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Ask a Presumptive Question to Get to the Truth

The presumptive question is an elicitation technique that really works.

Key points

  • Elicitation obtains sensitive information from people without them knowing they are revealing confidential information.
  • Elicitation is typically done without asking questions; if you must ask questions, ask presumptive questions.
  • Presumptive questions can be used in business and social situations to obtain the truth.
Ann H/Pexels
Source: Ann H/Pexels

Elicitation is a technique to obtain sensitive information from people without asking direct questions. Direct questions trigger defensive responses to protect information people would prefer to remain unsaid. Elicitation works because the techniques are based on behavioral characteristics that predispose people to reveal sensitive information they would not normally reveal when asked a direct question.

Elicitation is typically done without asking any questions. However, some people feel the need to ask questions. In most cases, asking questions is not recommended in eliciting information as it tends to put people “on guard.” However, carefully constructed questions, depending on the situation, should still allow you to obtain truthful information. If you must ask questions, ask questions that are more likely to elicit truthful answers.

Presumptive questions increase the probability of obtaining truthful answers. Presumptive questions present information that is either true or false. The presumptive question is an option to use when you assume the person you are talking to knows the answer to the inquiry. When presented with a presumptive question, the person you are talking to will either confirm the presumption or make corrections if the presumption is wrong. The presumptive question places the person in a position where a non-response affirms the presumption or forces the person to provide additional information to correct the presumption. The presumptive question gives the illusion that you possess more knowledge than you actually do.

I routinely used presumptive questions when I interviewed suspects. Instead of asking the general question, “Do you know Levi?” I asked the presumptive question, “When was the last time you met with Levi?” Asking the general question, “Do you know Levi?” gives the suspect an opportunity to lie by simply responding, “I don’t know Levi.” Asking the presumptive question, “When was the last time you met with Levi?” assumes that I know for a fact that the suspect knows Levi. The suspect is less likely to lie when asked a presumptive question.

Presumptive questions can be used in business environments to increase the probability of truthful answers. For example, a supervisor wants to know how often an employee uses the business computer for personal use while on the job. The supervisor could ask the question “Do you use the business computer for personal use while on the job?” This general question allows the employee to lie or obfuscate the truth by simply responding, “No, I don’t use the business computer for personal use.” The presumptive question, “How many times a week do you use the business computer for personal use?” is a more difficult question for the employee to answer because the presumptive question presupposes that the supervisor knows for a fact that the employee uses the business computer for personal use. The employee is less likely to lie when confronted with a presumptive question.

In another example, a negotiator suspects the company he is dealing with has legal problems and wants to know if the problems will affect the company’s ability to fill an order. Asking the general question, “Does your company have any legal problems?” leaves wiggle room for deception. The presumptive question, “Are the legal issues your company is facing going to affect your ability to fill our order?” reduces the probability of deception because the respondent assumes the person asking the question possesses information about the legal issues facing the company, when, in fact, the person may not. You can construct presumptive questions to encompass any topic that you want to increase the probability of getting closer to the truth.

For more about elicitation techniques, see The Truth Detector: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide for Getting People to Reveal the Truth.

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