People in clandestine service, commonly called spies, use special techniques to collect information. The purpose of collecting information is to have enough facts -- and an understanding of how they fit together -- to make decisions and take action. The techniques fall into two basic categories: information collected directly from people (human intelligence, or HUMINT) and information collected by taking secret photographs, eavesdropping, satellite images and many other means. This article focuses on one type of collection that you can do legally in your business environment: HUMINT.
Identify the person who has the information you need, and go where that person goes. You may want to know more about a person, an event, a process or a plan related to your work. Figure out the person or people most likely to have the information and put yourself in the same environment. That could be a break room, reception at a conference, a restaurant, or even the restroom. Your goal is to gain proximity and take advantage of that to start a conversation.
Ask questions and listen. The status of a project may offer an opportunity for you, for example. Ask relaxed questions to get the person talking and then take the exchange toward the information you want. Step through the questions in a logical, yet casual, manner. For example, "Joe seems exhausted" might launch a sequence that leads to "He's sure putting in a lot of overtime." That could lead to the information you want on the status of the project: "Yes, he's pushing to beat the timetable so everyone on the project can get a bonus." Your friendly, apparently spontaneous conversation builds rapport; your questions steer the conversation to the information you seek.
Look for signs of stress. The person's body language, which includes tone of voice, will provide clues as to whether or not the person feels comfortable with you in the conversation. When a topic evokes signs of stress, such as a quickening of speech, turning away slightly, creating a barrier by adopting a closed body posture, or going behind a table, then move off the topic. Free flow of information comes after establishing trust and a sense of mutual comfort.
Watch for the body language of trust. The information you seek may fall in the category of "secret" to the person or persons you have targeted. If the signs of "it's a secret" show up -- a hushed tone of voice and restrained movement -- then mirror the body language to indicate "I understand this goes no further."
Use a quid pro quo strategy. When someone offers a bit of confidential or personal information, reinforce the perception of mutual trust by offering similar information. What you say need not, and should not, break a confidence with someone else. The information should simply have interest, and perhaps value, to the other person. This is the kind of conversation that characterizes successful exchanges in many professional environments. In fact, in a 1959 paper originally labeled "Confidential" CIA field officer Anthony Czajkowski talks about techniques of intelligence collection that use skills of salesman, psychologist and reporter.
Reinforce the relationship with the source by interacting in multiple environments. After an initial conversation or two in the break room, for example, do things such as exchange emails and go out for coffee. You have targeted this person as a source of useful information, but you have done so in a way that has built the foundation of a relationship. Honor that; spies do, and that has traditionally been their greatest success in the field.
These are relationship-building skills and should be honored as such. Do not use them to exploit someone, and then act as though you never met the person after getting the information you sought. If a spy used these skills and then cast sources aside, he or she would quickly become persona non grata. That is potentially a deadly mistake in the field, and in terms of your career, it is potentially a deadly mistake in business.