Just Answer the Question Claire!

Claire-Molly-Ringwald-the-breakfast-club-10653490-400-400In a scene from one of my generation’s favorite movies, The Breakfast Club, Molly Ringwald’s character, Claire, is harangued  by her fellow students about whether she’s ever had sex. Not wanting to admit the truth she classically avoids the question:

Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy): Have you ever done it with a normal person?
Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald): Didn’t we already cover this?
John Bender (Judd Nelson): You never answered the question.
Claire Standish: Look, I’m not going to discuss my private life with total strangers.

Avoiding a direct question is just one of the ways the authors of  Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Show You How to Detect Deception believe that you can detect deception. But when detecting a lie, don’t do what every police procedural TV show (and aren’t all TV shows police procedural now?) teaches you to do: TV shows are fond of classic moment of drama where the detective finally catches the “perp” in a lie, the “gotcha” moment. Don’t do this.

The idea behind detecting deception means that when the individual walks away, he has given you what you wanted, and feels good about what he’s done because he does not see you as an adversary. You simply helped them do the right thing and he’s maintained his dignity (Houston, et al 41).

If someone is lying you need to ignore their truthful behavior so it is not processed. Truthful responses tend to be direct and spontaneous, however people who are deceptive can generally respond as a truthful person would, particularly if they have the opportunity to prepare for them ahead of time (Houston at al 48-49). Truthful people are typically alert, composed and attentive, but untruthful people can also demonstrate that same behavior when they are lying. You must learn to ignore these behavioral clues if you want to successfully detect the lie (Houston at al 49).

Lies fall into three categories, lies of commission, lies of omission, and lies of influence (Houston at al 51).

  • Lies of commission: Did you have sex with that woman? “No, I was hiking the Appalachian Trail.”  (Houston at al 51-52)
  • Lies of omission: “Honey, I’m going to get a drink with a buddy from work,” (real story: my “buddies” name is Allison and she’s smoking hot and I’m looking to hook up – but we will have a drink) (Houston at al 51-52).
  • Lies of influence: Did you cheat on your wife? “Sir, I’ve been a Christian all my life and that would be against my values.” (Houston at al 52).

When the truth is not to their advantage, people may lie (Houston at al 54). They can lie by directly opposing the accusation (lies of commission), or just not telling the whole story (lies of omission) or by trying to convince or persuade you that they are not the kind of person that would do what they’re being suspected of doing (lies of influence) (Houston at al 54).

Here are the key deceptive verbal behaviors:

  • Failure to Answer (Houston at al 55). You’ve asked a question and they have failed to give an answer. It doesn’t mean that they are lying, you need to look for more than one indicator, but one possible reason is the facts are not on their side. They may also be trying to recall the information necessary to answer your question so more indicators are needed.
  • Inability to outright deny an accusation (Houston at al 56). This typically occurs in situations where the outright denial of an accusation may have even more severe consequences if the denial turns out to be a lie. The authors use a classic example of when former Vice President Dick Cheney was interviewed by Fox News about an exchange he had on the Senate floor with Sen. Patrick Leahy. According to several press reports Cheney used the “F” word in the exchange but in the Fox interview, when questioned about whether he used the F-bomb, Cheney spent the vast majority of time saying things like “I expressed my dissatisfaction,” or “that’s not the language I usually use,” rather than outright denying the accusation (Houston el al 56-57).
  • Reluctance or refusal to answer the question (Houston el al 60). Sometimes they may tell you that they are not the right person to talk to. They may actually be right or they are trying to get you to go away – more information is needed. Remember, no single indicator standing by itself is enough to make any sort of judgment.
  • Repeating the question  (Houston el al 60). Sometimes a deceptive person may repeat the question in order to buy time. Or, he or she could just be trying to fill in an otherwise awkward moment of silence. Repeating or paraphrasing questions is also a method of rapport building and sometimes it’s just the habit of that person.
  • Nonanswer statements (Houston el al 61). This is another way to buy time, saying something like “I knew you were going to ask me that,” or “that’s a really good question, I’m glad you asked,” (Houston at al 61).
  • Inconsistent statements (Houston el al 61). The real problem with lying is that it’s harder to remember the lie than it is the truth. This can result in inconsistencies that can be identified when the person must repeat their story a few times.
  • Going into attack mode (Houston et al 63). Attacking the questioner is always a red flag. Again, you may have just literally offended them with a question or they are trying to cover something up by attacking you instead.

These are just some of the indicators to watch for. You will notice that in every case there can be very legitimate and truthful reasons that people are responding a particular way. But watching the timing and clusters of these behaviors will help you Spy the Lie.

Houston, Philip., Floyd, Michael, Carnicero, Susan, Tennant, Don. Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Show You How to Detect Deception. New York: St. Martin’s, 2012. Print.

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