How Do You Catch a Liar?

Body language and vocal cues don’t tell the whole story, conference speaker says

By Dana Wilkie Apr 28, 2017
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CHICAGO—She folds her arms, doesn't look you in the eye and keeps rubbing the back of her neck—like she's stressed or nervous.

She must be lying.

That conclusion may well be wrong, said Phillip Maltin, who spoke about detecting liars at the Society for Human Resource Management's Talent Management Conference & Exposition.

"The best way to detect a liar is not by body language; that's only one cue," said Maltin, a partner with Raines Feldman LLP, in the greater Los Angeles area. "A person may seem nervous because they're telling the truth but they think that I'm not going to believe them. You need to let body language be a guide," but not the only means to suss out fabrications.

Maltin defends businesses in employment-related claims, trains prosecutors in trial techniques and helps civil lawyers polish their deposition skills. He's developed what he calls the READ (Research, Examine, Analyze, Doubt) system to detect deception.

Maltin says he has encountered many police detectives and prosecutors who question suspected criminals under the assumption that they are guilty. HR professionals aren't immune from this tendency, he added.

He played an audio recording of a police officer interrogating former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig shortly after Craig was arrested in 2007 for lewd conduct in a men's restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Instead of questioning the then-senator calmly and methodically and sticking to facts, the officer grew argumentative, confrontational and accusatory. As a result, Maltin said, the officer got little information out of Craig.

"People don't yield to you just because your office says 'HR,' " he said. "Ask open-ended questions. Listen to the answers and stay on track."

Research Before You Question

Before questioning someone suspected of wrongdoing, you must conduct a solid investigation into the details. That may mean going through accounting books, e-mails, a computer's history or video surveillance, Maltin said.

"Know your subject," he said. "Know your witnesses. Know your questioning strategy ahead of time."

Examine the Suspect, but Play Nice

When it comes time to question someone, he said, "be difficult to dislike." Aggressive and accusatory questioning, he explained, can make someone incommunicative and can even lead to a false confession.

"Be irresistible. You need information, so you need them to talk to you. And the best way to get people to talk is by being friendly to them. Let people tell their story. You get the weirdest information from people when you give them a chance to tell their stories."

Maltin gave this example: A shop clerk is suspected of embezzling money from the store. The wise interrogator will have already done his research and noticed that although product costs are higher, sales seem unnaturally low. He has reviewed sales receipts and seen video footage of the number of sales transactions each day. But he knows it is important not to tip your hand when the questioning starts, Maltin said.

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Instead, he starts with an open-ended and benign query like, "How are sales at the store?"

"Let them go wherever they want to go," Maltin said. "If [the clerk] says everything's good and sales are up, you're already pinning this person down because their story is inconsistent with the hard evidence you've got."

Analyze the Answers

Once the suspect has told his story, Maltin said, analyze it.

"Liars don't make sense. Their stories aren't as plausible. They aren't as logical. There are more discrepancies and ambivalence in the details."

Maltin played a video of an ABC News interview with actor and comedian Bill Cosby after several women had accused him of sexual assault. Asked directly if he had assaulted any of his accusers, Cosby launched into a rambling and nonsensical reply that ended with "Reality is the situation and I can't speak."

Maltin noted people who tell lies tend to use passive constructions, to sound incoherent and to evade direct questions by changing the subject. "Truthful people describe events in personal and detailed ways. They are more expressive and involved in communication."

Doubt Yourself

Even if you have reason to suspect—based on your research, examination and analysis of the questioning—that your suspect is lying, Maltin said, take a step back and try to poke holes in your conclusion.

"Nervousness may [imply] honesty," he said. "Emotions never tell you their source. You don't know why someone is nervous or angry or afraid. Let curiosity guide you. The best lie detectors aren't those who believe in their intuition. The best people at this are curious."

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