Part Two | “I feel like this is going to be an insult…”
In the second excerpt of our four-part series interviewing an ex-CIA operative, we talk more about gaining trust with an asset, minding our own weaknesses and how every ego has three lives… If you missed part one, you can catch up here.
I feel like this is going to be an insult…
Ruby: Even when I’m interviewing - and I would never try it on you to be clear - I know there is an element of play that has to come into it. You have to make that person comfortable to tell you lots of things. Quite a lot of people will say, ‘I’ve never told anybody this,’ and I take that as a great compliment within our work. I like to exchange stuff with people, so they’re not just telling me things, but there’s an equal exchange….
Agent: That exchanging that you do naturally, there’s a term for that at The Agency: it’s called elicitation.
Ruby: I feel like this is going to be an insult. Is elicitation a good thing?
Agent: If you haven’t looked it up, that’s the skill that you’re using. There are multiple techniques for elicitation, and one of those techniques is known as “give to get”, and that’s exactly what you just said you do. You give to get. That is a common “give to get” elicitation technique.
Ruby: Well, it’s also polite in my mind, but maybe that’s me being British… So, how do you make these decisions? How do you find out what someone’s motivations are and how to use them?
Agent: It’s a process that we call “assessment” at The Agency. Human assessment.
The person asking the questions is in control.
Ruby: And what are the steps in that assessment process?
Agent: There are multiple steps in that process, but it really boils down to simply understanding the power of a question. We mistakenly believe that the person who talks the most is the person that’s in control of a conversation, but that’s not true.
Agent: The person asking the questions is the person in control. That’s the person who determines where the conversation goes next, what topics get opened, and which ones get shut down. Subconsciously, the person answering the questions feels like they are important or that they are interesting and that they are valued…
Ruby: It’s about looking for the similarities and not the differences, about identifying…
Agent: That’s a super-powerful lesson in terms of behavioral management of human beings. If you want to control a human being, you look for similarities first because you can assume that they are looking for differences first. The thing that’s so powerful about spy skills in everyday life, there is a legitimate benefit when you can teach people how to take an unfair advantage. They all say they want equality and equal opportunity and for everything to be fair, but what we’re really wanting in our secret life is [to make] something unfair. We’re all wondering, ‘How do I get ahead?’.
I’m trying to give my children a completely different childhood to mine…
Ruby: Can I ask what your weaknesses are because you come across as pretty` self-actualized? I’m sure you and your wife [who was also in the CIA - RP] know what your own personal weaknesses are so you could protect them, but what are the weaknesses you have to watch for in yourself still?
Agent: You know my foundational fear is not seeing my kids grow up. Not just family, but specific to my children. I know my foundational fear and it springs from my own history without a father and my own history of living under an alpha female who I was constantly trying to please because the only way I was able to experience love was by pleasing her to the point where she wanted to show me some affection.
Ruby: Which makes you extra committed to your children…
Agent: I understand that the reason I’m so committed to my children is because I’m trying to give them a completely different childhood from the one that I had.
Ruby: And that becomes volatile?
Agent: Yeah. The place where that becomes a massive weakness and that I always have to watch out for is every time I come across someone who has a similar childhood experience to me… I have to hold back the subjective conclusion that they are like me; smart, driven, enthusiastic, ambitious, etc. I project my values onto somebody else just because they didn’t have a dad or had a tiger mom. And that is a stupid thing to do because people come from the same background all the time and never carry any of the same values as me. That’s a weakness that I have to constantly manage because it’s so easy to hear or see a similarity in someone and project your own strengths onto them. Suddenly you’re setting them up to fail because you’re setting an expectation.
Ruby: I guess it’s because it’s such an emotional, subjective thing. You think it inherently brings them to the same place where you are.
Agent: It’s inherently inefficient because you might be dealing with someone who had a perfect family, who had a perfect mom and dad that loved them very much and that person has all of your values, but you write them off as someone who doesn’t have the same background...
Status doesn’t matter, what matters is ego…
Ruby: I understand that you play off motivations to manipulate and how fear comes into it, but how does status come into it?
Agent: I’m going to change the word from status to ego because status doesn’t really matter. What matters is ego.
Ruby: Well, I would say they’re inextricably linked, but okay…
Agent: Ego is what really defines how a person wants to be seen, and this is another one of those awesome areas where normal common people don’t understand what ego really is. Culture and media make you think that ego is “egotistical” or that people are pompous or proud. No. Ego is anything that has to do with you deliberately portraying yourself a certain way. The demure housewife that is very obedient and honorific to her husband, that’s her ego at work. That’s how she wants to be seen and how she wants to appear. She might be popping Xanax every night just to keep that going, but that’s her ego as much as a narcissistic attorney who is out there robbing money from good people.
Ruby: It’s all ego…
Agent: It’s all ego, and it's very important when it comes to developing and assessing a human being, but what’s important is that you understand what their ego is and what the image is that they want to portray.
Ruby: I get that, yeah…
There are three lives behind every ego…
Agent: There are three lives behind every ego, and we talk about this often at the agency. There’s your public life, your private life, and then your secret life.
Agent: Your public and private life gets a lot of air time. Your public life is just how you want people to see you. If you’re a cutthroat attorney, you always want people to see you with your hair always perfect and your makeup on and you’ve got your designer shoes. That’s not who you are, it’s just your public life.
Ruby: And in the private life?
Agent: In your private life, that’s where you have things that only your closest inner circle understand. That’s where people know you have IBS or your family has a history of breast cancer and you’re terrified of one day having a mastectomy. You have some exposed vulnerability to the people who know you best. Your wife knows that you’re not actually a dickhead cutthroat attorney and that you’re actually a very caring husband and father and you unleash this cutthroat person to make sure your family never suffers. That’s your private life, and people understand your private life when they’re close to you.
Ruby: And so, the secret life?
Agent: Well, there’s a secret life underneath that, that people don’t talk about. Even your closest circle doesn’t know the truth. That’s the stuff you’re so embarrassed or so ashamed of, the stuff that you may not have processed yourself, whether that’s “my dad didn’t love me enough” or maybe “I lost my mother before I knew who she was so now I don’t really understand relationships between men and women.” That’s all your secret life.
Our goal at The Agency is to break into your secret life
Ruby: And how does that work for The Agency?
Agent: Our goal as field operatives is to cut through the public life, get accepted into the private life, and then break into your secret life. If we can get into the secret life, then suddenly we’re not competing against anybody there. There are still husbands and wives and girlfriends in the private life, but if you can get into someone’s secret life, no one else is there. It’s just you and the person.
Ruby: That seems to be beyond ego then if it’s not something you share, it seems to get more into self-esteem than ego stuff. I say that because knowing someone’s fear and knowing that you want to validate someone so that they lean on you seems related to self-esteem in the end….
Agent: Self-esteem requires self-actualization. If someone is not self-actualized, they’re not aware of their esteem stack. The best person you want to target and steal secrets from is the person who is in denial or unaware of their own self-esteem issues. That’s the person you want.
Ruby: And what about working with a person that is self-aware?
Agent: If you run into someone that’s too self-aware, it’s going to be a waste of your time....
Up next: Part Three, where we learn more about his life inside and outside the CIA…