There are times we want tough-to-get information from someone and times we’d like to control how much we reveal. For example, if we’re interviewing for a job, we might not want to reveal every last detail of our relationship with each of our bosses. Conversely, if we’re the interviewer, we may want to extract that very information. Same is true on a date, with a friend, even with our spouse.

To learn best practices for controlling what we say and unearthing what we want, I interviewed three FBI or CIA interrogators:

Joe Navarro was an FBI agent and supervisor in counterintelligence and counterterrorism, and since retiring, he trains people in the intelligence and corporate world. Navarro is the author of the classic book in this field: What Every Body is Saying

Mike Roche recently retired as Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service. He has conducted many behavioral assessments of stalkers and assassins and is the author of Face 2 Face: Observation, Interviewing and Rapport Building Skills: an Ex-Secret Service Agent's Guide.

Phil Houston worked for 25 years for the CIA, including as a senior member of the Office of Security. Like Navarro and Roche, he has conducted many interrogations and interviews. He now heads Qverity, a behavior analysis consulting firm to private and public-sector clients.

In this article, I present what I learned from them. I do so from the perspective of the person trying to obtain information but the techniques will also be useful to a person who doesn’t want to say too much.

Navarro cautions “We humans are terrible at detecting deception. In 261 DNA exoneration cases that I studied, the officers were wrong 100 percent of the time in assessing truth or deception.”  So, even if perchance, you’re more capable than police officers at detecting deception and you use all these techniques, your judgments will still be fallible. Take them with a grain or three of salt.

Before the first question

Roche asserts that you need to begin by establishing rapport with and conveying empathy for the person.

Houston warns though that too much rapport-building could make the interviewee so relaxed that s/he’ll find it easier to lie without being detected. So you might just want to do a bit of that rapport-building.

For example, you might start with just a bit of small talk, make a statement of empathy, and then get down to business. For example, if I were interviewing someone for a job, I might say something like, “Mary, welcome. I noticed on your resume that you’re a hiker. So am I.” Then as the empathy builder, I’d say something like, “I know job interviews can be stressful. I’ll try to make it as painless as possible.” Then I’d launch in.

Down to business

Navarro says that an interview affords four opportunities to detect deception.

1. While asking the question. Note if the person significantly changes behavior from baseline in a major way: face tightens, changes body position, turns away, crossing legs or ankles. (When dissembling, we’re more likely to control our face than our legs.) Such changes from baseline don’t necessarily indicate lying. There are no definite "tells." Each is simply a data point telling you to pay particular attention to the answer and if it isn’t reassuring, more needs to be done, for example, a follow-up question, later searching on the internet, or a phone call.

Houston warns that it’s often too difficult to discern valid deviations from baseline. So instead, he encourages interviewers to simply look for clusters of potential tells, whether or not they deviate from baseline. Roche calls these discomfort clusters, for example, after answering, the person sighs, changes body position, and rubs his forehead. 

2. While the person is processing the question. Between the time you’ve finished asking the question and the person responds, look for signs s/he’s finding the question difficult: changes in behavior listed above or taking longer to respond than with other questions. Of course, that could simply be because the question is cognitively complex or for other reasons. But especially if it’s not a cognitively complex question, hesitancy and uncomfortability suggest that you do have more work to do.

3.As they answer. Crisp and confident answers suggest veracity. If their body closes down or their voice's pitch rises, you may want to drill down on their answer.

Roche uses Aldert Vrij’s finding that when a person suddenly stops using hands when talking, it may be deception.

Roche also stresses that we look for congruence between a person’s verbal and nonverbal responses. If s/he is talking about how happy s/he was on a job but her face is serious, take note.

Houston believes that verbal as well as nonverbal communication offers hidden clues. For example, note if a person moves from convey mode to convince mode: When normally, s/he gives short, crisp answers but then, to an equally simple question, explains at length.

Houston also believes that qualifier words such as “actually,” truthfully,” and even “basically” can be attempts to cover deceptions.

4. After the answer. Does s/he exhale in relief and self-soothe, for example, rub the neck, wiggle in the chair, etc. That often occurs after answering a question dishonestly.

Not surprisingly, Roche, Houston, and Navarro all give more credibility to the aforementioned discomfort clusters rather than to individual behaviors.

Houston warns that the very act of questioning puts someone on their guard. Sometimes, it’s more useful to give a monologue, ending with a short-answer question. For example, a job interviewer might say, “It’s understandable that people don’t put every job on their resume. It might not be relevant to this job, it may have just been a briefly held position, all sorts of reasons. I’m really just interested in giving you a chance to talk about each of your positions. What jobs aren’t on your resume?” That can make the person feel okay about revealing information s/he wouldn’t have had you just asked the question.

After a person makes a potentially suspicious statement, Houston likes to ask, “What else?” I like to simply pause. Often, the nervous person will fill the silence with what’s on his or her mind: that uncomfortable truth.

A caveat

I want to reiterate that the attempt to unearth veracity is as much an art or even a parlor game as a high-validity activity. There are no human lie detectors. But I believe that viewed with three grains of salt, the tactics above can lead us to more valid decision-making, which is critical to our individual lives and to a worthy society.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.

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