In the last edition of Security Solutions Magazine, we posited a hypothetical scenario where money was stolen from an office worker’s bag, which was stowed under a desk. Now, you are tasked with identifying who stole the money.

Our first question, a seemingly innocent, “Do you know why I asked you here today?”, started to reveal the difference between honest Eddy, who had nothing to hide, and Jim, who had to deal with extra emotional and cognitive stress to try to second-guess how an honest person might answer the question. Jim was more vague, used language to reduce the seriousness of the incident and used verbal fillers (“ummm…”) to buy himself more thinking time.

Here we continue on with the other five questions I promised you to help uncover a liar.

Question 2: Did you take the $500?

This seems like a straightforward and direct question and you are right, it is. These questions are simple yet effective.

One thing to understand as you go through the questions is that the brain always answers a question truthfully at an unconscious level. This happens before the person consciously gets hold of the question and starts to give an answer.

So, imagine we ask Eddy, “Did you take the $500?”

His brain can honestly and quickly answer, “No”, because that is the truth. It is easy and the time he takes to verbally respond will probably be quite fast. He does not need to put much thought into it because the answer his honest brain comes up with in less than a second is the same as the honest verbal answer he is about to give.

To this question, truthful people usually offer spontaneous, direct and sincere denials such as ‘no’ or may add reinforcing language like ‘absolutely’ and ‘no way’.

Eddy looks you in the eye when he says it and you do not see any shift or change in his body. His head shakes no at the same time he says no.

What if we ask Jim the same question?

Remember, the brain always answers the question truthfully first. So, what does Jim’s brain say? Of course, it will answer, “YES”.

Jim does not want to tell the truth, so the process of lying commences.

Remember, in this scenario both people are denying knowledge or involvement, so Jim also answers no. But there is a difference in his answer.

Deceptive people may not be as strong in the denial. They may be evasive or even defensive. Be sure to watch the body language and response in Jim’s face as well.

In this case, Jim pauses a little before he answers, shifts in his chair, looks away and says with a bit of a scoff in his response, “No”.

(Do not make the mistake of jumping to conclusions too early. Make sure you are not showing signs of judgement in your own behaviour.)

With these questions, a deceptive person thinks he or she is doing very well with the answers and not giving anything away.

Question 3: Who do you think may have taken the money?

The truthful person begins to think and speculate about who might have taken it. If he has no idea, he will say so. If he does have some thoughts or clues, he will likely proffer that too.

Truthful people usually volunteer names and information, or apologise if they have no information or suspicion.

Eddy’s response to the question is, “Sorry, I have no idea who took it.” Before he answered, he thought for a moment. His verbal response was calm and was accompanied by a shrug and a shake.

Before we observe Jim’s answer, stop and consider what his brain answered – his brain answered, “I did”, but of course he does not want to say that.

Jim needs to think through the response more than Eddy did. “Should I just say I don’t know who took it, or should I try to point the finger at someone else to get them off my tail?”

After a long delay, Jim replies, “I don’t know who took it, or even if it was taken. I guess it could’ve been anyone.”

See the difference in those two responses?

Question 4: Who would you eliminate from this investigation?

This question will not cause truthful Eddy much stress because all he will naturally be doing is pondering who is not involved for sure. He will not have a problem naming people who can easily be accessed for verification.

Truthful people usually vouch for people they know, like or trust.

Eddy might say something like, “I would rule out Betty, because she was with me all morning. And I guess you can take Bobby out of the picture because he is out of action laid up at home with a broken ankle, so he wasn’t there, that’s for sure!”

The other thing that truthful people often do at this stage is eliminate themselves. It seems like a natural thing to do and often that is what comes out of their mouth first.

The key is to consider the extra effort in the thinking process that someone who is lying needs to go through, and how that impacts on the responses that are given.

You ask Jim who he would eliminate from the investigation.

His brain likes this question because there is an opportunity for him to open up the investigation and push the heat away from himself. He can use this question not to narrow the field by eliminating the people he knows did not do it, but by broadening the scope of who may have been involved.

So he may respond, “Who would I eliminate from the investigation? Well, I wouldn’t eliminate anyone at the moment. In fact, I think you should consider anyone to be a suspect at this stage. And, let’s face it, there’s a lot of people that come and go from the office around here. We’ve got people on level 4 of the building and I don’t know all the people who work with the company.”

Not only has Jim not eliminated himself or vouched for anyone he works with, he has opened up the enquiry to throw the investigator off the scent that leads to him.

The great thing about these simple questions is that the deceptive person does not even realise that he is drawing attention to himself by the answers that he is giving. He thinks he is coming up with very logical and practical answers that make him seem wise and helpful.

But, because his brain is processing the information differently than the truthful person, he cannot help but respond differently.

Question 5: What do you think should happen to the person who took the money?

This question is a good one because what we typically see here is truthful people offering harsher judgments, penalties or punishments. Why? Because it does not impact on them.

If they think what happened was wrong, or unjust, or illegal, then they are likely to be able to clearly express that and back it up with the thinking or reasoning that led them to that conclusion.

They might say, “I think the person should be fired from their job.” Or maybe, “They should be charged with theft and lose their job as it is unacceptable behaviour.”

Keep in mind that not everyone thinks the same way. Not every truthful person is going to offer a harsh penalty, particularly if they are compassionate and forgiving in the way they think and act. That is why these questions are used in a bundle and answers should not be taken as standalone responses.

Remember to look at the responses holistically, considering not only the words, but also the non-verbal responses such as body movements, eye movements and changes in posture.

You also need to think about the paralinguistics of the communication – that is the tone, pitch, speed, volume, pauses, ummms and the way in which the words are expressed.

What about the deceptive person? He is less likely to come up with a harsh penalty. Why? Because he is recommending the punishment that is imposed on himself if he is found out at some point. Why would he start dishing out big penalties when there is a chance that such penalties will fall on him?

So, Jim might answer the question with something like, “Oh, I don’t know, maybe they should get a warning”,

or, “They should definitely repay the money”,

or maybe even, “Gee, I’m not sure, it’s not really my place to say”.

Question 6: What do you think the person who did this would be thinking now?

Truthful people with nothing to hide will not find this question stressful. Their response shows that they are trying to imagine what another person might be thinking. They will likely ponder the question for a while and might offer a response that is quite strong, for example,

“I imagine they are pretty worried at the moment, especially because there is an investigation going on about this”, or maybe, “They are probably wishing they didn’t take the money right about now.”

Eddy is only speculating about what another person is thinking or feeling, and you can see that his verbal and non-verbal behaviour is congruent with someone who is not stressed by this question; he is just coming up with ideas about how the guilty person may be thinking.

Jim, on the other hand, knows exactly what he is thinking right now!

This particular question poses a conundrum for the deceptive person as he searches for the best answer rather than the truthful answer.

Remember that the brain always answers the question truthfully.

That means Jim’s brain will give an automatic truthful response first. So, when he is asked the question, his brain might answer,

“I’m thinking you’re not going to catch me because you’ve got no evidence and you have no idea whatsoever that I took the money”, or, if his guilt or remorse for what he did has kicked in, he might be thinking, “I wish I didn’t take the bloody money, I’m screwed if I get found out, it was a stupid mistake.”

Either way, Jim has to go through a process that Eddy does not go through. He has to decide on the best answer that will lead you away from suspecting that he is involved.

But as he tries to come up with an answer,it is possible that Jim’s real line of thinking may ooze out and he might come out with something like,

“I don’t know, maybe they are sorry they took it and maybe they made a mistake.”

Remember, throughout these questions I am not expecting an easy admission or confession. Of course, in real life, at any point the guilty party may decide to come clean and be truthful and spill the beans. That is great because then you will have the truth and you can take it from there. What we are assuming in this case is that there is no admission or confession at any stage of these questions – but the fact is, even though both people are denying knowledge or involvement, you will have a pretty good idea who is not being truthful just from their responses.

So, what do you think? These are fantastic questions; use them carefully, use them wisely, and get in touch if you want to know another six questions!

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.