September 10, 2012, 8:56 PM — Q&A: Don Tennant
The former Computerworld editor in chief and co-author of the New York Times best-seller Spy the Lie discusses the art of detecting lying.
How good is the average person at detecting lies? Not very good at all, and there are a lot of reasons for that. For starters, we have a natural inclination to want to believe each other, because branding someone as a liar is pretty heavy stuff. Another obstacle is that we all have biases that have a huge impact on whether or not we believe people. You can't magically get rid of your biases when you speak with someone, but the methodology we present in the book enables you to manage them so you don't have to think about them in a deception-detection encounter. And there are a lot of behavioral myths that people tend to rely on when they try to distinguish truthfulness from deception. For example, it seems to be almost universally accepted that poor eye contact is an indicator of deception. But the fact is, eye contact is a very individualistic behavior that makes it very unreliable as a deceptive indicator.
How can we be better at spotting when someone is lying? By adopting a systematic approach that takes the guesswork out of the equation and filters out extraneous information so you don't have to process it. That includes ignoring truthful behavior. It seems rather paradoxical that you need to ignore truthfulness in order to uncover the truth, but it's an essential element of our methodology, which is a stimulus/response approach that has its roots in the polygraph experience. A polygraph detects physiological responses to a stimulus, the stimulus being a yes-or-no question. Our methodology examines verbal and nonverbal indicators exhibited in timely, direct response to a question. That way, you're able to prevent yourself from being influenced by information that may well be truthful but doesn't directly respond to the question. It also enables you to filter out what are called "global" behaviors, like body positioning and general nervous tension, the cause of which you can only guess at.
How should techniques like watching for "tells" be employed in the workplace? With the understanding that nothing in our book, or any other book, will make you a human lie detector, because there's no such thing. When you employ our methodology to spot deceptive behaviors in a situation where you're, say, interviewing a job candidate, speaking with an employee about unacceptable behavior or listening to the boss talk about the organization's financial performance at a company meeting, if you spot deceptive behavior, think of it as a heads up that the situation warrants further attention, rather than as a "Book him, Danno" moment.