Five ways liars stall before answering a question – and why they do it

March 8th, 2010 → 2:58 pm @ // 29 Comments

As you might be able to tell, my boss is a former police officer with a lot of experience interviewing bad guys. As for me, I became a Cincinnati private investigator only after I worked for years as a corporate investigator. My job was to conduct forensic interviews whenever there was an incident, such as theft, sexual harrassment, or other major issue that corporations (and even small businesses) don’t tolerate well.

In that role, I traveled to various stores, or a distribution center or other work site to interview company employees to find out which of them was telling the truth and which was lying. Typically I investigated major theft cases, where people had a huge incentive to lie, because if they got caught, they knew they might end up in jail.

Naturally, I had years of experience and a lot of training in how to conduct a controlled interview. We were trained in the art of neurolinguistics – that is, the study of subtle brain functions and how those functions manifest themselves under specific circumstances.  In my case, I was interested in the involuntary bodily functions that show up when a person is lying.

But one of the signs of deception that is easiest to recognize is the “strategic stall.”  When a person is about to tell a lie, they know there are serious consequences if they get caught.  So before telling a whopper, most people want a few extra seconds to think carefully about what they’re going to say, because they have to be certain they aren’t stepping into a trap.  In fact, a strategic stall before a big lie is most common when the person being questioned hasn’t had time to think of a good answer ahead of time.  In those cases, they often will subtly create opportunities to buy themselves a little bit of extra time – in some cases just a few fleeting seconds – while the synapses in their brain are firing back and forth to try and stay one step ahead of you.  And that’s when the sweating starts…but we’ll save those other signs of deception for another post.

Here’s a quick list of five ways a person stalls before telling a big lie:

  1. Repeating the Question (or asking you to repeat it for them) – When asked a direct question, the other person doesn’t answer immediately, but attempts to cover the stall in a deceptive way.  The respondent may ask to have the question repeated, or may often repeat the question themselves.  Example – Q: Did you do it?  A: Did I do it?  Of course not!
  2. Creating a Job – This behavior is designed to momentarily distract attention, if only for a few seconds, to allow the respondent a few seconds to think of a good answer.  One of the most common created jobs during a difficult conversation is that of taking a sudden interest in a piece of lint on the person’s pants.  I can remember doing this one years ago during one of those dreadful question-and-answer sessions with my parents.  When my father asked a probing question, I suddenly grew very concerned about a small sticky spot on the kitchen table that simply could not wait another second to be scraped off with my fingernail.
  3. Changing the Subject – This one isn’t always as obvious as it sounds, but it’s self-explanatory.  Often, a person will provide a convoluted answer to the question in an effort to hide the fact that he or she didn’t answer the actual question.  Politicians are masters of this tactic.  In this case, simply repeat the question again, like this:  “I’m not really sure what your answer is – I only asked if you were at this location at 8pm last night.  Were you?”
  4. Belittling the Question / Questioner – We’ve all seen this tactic, when asked a simple question, and the respondent says something like, “That’s outrageous.  I can’t believe you would even ask me that!”  It’s a common tactic that is designed to buy a few moments and allow the respondent to take control of the discussion.  The key is to stay focused on getting an answer to the question you asked.  Don’t be sidetracked at the insinuation that you insulted the person you’re questioning.
  5. Playing Dumb / Asking for More Information – Often, when the questioner doesn’t ask a direct question, it opens up the opportunity for the respondent to claim he or she doesn’t know what you’re talking about.  When possible, remove all doubt about the subject matter of the questions you’re asking.  Being up front and direct takes away the opportunity for a good liar to use this technique, as you can see from this example where a wife asks her husband: Q: “Were you with Sue at a hotel last night?”  A: “What are you talking about?”  Obviously, she is talking about her husband being with Sue at a hotel.  No explanation required.

Keep in mind that a person giving an honest answer is usually straightforward and direct.  In the case of the husband being asked about being with Sue at the hotel, a person with nothing to hide would simply answer the question like this: “No.  Why do you ask?”

As with all how-to guides, you should never assume a person is lying just because they exhibited one of the behaviors I listed above.  One of the key pieces of my training as a forensic interviewer was to look for multiple signs of deception, as no single act is a conclusive indicator.  Remember, you’ll need a lot more evidence to prove your case than the fact a person picked some lint off his pants!

If you find yourself in a tight spot and need some guidance on how to confront someone you think might be dishonest with you, please drop me a line by using our contact form.  We’re happy to provide advice and guidance at no charge.

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