Last night, I mentioned in passing that one of my favourite authors was John Le Carre. Which began a discussion about Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy! After a lull, I mentioned that one of his books I most treasure is The Russia House. When asked why, my answer became surprisingly pertinent to my role as a documentation writer, trainer and change analyst.
This novel is Le Carre’s farewell to the cold war. It’s a well-written anti-spy story with a unique plot. It also is one of the best spy movies ever made.
It centres on a book publisher Barley Blair (played in the movie by Sean Connery) who is unknowingly given Soviet secrets stating that their nuclear arsenal is ineffective. That information falls into the hands of the British Secret Service who want to determine its truth. To that end, Blair is semi-trained as a spy and sent back to find out more. He ends up falling in love and plays the spies off against each other.
Yet Blair though an extraordinary character is not the reason I love and adore this book. It’s his handler, a spy called Ned (played by James Fox in the movie), a character who despite acting in the background dominates the story.
And its his relationship with Blair that fascinates me. As a good operative, Ned has done his research and is well-briefed about his agent. But he doesn’t divulge what he knows. For Ned’s role is to ensure Blair gains his trust, tells him what he already knows and tell him what he needs to know.
Ned is first and foremost a listener. To that end , Ned shows he has a open personality. His gift is to give away small secrets about himself so that others can share greater ones. His talent is so subtle that people tell him their truths without them ever knowing. And that’s exactly what happens with Blair.
Yet we only find out minor details from Ned about his life and background. We never find out what Ned is really thinking until the end of the book. And then its too late!
Ned’s a man well versed in the art of listening. A man who knows the power of the quiet of silence. Yet a man who knows how a few words can evoke many in return, enabling him to find out necessary and extra information. And that’s his talent. And his job.
If I were a spy I would have been like him. Fortunately, I confine my lesser talents to stakeholder management and eliciting information from subject matter experts. I do work in that same way : proffering small amounts of information to elicit greater knowledge while excluding unnecessary context as far as possible. Tasks at which Ned would have been incredibly adept.