I’m Comfortable Being Ignorant — Ego Suspension and the Social Engineer


In the book Ip Man: Portrait of a Kung Fu Master (King Dragon Press, 2001), non-competition is listed as one of the primary principles as a guide to martial arts mastery. The man profiled in this book, Ip Man, felt that the need to persuade others to one’s “superiority” was detrimental to any issue at hand and could never lead to true mastery; “…competition was with himself alone…” (p. 68). He displayed an exceptional example of ego suspension. Ego suspension is the ability to lower one’s own wants, needs, and motivations, and place priority on the other person. It is considered one of the most powerful techniques for building rapport.

As social engineers, we want our targets to disengage from us feeling good about their compliance and interaction. Being perceived as humble is a useful component in building rapport as humility is a function of ego suspension. Taking control of a situation in order to influence others can often begin with what appears to be vulnerability and openness. Intentionally placing the focus on the other person serves to further increase one’s trustworthiness.

The ability to suspend one’s ego lends to overall likeability and power of suggestion. This increases the likelihood that people will be more open to your requests and what you have to say. Not everyone can be bullied, and even if it were so, it’s not always the most efficient way to get what you want. If you can make people like you, then you have created a path of less resistance through ego suspension. Remember, we always want people to feel better for having met us.

Sounds simple enough; place yourself in a lower position than your target and watch your relationship blossom! If only it was that simple. Despite its power, ego suspension can be one of the most difficult techniques to employ when trying to develop rapport.

Why is Ego Suspension so difficult?

Ego, by definition, is inextricably linked with who you are. The act of ego suspension can be in direct conflict with the idea that people typically want to be perceived as at least as intelligent or competent as others. Any time someone speaks or engages where others are present, judgment is sure to follow. It is natural to want others to think highly of us as this impacts our self-esteem.

As individuals put themselves in situations where the opinions of others matter increasingly more in terms of self-valuation, the stakes are internally higher. This pressure often manifests itself as a more desperate exhibition of a person’s intelligence or skill whether genuine or not. We’ve probably all seen (and perhaps participated in) numerous examples in which a conversation around sports, technology, or gaming has escalated to wild claims of knowledge and ability. As you can imagine, the stronger you feel about a subject, the more difficult it is to maintain an air of neutrality or ignorance.

For our male readers out there, here is another potentially complicating factor. Cultures have behavioral and attitudinal expectations for their members. In many traditional cultures, females have often been expected to be warm, sensitive, and nurturing, while men were expected to be self-reliant, aggressive, and competent. Most people do feel some pressure to conform to these ideals; as humans, we are hardwired to respond to group norms. It was a key to survival in our not-so-distant past, but combine this external pressure with the internal need to feel intelligent and competent; perhaps now, you have a better understanding of why ego suspension can be so difficult.

Makes more sense why it’s so hard to ask for directions, doesn’t it?

Do It Anyway

Despite how hard it is to suspend your ego, learning to do this well and in a genuine way is a critical skill for the serious social engineer. Think of the last time someone apologized to you without reservation or admitted to not knowing something. Did it make you feel differently about this person? Being placed on a pedestal is inherently disarming. Master the ability to make someone else feel this way and you will be much more effective in your interactions. Combine ego suspension with a sympathy theme (another technique for building rapport discussed in a blog posting on our social-engineer.com site), and you have a very powerful combination for ultimately influencing others.

Remember, ego suspension is just one tool for developing rapport in both your personal and professional life. Without rapport, your chances of having influence over a person’s decisions are significantly reduced. Help people feel valued and they will help you.

We cover this and more in our 4-Day Social Engineering for Professional Penetration Testers course.

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists; when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves.” – Lao Tzu

Written by: Michele Fincher