How to Get Someone to Tell You Their Secrets, According to an Investigative Journalist

How to Get Someone to Tell You Their Secrets, According to an Investigative Journalist
Photo: Standret, Shutterstock

There’s no harm in being a little curious. You don’t want to be known as a gossip, but you can still have a healthy interest in the goings-on of other people’s lives — if you can earn their trust (and keep it). Whether you want to get people to open up to you to deepen your personal relationships or it’s a requirement for your job, there are a few tips to keep in mind.

Start the conversation without demanding openness

For this how-to, we turned to a journalist who’s known for getting people to reveal sensitive insider information. Out of respect for past sources and an interest in cultivating future ones, he asked to remain anonymous, but he gave out some great advice.

“Ask them something personal about themselves,” he said, advising that it’s better to get to know someone and let them talk about themselves before you push for anything more intense. Say you’re on a date with someone and you want to know why their last relationship ended. That’s not a question you want to lead with. You’d ask more general questions first, wouldn’t you?

No one is going to get super deep with someone they don’t yet feel comfortable with. They need to share the small stuff first — and you need to share your small stuff, too. Ask questions about their life, interests, and goals, then tell them about yours. Opening up is personal and uniquely human. If you act like a gossip-loving robot, you won’t get anywhere.

That being said, the journalist also noted it’s important not to interrupt someone once they start spilling. Don’t counter everything they say with your own similar stories or interject constantly with questions or comments. Whatever your end goal, this conversation is about giving them (and the information they’re holding onto that you want to know) centre stage.

Be empathetic and responsive

“Always express empathy,” the journalist said. Remember the basics of that interpersonal communications class you took in college: Communicating is about not only receiving messages, but giving feedback.

If you’re talking in person, make eye contact. If you’re talking over the phone, make sure you signal that you’re listening, even with a few “mm-hmm”s. Revealing sensitive information is already uncomfortable, but revealing it to someone who isn’t giving any kind of response in the moment is downright eerie.

Imagine you and a friend had a fight as a result of a miscommunication. You want them to open up to you about how they really feel about what happened. If they’re baring their soul to you but you’re not nodding, responding, or indicating you understand where they’re coming from, they’re going to be mighty put off. They might think you’re still mad, that you don’t like their explanation, or that you straight-up don’t care — even if none of those things are true. You have to give to get, in life and in communication.

Even if your job requires getting people to open up about difficult topics — say you work in human resources or the billing department of a hospital — you don’t need to stay totally buttoned-up and professional while prying. If someone is telling you why they couldn’t pay their bills on time and the story is sad, say you understand. “Always express empathy” is simply good advice.

Be patient with the person

“Allow them to take their time, especially if it’s a sensitive subject,” advised the journalist. If you rush someone or question them too indelicately, you’ll give the impression you don’t care about the weight of the information or the consequences they might face for opening up to you. If someone is telling you about a past trauma or a current struggle, it could be really hard for them to let you in on those secrets. Respect that. If they don’t seem like they want to continue, drop it — at least for the time being. You have a better chance of getting more information later if you don’t freak them out with impatience and impersonality early on.

“Give them their space and some time,” said our reporter. “Allow them to tell their story.”

If the information you’re after is a deeply-held secret, it could be difficult to reveal, especially if it’s based in some kind of trauma. Don’t give this person even more trauma just because you’re nosy.

Ultimately, be a person: kind, gentle, and trustworthy. It can take some time to prove that you can be trusted, so don’t expect dates, new friends, coworkers, or even people you’ve known a long time to open up until they’ve established that you are decent and dependable.

And once you do get them to open up, don’t betray their trust. Keep their secrets. If something is confidential, keep it confidential. If something is off the record, keep it off the record. You’ll get a nasty reputation if you break someone’s trust — and you might never get it back.

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