Discover the truth, uncover a liarThere has been a theft of $500 from an office. The money was taken from an employee’s bag, which was stowed under a desk. You are the person running the initial investigation and you have little or no evidence as to who took the money that morning. Your job is to identify the culprit and if there were any witnesses or anyone else involved. Predictably, everyone is denying any knowledge of or involvement in the theft, but someone is lying. Could you know, almost for certain, just by analysing the response to a series of simple questions, that a person is lying even if they were denying the offence? Yes, definitely!

When it comes to evaluating the truthfulness of an answer, not all questions are born equal. How well a question ‘works’ in a given situation depends on many factors and one of them is how well the asker understands the mind of a typical liar when questioned. There is a strong psychological basis to why certain questions work and, once you understand how people think when they are presented with them, it can transform the way you look at questions in general.

Immerse yourself for a moment into the mindset of a person who has something to hide. Let us call that person the DECEPTIVE person. That is, someone who has guilty knowledge and a guilty mindset because they are hiding the truth about something. Put simply, they do not want to get caught and they are lying. In the real world, this might include lies about illegal activities, deceptive behaviour and activities such as fraud, theft, assault, security issues, or enquiries and investigations into unacceptable workplace behaviour such as harassment and bullying.

I am also going to ask you to jump into the mindset of a person who has nothing to hide, someone who is not hiding the truth at all or carrying any concern about getting caught out. We will call that person a TRUTHFUL person.

Once you start to understand what is going on inside each of these minds, it becomes a lot more feasible to differentiate a lie from the truth.

If you think this sounds implausible, consider for a moment that the approach I use works even in a training environment where I enlist some volunteers and brief them on a simulated situation. The people are not really involved in the incident or scenario that I place them in and yet, even if someone only has a ‘pretend’ guilty mind, we are still usually able to distinguish between them lying or telling the truth, just by analysing elements of the responses to certain questions.

These questions, when used correctly, can and will give you reliable insight as to who the person is that is not being truthful. They are primarily designed to be used in situations where you have little or no other evidence and are relying purely on the information you gather from questioning the people who might have been involved. Once you can confidently deduce who was involved in an incident, you can then focus on developing a strategy to get to the truth of the matter and encourage an admission or confession.

Back to the theft from the office. Two of the people you interview in an attempt to uncover who took the $500 are Jim and Eddy. Jim is, in fact, the person who took the money, but you would not start out knowing this. You just know the money was taken. There have been no witnesses come forward, there is no CCTV or any other evidence pointing to the person who took the money. What we do know is that the money was in Lucy’s handbag.

In our scenario, each person will be interviewed in the same way, using exactly the same questions. If you had no other information about who took the money, but asked these questions of an innocent person and a guilty person you are likely, at the end of the interview, to have enough information to feel strongly about which person was involved with the theft of the money. Keep in mind that both people are denying taking the money. The innocent person is denying because he did not take it and the person who did take it is denying because he does not want to get caught!

It is important not to draw conclusions from the response to one question alone. You should instead analyse the responses to all questions holistically to give you a more accurate picture.

As we work through the scenario, I want you to imagine the differences in the thinking of these two people I am going to separately interview.

Although Jim is usually a pretty honest guy, he seized the opportunity today to take the money from Lucy’s handbag when nobody was looking. At least, he is pretty sure that nobody was looking. The money is now in his wallet, which is in his back pocket. It was almost time to go home when the missing money was reported, and the staff were called in one by one to be questioned about the theft.

Eddy is the other person who is being interviewed. Eddy knows that the money is missing from Lucy’s handbag because it is common knowledge amongst his colleagues at the office. But he has no guilty knowledge. He did not take it and he does not know who did.

Starting below, and continuing in the next edition of Security Solutions Magazine, I am going to share with you six powerful investigative behavioural questions I use to confidently ascertain who took the money or at least had some knowledge about the theft, and I will explain the psychology that turns these seemingly innocent questions into treasure troves of information. (Asking questions such as these is only one part of the puzzle when it comes to eliciting information, reading behaviour and analysing responses. You want to listen to the answers to the questions but, in the real world, you should be using a five-part multi-channel analysis process – find out more at

Question 1: [Jim/Eddy] Do you know why I asked you here today?

In this case, the question relates to being asked into the office where the interviews about the theft of the money are being conducted

Take a moment to consider what happens differently in the minds of Jim and Eddy. The key to understanding these questions is recognising the extra emotional and cognitive stress and load that the deceptive person is experiencing.

Not only does Jim have to lie, he has to go through a process where he is trying to think how a truthful person might respond. Then he has to choose how to answer it to sound believable. A truthful person, with nothing to hide, does not have to go through that same process.

So, with this first question, Eddy – who did not take the money and has no idea who did – responds with an honest explanation of what he knows and why he was asked into the room. He easily responds, “Sure, there’s an investigation going on about the money that was stolen from Lucy’s bag today.” Truthful people may use an accurate description of what they know. They often use words like steal and theft. They are more open and have nothing to hide. The question does not pose a threat. Eddy has no reason to overthink the question or the response and the answer flows. He also uses words that reflect his understanding that the money was stolen.

Now let us compare that with what happens when Jim is asked the same question. Glancing away for a moment, he answers, “Umm, yeah, apparently Lucy is missing some money or something.” First there was a pause, and umm. Not a sign of deception on its own, but when we are analysing behaviour to assess honesty, response delay, pauses and verbal fillers like umms are things we listen out for.

Jim also said in his response “apparently Lucy is missing some money or something”. He uses the word apparently, when he knows full well there is no doubt as to what happened. He also said that Lucy is “missing” some money. That is language that leads toward blaming Lucy rather than the acknowledgement that someone stole it. He uses softer language about the incident. He also tagged on the end “or something” in an effort to keep things vague and distance himself from revealing he has any knowledge of what happened.

Deceptive people are more likely to be vague and evasive; they may claim not to know why. They may use words like ‘apparently’, ‘from what I was told’, ‘something went missing – or was taken’.

There is a significant difference between the ways that Jim and Eddy responded. Not everyone will answer the questions exactly like this. But people are often surprised how close to the text book the responses are when used in the real world. They do work! After your very first question, you are already able to notice an initial difference in the responses of the two men.

In any scenario where you are assessing truthfulness or otherwise, you need to resist the temptation to jump too quickly into concluding that you KNOW for sure who is guilty or who was involved with only a little bit of information or a ‘hunch’.

Join me again in the next edition of Security Solutions Magazine for Part 2 of this article, where I will share five more incredibly powerful questions to help you uncover a liar!

Elly Johnson
Elly Johnson is the Founder and Managing Director of TruthAbility, an organisation that for almost two decades has specialised in providing a unique mix of programs, workshops and seminars designed to help people reduce the risk associated with harmful deception, fraudulent behaviour, and hidden truth.