Assessing a liar

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Assessing a liar

The following was taken from a presentation by Warren Holmes and provided to us by Mr. L. Smith. Since it is coming to you third-hand, it is. by necessity a bit more scattered than we usually present. However, we felt there was some information worth sharing even in this un-polished state.

It is always difficult to read a book and understand the process of interview and interrogation. Most people would not believe that the truth can be determined in an interview; in reality you can, but the ability and skill to do so do not come from reading a book but from practice in the field. The classroom can give you the tools of the trade, but to master the techniques you must move into the field.

The following is by no means intended to be comprehensive nor even serve as more than an introduction and some broad tips on ferreting out lies and liars. It is important to first understand that lying is a means of self- preservation. According to Warren Holmes, deceit is inherent in animals as a feature of survival. We — also animals — are genetically programmed to do the same. Only socialization and education help us to rise above this trait.

The essence of the interview, and its objective, is knowledge: Knowledge of the subject and the event. If the interviewer has doubts or lacks the energy and drive, he will not get the results he seeks. The first rule when interviewing someone, for whatever purpose, is to identify and develop common ground and mutual empathy. By establishing common ground the interviewer and interviewee develop a profound interpersonal relationship that will assist in determining the truth. You can help to establish an emotional tie of understanding through discussion of such topics as:

• The emotional aspects of the event that led to the discussion

• Leaving the comfort of a job and community

• Financial pressures that result from changes in life’s circumstances

• “Virtual prisons” we create for ourselves—the result of lies we tell

• Jobs and work as “prisons.”

Signs of Guilt

When an interviewee responds with “To the best of my knowledge” or “ as I recollect,” he is leaving himself a way out in the future if asked again or if his responses are contradicted. Likewise, the circumstances of the answers are important. For example, does he struggle with elaborate scenarios to explain circumstances when a simple answer would suffice?

Other signs of deception include:

• Taking a long time to think.

• Repeating question, saying “Now let me think….”

• Not responding to the question asked

Example: Did you take anything from the warehouse?

Response: “I am the foreman of the warehouse.”

The question requires only a yes or no answer; this is a not a response to the question asked.

• The Interviewee responds with an answer that makes no sense. For example, it is vague, out of context, wanders around or the simply changes the subject.


Liars deny specific items or acts. For example, you ask if the subject took the box of tools with special measuring device, and he answers no, that he did not take the box with the measuring device. True! In fact, he took the new box that had not yet been fitted with the special measuring device.

Innocent people deny things in general terms. Asked if he took the toolbox that contained the special measuring device, the subject answers that he never took any toolbox out of the building or anywhere else. It is important to remember that in every lie there is a kernel of truth, a foundation of truth or fact. If during the interview you hear what you know to be lies, look for the one bit of truth that is buried in there somewhere.

Techniques of the liar

The liar has some readily identifiable hallmarks such as:

• Hostility – see any police/detective show and the performance of the criminal just arrested for the crime

• Evasiveness – as above.

• Bait – The subject gives a little information in order to better evade other questions.

Other common techniques are:

• Roadblocks – The subject has great difficulty answering even the simplest of questions. The technique is designed to demonstrate what a hard time he can give the interviewer on little questions and thus how much more difficult he will be to pin down on the hard questions.

• Red herring arguments – He lies by referral: “Oh, I have already told so and so.” Means: He has already lied to someone else about this and he now wants the interviewer to speak to him, thus avoiding having to go through the story again and again trying to get the facts right. Memory is unreliable in the best of circumstances; it is even more if you have made up the story in its entirety.

• Rehearsed answers – You barely get the question out when he provides the answer. Almost certainly a rehearsed answer.

• The subject will not enter into the spirit of the debate, but just keeps reasserting the same thing.

• The subject maintains that the interviewer “just does not understand,” thereby dismissing the interviewer to avoid going into another lie.

Interview Techniques

In general, the interviewer must develop general arguments and scenarios to begin getting at the truth. The initial attempts can be simple, but they then need to be ever more complex. Rules include not insulting the subject’s intelligence; the interviewer must appear to be reading his mind; he must employ specific arguments for each interview; the voice should reveal no doubts; he should keep talking and keep the conversation low-key.

• Question specifics – no question is too small. Liars create stories and responses in general terms. Therefore, it is necessary to question specifics.

• Note reactions of the subject – When recalling an event a subject who is telling the truth will usually become animated and conversational. It is a normal part of conversation. If that element is absent chances are the story is made up.

• Ask the subject to repeat the story with specifics again, and again go into detail on the information subject provides.

• Notice the tone of voice and the speech – Someone who is lying often tries to moderate his speech and control the presentation and will not engage in conversation.

• Note the demeanor of the subject – Is the subject taking the interview with the seriousness that it deserves.

• Detach the events from the subject- Ask about the events in the 3rd person, as though they were carried out by a stranger or being recalled as a play rather than real events.

• Use a theoretical approach – Accuse the subject of more than he is really guilty of and let him then settle for what he did do.

• Use role playing – “I know you did not do it, but if you had, how would you have gone about it?” “I know this is not the position you take, but if you took such a position, what would you look for?” This often produces answers to questions that other methods will not and works especially well on more intelligent or arrogant subjects.


Always leave a face-saving out for the interviewee. When the subject begins sending “buying signals,” such as a nod, moving forward in the chair, begins agreeing, press harder because you are closing in on the answer. At that point, get the agreement and work out the reasons later. Simply because you do not get a confession, or the full truth or story, does not mean you cannot ascertain the truth.

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