation or the performance of another person. Being asked for his views about a person or a matter not normally within his span of responsibility can induce in Reese a sense that his opinion matters, which can cause Reese to speculate that Alex respects his views and might be able to help advance Reese's career. Alex's purpose is to flatter Reese and distract him from the extraordinary nature of the interactions taking place in the context of the implicit interrogation.
Masking conversation and questions
At some point in the conversation, to elicit the information she seeks, Alex might need to ask Reese a direct question. To limit the probability that Reese might recognize that question, Alex can include it among other questions, conversation, and banter. For example, if Alex wants to know whether Don attended the afternoon session of the conference call, she might ask about Don only after asking about Cole and before asking about Ellie.
Making intentional misstatements
Maneuvering Reese into volunteering information is another technique for concealing that an implicit interrogation is taking place. One technique for doing this is to make an intentional misstatement, hoping that Reese will correct it. For example, to determine whether Don attended the afternoon session of the conference call, Alex might say, "I heard that Don was out at the client site yesterday and missed the conference call. How did it go without him?"
Changing the subject suddenly
Swift and sudden changes of subject can indicate an attempt to distract from whatever has just been said. Perhaps Alex felt that her previous statement was revealing, or perhaps Reese provided her with a piece of critical information, and she no longer needs to pursue the previous thread. Or perhaps Reese said or did something (or didn't say or didn't do something) that Alex interpreted as revealing that Reese might have grasped that an implicit interrogation is taking place. In any case, Alex probably wants to distract attention from the previous point.

Certainly there are dozens more of these ploys. Whether they work by building trust or by deception, the goal is the same: make Reese comfortable enough to tell what he knows without arousing his suspicions. Implicit interrogation is therefore at or beyond the bounds of ethical behavior. If you find yourself conducting such an exercise, reconsideration might be in order. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect  Next Issue

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