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There has been a theft of $500 from a busy open plan office. The money was taken from an employee’s bag, which was stowed under a desk. You are the person running the initial investigation and you have little or no evidence as to who took the money that morning. Your job is to identify the culprit and if there were any witnesses or anyone else involved.

Predictably, everyone is denying any knowledge of or involvement in the theft, but someone is lying. Could you know, with a high degree of certainty, just by analyzing the response to a series of simple questions, that a person is lying – even if they were denying the offence?

When it comes to evaluating the truthfulness of an answer, not all questions are born equal. How well a question ‘works’ in a given situation depends on many factors. One of them is how well the question-asker understands the mind of a typical liar when questioned. There is a strong psychological basis to why certain questions work and once you understand how people think when they are presented with them, it can transform the way you look at the power of questions in general.

Immerse yourself for a moment into the mindset of a person who has something important to hide. Let’s call that person the DECEPTIVE person. That is, they have guilty knowledge and a guilty mindset because they are hiding the truth about something that matters to them. Put simply, they do not want to get caught and they are lying to avoid punishment.

In this scenario we will be focusing on an issue involving a theft, but the lessons in this article apply whether you are trying to uncover the truth about any type of illegal behaviour or other activity including: fraud, assault, security issues or unacceptable workplace behaviour such as harassment and bullying.

I am also going to ask you to jump into the mindset of a person who has nothing to hide, someone who is not hiding the truth at all or carrying any concern about getting caught out.

We will call that person a TRUTHFUL person.

Once you start to understand what is going on inside each of these minds, you increase your chances of being able to differentiate a lie from the truth.

I’ve seen the power of effective questions play out in real life interviews and also in a training environment. In some of the practical activities conducted in the Perceptive Interviewing® workshops or the Evaluating Truthfulness and Credibility programs, we enlist volunteers and brief them on a simulated situation.

In that setting, the people are not really involved in the incident or scenario that I place them in and yet, even if someone only has a ‘pretend’ guilty mind, I still get at least a 90% success rate from my students in distinguishing between truthful and deceptive responses. This is just by analyzing elements of the responses to certain questions. Remember, both of the interviewees are saying they didn’t do it.

These types of questions I’m going to show you are called investigative behavioural questions. When used correctly, the responses can give you insight as to whether the person you are interviewing or speaking to is being truthful or not.

These particular questions are primarily designed to be used in situations where you have little or no other evidence and are relying purely on the information you gather from interviews. Once you can more confidently deduce who may have been involved in an incident, you can then focus on developing a strategy to get to the truth of the matter and work to encourage an admission or confession.

Back to the theft from the office

Two of the people you interview in an attempt to uncover who took the $500 from Lucy’s handbag are Jim and Eddy. In this case, Jim is the person who took the money, but you would not start out knowing this. You just know the money was taken. There have been no witnesses come forward, there is no CCTV or any other evidence pointing to the person who took the money.

In our scenario, each person will be interviewed in the same way, using roughly the same questions throughout. If you had no other information about who took the money, but asked these questions of an innocent person and a guilty person you are likely, at the end of the interview, to have enough information to feel strongly about which person was involved with the theft of the money.

Keep in mind that both people are denying taking the money. The innocent person is denying because he did not take it and the person who did take it is denying because he does not want to get caught!

It is important not to draw conclusions from the response to one question alone. Rather you should analyze the responses to all questions with a multi-channel approach and assess holistically to give you a more accurate picture.

As we work through the scenario, I want you to stop, think and imagine the differences in the mindset and the thinking of these two people I am going to separately interview.

Although Jim is usually a pretty honest guy, he seized the opportunity today to take the money from Lucy’s handbag when nobody was looking. At least, he is pretty sure that nobody was looking.

The money is now in his wallet, which is in his back pocket. It was almost time to go home when the missing money was reported, and the staff were called in one by one to be questioned about the theft.

Eddy is the other person who is being interviewed. Eddy knows that the money is missing from Lucy’s handbag because it is common knowledge among his colleagues at the office. But he has no guilty knowledge. He did not take it and he does not know who did.

Starting below, and continuing in Part 2 of this article, I am going to share with you six powerful investigative behavioural questions that can be used to help ascertain who took the money or at least had some knowledge about the theft. I will explain the psychology that turns these seemingly basic or straightforward questions into treasure troves of information.

Remember, asking questions such as these is only one part of the puzzle when it comes to eliciting information, reading behaviour and analyzing responses.

Imagine these two people are being interviewed separately. An important part of the interviewing process in a high-stake situation like this, is to baseline the subjects behaviour. (Covered in a future article).

Put simply, this involves taking notice of how they process information, their body language style, posture, method of conveying verbal information and other factors.

Question 1: Do you know why I asked you here?

In this case, the question relates to being asked into the office where the interviews about the theft of the money are being conducted.

Take a moment to consider what happens differently in the minds of Jim and Eddy when they are asked this simple question. The key to understanding the power of these questions is recognizing the extra emotional and cognitive stress and load that the deceptive person is experiencing.

Not only does Jim have to lie, he has to go through a process where he is trying to think how a truthful person might respond. Then he has to choose how to answer it to sound believable. A truthful person, with nothing to hide, does not have to go through that same process.

So, with this first question, Eddy – who did not take the money and has no idea who did – responds with an honest explanation of what he knows and why he was asked into the room. He easily responds,

EDDY: “Sure, there’s an investigation going on about the money that was stolen from Lucy’s bag today.”

  • Truthful people may use an accurate description of what they know. 
  • They don’t have a problem using strong words like steal and theft. 
  • They are more open and have nothing to hide. 
  • The question does not pose a threat. 
  • Eddy has no reason to overthink the question or the response and the answer flows. He also uses words that reflect his understanding that the money was stolen.

Now let us compare that with what happens when Jim is asked the same question. Glancing away for a moment, he answers,

JIM: “Umm, yeah, apparently Lucy is missing some money or something.”

  • First there was a pause, and umm. Not a sign of deception on its own, but when we are analysing behaviour to assess honesty, response delay, pauses and verbal fillers like umms are things we listen out for.
  • Jim also said in his response “apparently Lucy is missing some money or something”. He uses the word apparently, when he knows what happened. He also said that Lucy is “missing” some money. That is language that leads toward blaming Lucy rather than the acknowledgement that someone stole it. He uses softer language about the incident.
  • He also tagged on the end “or something” in an effort to keep things vague and distance himself from revealing he has any knowledge of what happened.

Deceptive people are more likely to be vague and evasive; they may claim not to know why. They may use words like ‘apparently’, ‘from what I was told’, ‘something went missing – or was taken’.

There is a difference between the ways that Jim and Eddy responded. Not everyone will answer the questions exactly like this. But people are often surprised how close to the text book the responses are when used in the real world.

They do work! After your very first question, you may already be able to notice an initial difference in the responses of the two men, but you need more.

Caution: In any scenario where you are assessing the truthfulness of the responses given, you need to resist the temptation to jump too quickly into concluding that you KNOW for sure who is guilty or who was involved with only a little bit of information or a ‘hunch’.

One more important thing to think about as you delve into the minds of a truthful and deceptive person. When we are asked a question, even before we are able to think about answer we want to give, our unconscious mind has already responded. Your brain doesn’t lie, it tells the truth. It’s only the conscious mind that chooses whether to tell the truth or tell a lie.

In this scenario, with that very first simple question, remember the truthful answer appears in the subjects mind as soon as the question is asked. If my truthful answer is YES and my chosen answer is YES, then it’s not too difficult to respond.

However, if my brain says YES, but I want to say NO to you, it takes a bit more thinking about. I have to think about the best way to say ‘no’ to convince you that is the truth. This is important to remember as we move forward in the scenario.

In Part 2 of this article we jump in a bit deeper to the scenario and you will see how the mindset of the truthful person is very different than the deceptive person. I will share with you another five simple yet powerful investigative behavioural questionsto ask that would help you get to the truth of the matter.

PS: If you read this article because you conduct interviews and would like to build on your existing skills and knowledge, then you may be interested in joining the NEW LinkedIn group called: The Perceptive Interviewing® Club. There’s more info in the ‘About this Group’ section, so take a look and if it sound like you, then please request to join. Link to group: https://www.linkedin.com/groups/13763163/

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