How do you persuade someone to tell you the truth?

How do you persuade someone to tell you the truth?

By JW Patrick
Part 2 of a summary and review of Spy the Lie  by Philip Houston, Michael Floyd, Susan Carnicero and Don Tennant Published by (


(For  Part 1 click here: How can you tell if someone is lying?)

So you’ve spotted a cluster of deceptive behaviours. A colleague, partner, boss, teen, tween, MP or salesman is definitely lying to you. What do you do next? How do you uncover the truth they’re obviously desperate to keep from you.

Remember the truth is not their ally and the facts are not their friends. If they’re lying, they will have a planned strategy to deceive you and you need to prevent them carrying out that strategy.

So you need to ask the right questions in the correct way.

Good Question Techniques

Remain calm and maintain a neutral tone of voice at all times. Avoid confrontation. You need to maintain the flow of information- that is your priority. The more threatened a person feels, the more defensive and uncooperative they will become until they just clam up. So your demeanour is essential, don’t judge them. It’s not your job (yet…!). Your objective at this stage is simply to uncover the truth.

Always Ask Short Questions
Ie. don’t give them any extra opportunities to wiggle around, hide from or avoid your questions.

Stick to Simple Questions
Why risk genuinely confusing them? It’s hard enough as it is- don’t muddy the water yourself.

Single Questions are best
If you ask more than one question, how will you know which answer his deceptive behaviours apply to?  So avoid compound questions like: “So you left the club around 10? With Jimmy?”

Be Straightforward.
You’re trying to earn their trust. There’s no sense in antagonising them by being overly clever.

Ask the Right Kind of Questions

Presumptive Questions
Q. “What happened at Nicole’s last night?”
Q. “How did the biscuit crumbs get on your jumper?”
are presumptive questions. They presume something has already happened. A presumptive question is really powerful because innocent people don’t need any time to process the answer.

On the other hand, guilty people don’t know what you know already. So they have to think on the spot and that’s when they are likely to make mistakes and hopefully reveal more than they’d intended.

NEVER ask Leading Questions
A leading question is one that puts words in their mouth:
Q. “You did your homework last night didn’t you?”
This leading question simply directs him to an easy answer.
A leading question like this gives him an easy way out and makes him feel more confident.

Also, remember that leading questions are deployed by people who want to guide the answers in a particular way. “Objection m’lud! Leading question!”

NEVER ask Negative Questions
Negative questions are particularly useless examples of leading questions and should be avoided at all costs. People that ask negative leading questions almost always receive the answer they actually want to hear:
“You didn’t steal the cookies, honey, did you?”
“You didn’t bite that little girl on the arm did you?”
“Tommy would never cheat in his History test, would you darling?”
“You weren’t at Jenny’s last night were you?”

Dangle some ‘Bait’ Questions

Q. “Is there any reason why one of the neighbours saw you at Nicole’s last night?”

This can be even better than a presumptive question. Now he’s really worried- he’s thinking about how much the neighbours might have actually seen, and what they might have told you. You’ve just reduced his wiggle room considerably.

NOTE. There is no need to bluff or be overly specific with your bait.  Because as soon as your bluff gets called and you refuse to answer (or can’t answer), you become their enemy. You’ve lost your advantage and then they start asking questions you can’t answer!

Try not to over use ‘bait’ questions. Ask too many and your intentions will become obvious.

It’s often useful to try a bait question immediately on hearing someone say
“Not that I recall” or “Not to my knowledge” Because you need to learn asap if they genuinely can’t remember or are hiding behind this ‘psychological alibi’. Another useful way to phrase a bait question in response to these Not-to-my-knowledge-type memory lapses is using the ‘possibility strategy’:

“But is it possible… you two could have actually met some time last year?”
This is a clever psychological trick which makes it very difficult for them to reply “No, absolutely not” because how can they suddenly be so sure, so precise when a few moments before they were appearing all vague and forgetful?

Once they have at least admitted the possibility- then you narrow your search and start to focus on the details.

Always try the punishment question

Q. “How would you punish the person who did this…?”
An inappropriately lenient response should set all your alarm bells ringing at once.
You might also hear some big juicy ‘unintended messages’ in their answer as they struggle to justify why or what they did.

Try asking less obvious questions
Don’t ask questions that they might have already prepared and practiced their answers for.
“Did you light that fire?” “Did you kill him?” “Have you slept with her?”
If they’re guilty then they’ve already thought about how they’re going to handle it. You need to get them thinking in front of you. That’s when they make mistakes.
“Was the fire lit with matches or a lighter?” would likely yield a more revealing answer.

So instead of asking “Did you spill your milk on the sofa?” ask “How did that milk end up on the sofa?” You will get a more informative and truthful answer.
This is a good policy in general with children anyway: it’s better not to put them in a position to lie in the first place.  This avoids them growing accustomed to lying and, worse, perhaps even getting away with lying if you ever happen to miss the warning signals.

Always try an opinion question. (related to the subject at hand obviously!)
Q. “How do you feel about little boys that take biscuits without asking?”
Q. “What do you think about greedy bankers/benefit scroungers?”
This could well throw up some unintended messages that might help narrow the focus of your questioning.

Always, Always Follow Up
Eg. ask questions like “and what else?”, “Tell me more…”
Don’t be afraid to request clarification for anything. (As you might not get a chance later)
Evaluate: “Why do you say that?” “How do you know that’s true?”

Following up is perhaps the most important phase of the entire truth getting process. Don’t neglect it.

Use Prologues for Key Questions
Although questions need to remain simple, you can precede the occasional key question with a little prologue, something to make it easier to get him on your side and more likely to open up and start telling you something useful. This can take several forms and can be longish, ie. up to a paragraph if needed:

Legitimacy. “Nobody’s perfect…”
Rationalisation. “Everyone makes mistakes…”
Minimisation. “No one wants to blow this out of proportion…”
Projection of blame. “Sometimes employees just aren’t given enough training…”

But if you’re ever chatting about something illegal- never admit to taking part- or pretending that it’s not illegal. Eg. “When I was doing drugs back in the day…”

Broaden the focus of the investigation

This can be quite difficult to do in practice as you find yourself having to resist a very strong urge indeed but it is an invaluable technique when you’re trying to gather as much information as possible. For example, your son finally admits
“I took marijuana this one time…”
Your instinct, and that of most parents, is to say “My god, when?” And start asking lots of questions about this one incident. But you should resist this instinct and instead broaden your focus of investigation. Because you might learn about even more incidents.

Also if they happen to admit this fact early on in the discussion, the chances are this is part of their deception strategy, ie. they are hoping this one ‘small’ admission will satisfy you, get you off their back and thereby keep the true scale of their drug taking hidden from you.

“Oh, I see, so what else have you experimented with?” would be a better follow up question.

Common Misconceptions about Lying

Micro expressions that supposedly reveal a deceptive person’s true emotional state can be exactly that. But they can also have innocent explanations too, other emotions beyond guilt can cause stress reactions. Also without a camcorder and slow motion replays you’re unlikely to ever spot them yourself.

Eye contact. Most of us think poor eye contact is a sign of a liar. Not necessarily true. Different cultures and religions interpret eye contact completely differently. Individuals are also different, everybody prefers different eye contact duration. In fact many people subconsciously choose their friends and partners via matching eye contact duration. Just because their preferences don’t match yours doesn’t make them guilty. Also consider this: prolonged eye contact is both a sign of extreme aggression AND devoted love.

Closed posture. Again, it could be a sign of deceptive behaviour or it might not. You’re looking for clusters of deception and on its own this is not enough.

General nervousness. Again, maybe it’s a sign of deception. Maybe it isn’t. You need to dig deeper to find out why else they might be nervous.

Pre-emptive responses.  Both liars and honest people can be prone to blurting out their answers before you’ve finished the question. Liars want to tell you their story as quickly as possible. Whereas some honest people also want to tell you the truth as quickly as they can.

Blushing & Twitching. This can be caused not just by nervousness but embarrassment or room temperature or perfumes or etc.

Clenched hands. (Or White knuckles).  Remember it’s the timing of deceptive behaviours that is important. If he has clenched fists all the time, he’s probably just generally nervous anyway.

Baselining. (So called). This is common in TV interrogations too. Baselining is when police officers ask a bunch of easy questions they know the answers to and which the subject will very likely answer honestly. They then compare these responses to those from difficult questions and study the differences in behaviour.

The trouble is: accomplished liars will see this coming a mile off. They’ll be ready for it and can adjust their behaviours accordingly.

Also, different people can have completely different emotional reactions to the same stimulus depending on their culture and upbringing. For example, an illicit sexual encounter for one person may invoke feelings of guilt, shame and a long lingering stress. But that very same incident for the other person may have been instantly forgotten as ‘run of the mill’.

In other words, as mentioned before, stress indicators can be misleading. Your own cultural bias could affect how you are judging someone else’s stress indicators. What you might interpret as an ‘inappropriate response’ might well just be someone having a genuinely different viewpoint to you.

In Conclusion

According to Spy the Lie:

“Identifying deceptive behaviour doesn’t make you a human lie detector and it doesn’t suddenly thrust you into the dual role of judge and jury”

But if you do spot deceptive behaviours at home or at work, you now know that you have more work to do. And you’ll at least have some idea of where to start digging and how to dig more effectively.

Why purchase the book, Spy the Lie?

If you’re worried about your teens taking illegal drugs or alcohol or a colleagues dodgy behaviour at work or if you’re thinking of hiring a child carer or a carer for the elderly or even suspect that your partner is being unfaithful then it’s well worth purchasing this book. There is a good section of recommended questions to ask your teen about drugs or alcohol, the employee you suspect of theft or the spouse you suspect of being unfaithful.

As mentioned previously, go easy on using the method on your own family. Really, genuinely, please don’t practise the method on your other half unless you do want to know the truth and are prepared for your family to face the consequences.

Spy the Lie is a very entertaining and informative book, it is packed with anecdotes and some of the genuine interview transcripts provided by these three CIA officers are spine tingling. There are several TV interviews with alleged criminals accompanied with a Spy the Lie analysis which are simply breathtaking in their accuracy- as this book was published before their subsequent conviction.

In effect, Spy the Lie, backs up all those little warning cues you may have subconsciously picked up about someone, it helps you pin down all those little ‘can’t quite put your finger on it’ type feelings you might have had at home, at work or just watching someone on TV. This book gives you the confidence to listen to that nagging voice of doubt you might have had about something or someone.

Spy the Lie will certainly alter your outlook on life, the way you observe people and assess them will be changed forever. You can’t say that about many books.