Political Intelligence

by Don Morley and David Bancroft-Turner

Communicating – the first key skill

Communication skills are comprehensively covered elsewhere in this resource (Rapport, Listening Skills, Questioning Skills, for instance. What follows here should be used as a reminder of the key communication skills applicable to practising positive politics. Also included are some highly practical suggestions as to how you might go about using these skills in the workplace.

Information gathering

Before looking at specific communicating behaviours, there is another angle that you need to consider. You need to identify where to obtain ‘political’ information. A broad-based network is one way in which the politically intelligent keep their ear to the ground in order to tap information flows.

It is equally important, however, to identify those people who always seem to be better informed than their position would imply. We all know about chauffeurs who apparently know every thing on account of their constant ferrying of senior executives. But how about the person who travels daily on the train with a senior member of staff? What about the PAs and secretaries to functional heads?

There are always those in any organisation who habitually seem to be one step ahead of the formal announcement. Either learn how they do it or, at the very least, get into their circle. This may mean sitting with them in the canteen, for example, or joining the same project team.

There are also places to which information seems to be drawn like a magnet. These days, the IT function seems to be a crucial hub of information. There will be a constant stream of projects in this area, all addressing the shape of the organisation to come. The IT department is therefore an excellent source of future-orientated information for those who can get ‘tapped in’ or involved.

We all have a different start point and no two organisations are identical. One thing is common, however, and it’s this: those with political intelligence recognise the importance of these strategies and work hard to ensure they are never surprised.

Striking the right balance

Remember, we have two ears and only one mouth...


  1. It is a myth that the best politicians are the ones who do all the talking. The truly shrewd operators know the value of acquiring information and the viewpoints of others.
  2. They avoid ‘jumping in’ before the whole message or the emotion has been imparted. They want to know exactly what the resistance is and where it might come from.
  3. They use pauses to encourage and ‘tease out’ information from the other party. In this way, they gain insights that can be vital in securing collaboration or support.


  1. The golden rule is that you must understand the other person and their position before attempting to get them ‘on side’.
  2. Use probing questions, particularly open ones, to gather information.
  3. Get all the facts by using clarifying, reflecting and paraphrasing techniques to ensure accuracy.
  4. Recognise that leading questions may be interpreted as a trick to get premature agreement.
  5. Preface your question with a statement about why you want or need to know the answer to your query. It will remove mistrust or lack of response caused by a fear of potential implications.
  6. At all costs avoid letting a conversation sound like an interrogation. This will only breed suspicion and resistance.

More clues to better communication

  • When asked a question, answer it but don’t waffle – waffling suggests that you are attempting to hide something or manipulate the facts.
  • Be clear in your own mind why you are having a conversation. Ask yourself, ‘What do I want to achieve/get out of this meeting?’
  • Learn to take and accept criticism; avoid becoming defensive and taking it personally. Burns was right, ‘O the gift to see ourselves as others see us.’ Being seen to accept criticism and seeking feedback are definitely ‘owl’ behaviours.
  • Never ever say one thing to one person and another to somebody else – trust will reduce considerably.
  • Build a positive reputation by effective communication/presentation.
  • Maintain suitable eye contact – looking away and staring are both inappropriate.
  • Develop a firm, but not vice-like, handshake.
  • Actively listen, nod and say, ‘uh huh/really/wow/I see/I hear you’ or make similarly affirming comments.
  • Grooming – taking care with hair, clothes, shoes and facial hair – may be very important in some situations.
  • Talk about your successes – you don’t have to brag, but use assertive behaviour. For example, in the lift you might say to a colleague, ‘Did you know I have recently... done/achieved/been involved in...?’
  • Avoid jargon. It can cause confusion and may give the impression of arrogance.
  • Always try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes; find out and understand what life looks like from their perspective. They will be much more forthcoming.
  • The grapevine is an important source of information, so make sure you are tuned in at all times.
  • Be straightforward about what you want and what you expect from others. Divulge information, offer facts and figures, and think aloud. Our culture tells us to do the opposite, but withholding information and failing to share it might easily give the impression to others that you are a ‘fox’.
  • Be aware of email politics. Avoid misunderstandings by making it clear why others are being copied in. Note that blind copies may be seen as underhand and trust can easily be jeopardised.

Above all, remember that openness creates trust. Trust creates effective relationships. Effective relationships give you allies. Allies give you a big advantage in achieving goals.