That Funny Feeling

Coast GuardWhenever I teach body language reading or lie detecting through body language, the biggest challenge is trying to remember all of the individual little tells that people use to try to cover their own BS. Probably one of the most popular forms of body language detection is through the use the holy grail of behavior detection – micro-expressions.

Studies have found that FBI agents and Coast Guard investigators (who often intercept illegal narcotics) that are trained in spotting micro-expressions can increase their accuracy in detecting deceptions to 70% to more than 90% (Driver 135). But, micro expressions may tell you what a person is feeling, but not way. Also, body language is difficult to interpret in children, individuals who are intoxicated, or in people who are mentally limited (Driver 156).

When most people talk about body language, they focus on the face, but it’s called BODY language for a reason. You need to conduct full body surveillance to get at the truth. Some experts say that more than 50% of what we communicate comes from our body, not our words or how we say them (Driver 158).

Honest people tend do:

  • Point their toes and body towards you (Driver 159)
  • Lean forward with casual interest (Driver 159) – unless you’re really boring I guess. I mean this sincerely, whenever someone is boring me, I will pull back as a futile means of escaping.
  • Be somewhat casual and at ease, shifting positions in a relaxed and fluid manner (Driver 159).
  • Keep their throat, navel and crotch area pointed towards you (Driver 160). Don’t take that the wrong way – it just means that by exposing their vulnerable parts, they are comfortable that you’re not going to attack them.
  • Use a wide, solid powerful stance (Driver 160). However, if a truthful person is trying to convince you of something, they will often pull their private parts back, but still lean forward with the upper part of their body (Driver 165).
  • Uncross arms, keep hands down at their sides (Driver 160). Keep this in perspective – for many people, arms crossed just feels better, particularly if they are in a crowd of people – it’s a nice self hug and in some cases doesn’t mean anything at all; same things with hands in the pockets. Again, you have to take all the clues into account.

In fact, people do all sorts of self-pacifying movements including nail biting, rubbing hands together, clearing their throat, yawning, scratching, smoothing pants or skirt, braiding, jiggling, wiping forehead. . . the list goes on. But, if someone is exhibiting confident open language, then suddenly starts pacifying with one or more of these signals, it’s time to pay attention – that’s a massive hot spot (Driver 170-171).

Then there’s the Interrogation. Reading body language, particularly through just observation, is not 100% accurate (Driver 182). The art of asking good questions of your subject, and then watching for patterns, inconsistencies in their story or weak spots, is necessary to more effectively identify the good guys from the bad guys (Driver 182). Any undercover operative or military special forces operator who is working incognito will tell you the last thing they want to do is talk to anyone they don’t need to talk to. Engaging in conversation can let all sorts of “tells” fly, and its hard to keep your story straight, particularly if someone starts asking a lot of open-ended questions.

Any interrogation should start off with innocent questions that you either already know the answers to or one that doesn’t arouse suspicion and any normal person wouldn’t lie about. How was the movie you saw last night? What are your plans for the weekend (Driver 185). Then start with the 5 W’s and H – these are the who, what, where, why and how questions (Driver 186).

This is where the baseline comes in. When your subject was answering the questions, were you observing their baseline? Now is the time to start noticing deviations from the baseline. An effective statement is: “maybe I’m wrong here but it seems like there’s more to the story.” (Driver 187). Now it’s time to be quiet. Avoid the desire to pick up the conversation – silence is an interrogators best friend (Driver 187). People don’t like awkward silences and will try to fill the void. Here are some other sayings to keep them talking:

  • Is there any reason why. . . “you’re telling me this” or “you’re showing me this”, or, you seem a little anxious?” (Driver 187-188)
  • “Really?” Say it like you don’t believe what they are saying – watch for shoulder shrugs or accusations flying back your way (You think I’m lying!?) (Driver 187)
  • Asking ‘how’ is also a good indicator. If you ask someone “how was so-and-so doing,” and they answer with what the person was doing, that’s a red flag (Driver 187)
  • Increase their cognitive load – ask them to tell you the story backwards, ask them to look you in the eyes or ask the same question three different ways (Driver 193). When you increase your subject’s cognitive load, it makes it harder for them to keep the lie straight and to hide their own body language

Finally, a few more tips that are easy to remember when you see or hear there. Listen for the deep breath (Driver 196). Many people hold their breath after telling a lie while waiting to see if you’ve bought it. Watch for the no-no’s. If someone doesn’t outright deny an accusation within their first three responses, be thinking red flag. And finally, go to the Well. In answer to an open ended question, starting the answer with “well, …” is likely a person’s attempt to recall what happened and is most likely not a lie. However, if in response to a closed-ended question the subject begins their answer with “well,” then that’s a big red flag (Driver 198).

What’s important to remember about all body language practices is that we all have an inner BS detector. Knowing some of the BS indicators makes us better detectors and in some cases and by combining observation with interrogation, we can actually detect not only the BS but the reason for the BS. But regardless, if something just doesn’t feel right, don’t worry that you cannot identify their micro-expression, or why they shrugged their shoulders or started an answer to a closed ended with “well,” just trust your instincts, trust that your subconscious is trying to warn you about something, and disengage from the encounter.

Driver, Janine, and Mariska van Aalst. You Can’t Lie to Me: The Revolutionary Program to Supercharge Your Inner Lie Detector and Get to the Truth. New York: HarperOne, 2012. Print.


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