Why did Bill Clinton say, “I did not have sex with that woman.” rather than “I didn’t have sex with that woman.”? (See Number 3 below for the specific answer.)
Because lying is hard work. It requires activating different areas of the brain not normally in play during truthful storytelling, controlling one’s physical responses that lying normally elicits and being particularly attentive to the questions being asked. Fortunately, one of the most reliable methods of lie detection comes from the liar herself. Her words. Unless you are dealing with an out-and-out clinically pathological liar (and even they will trip up from time to time), it’s fairly simple to hang a liar by her own verbal statements.
We work with various law enforcement agencies that ask us to analyze suspects’ verbal interviews, and over considerable time, have developed a checklist on LieSpotting – the art science of taking apart a lair’s verbal response through verbiage analysis.
Below are 10 common ways that liars use words to obscure the truth:
- Liars will repeat a question verbatim. Hey Mike, did you send the email to Karen? Did I send the email to Karen? If this is Mike’s response, you have your answer—he didn’t send it yet. Repeating a question in full is a common stalling tactic used by people looking for an extra moment to prepare their lie. In natural conversation, people will sometimes repeat part of a question, but restating the entire question is highly awkward and unnecessary—they clearly heard you the first time.
- Liars will take a guarded tone. If Mike had replied to the question by lowering his voice and asking, What do you mean?, a lie may well be in the processing of formation. A suspicious or guarded approach isn’t generally called for with a basic question, and the guarded tone taken may indicate that he’s concealing something—usually the truthful answer to your question.
- Liars won’t use contractions in their denials. Providing the classic example of what interrogators call “non-contracted denial” is Bill Clinton when he said “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” The extra emphasis in the denial is unnecessary if someone is telling the truth. I didn’t have sex with her is how the honest person is likely to phrase his claim of innocence. Clinton said a lot more than he realized with his words.
- Liars tell stories in strict chronology. To keep their stories straight, liars tend to stick to exact chronological accounts when relating an event. They have enough to think about in creating the lie. But this isn’t how we ordinarily talk when being truthful. When recounting stories, honest people will tell them they way they remember the events – in emotional order rather than strict chronological order. Often we’ll start off with the most impactful emotional moment, and move around in time order to add details that are not in the primary recall.
- Liars love euphemisms. It’s human nature not to implicate ourselves in wrongdoing. This holds especially true for liars, who will shy away from strict definitions of their actions, often opting for less harsh language, for example; instead of saying “I didn’t steal the purse” they may say “I didn’t take the purse.” If asked a direct question and your wording is modified/softened in the response, you are being lied to.
- Liars overemphasize their truthfulness. There’s no need to add modifiers such as “To tell you the truth…” “Honestly…” “I swear to you…” if you really are telling the truth. When people bolster their response with these type phrases, there’s a strong chance that they are hiding something or not telling the full truth. There’s no reason for the extraneous words.
- Liars avoid or confuse pronouns. We use a good amount of pronouns in normal conversation. They are a sign of comfortable speech, and they may disappear when one is lying. A liar may say “You don’t bill hours that you didn’t work” instead of making the clear first- person statement: “I don’t bill hours I didn’t work.”
- Liars use long introductions but skip over main events. Deceptive individuals will add more detail – particularly around the prologue of a story – but glide over the main event when lying. This lopsided storytelling style is specific to those intent on deception.
- Liars give very specific denials. Liars tend to be very particular in what they say and don’t say. Truth-tellers have no problem issuing categorical denials—I never cheated anyone in my whole life—whereas the liar will choose his words ever so carefully – I never cheated on my husband during the period of our marriage. (Well, there’s the period of dating, engagement and separation and previous relationships that is not covered by that denial.)
- Liars hedge their statements. We hear them in court testimony, political speeches and interviews all the time: qualifying statements that give the person on the hot seat an “out” if their lie is uncovered. “As far as I know…” “If you really think about it…” “What I recall is…” Hedged statements should make the interviewer wonder when the other shoe will drop.
The best liespotting detector is, of course, yourself – the experienced interviewer. Very few people – statistically insignificant – can lie perfectly; giving a recall of the events in emotional (v. chronological) order, interjecting themselves directly into the lie and remember the non-existent details over an extended period of time. If they could, they’d be professional spies. Trust your instincts and listen very carefully to what is being said.
BNI Operatives: Situationally aware.
As always, stay safe.