Let’s say you’re the chief security officer in your company, and you have a trusted network administrator who comes to you and says she had left her purse in a secure area of the data center when she went to attend a meeting with a couple of managers, and when she returned, $50 was missing from the purse. She tells you that Larry is the only person who had access to the secure area in her absence, so the only explanation is that he took the money. You call Larry into your office and you tell him what the network administrator told you. How do you get him to tell you the truth about whether he took the money?
The answer to that question lies in the pages of a book being released today, “Get the Truth: Former CIA Officers Teach You How to Persuade Anyone to Tell All.” The authors—those three former CIA officers—are Phil Houston, Mike Floyd, and Susan Carnicero, my colleagues at QVerity, a company that does training and consulting in detecting deception, critical interviewing and non-coercive interrogation. I’m the writer of the book, which is a follow-on to our first book, The New York Times bestseller “Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Teach you How to Detect Deception.” Whereas “Spy the Lie” is all about how to tell if someone is lying to you, “Get the Truth” tackles what comes next: Once you know he’s lying, how do you get him to tell you the truth? “Get the Truth” also includes commentary by another QVerity colleague, Peter Romary, an internationally recognized attorney and arbiter, who adds his insight into how the techniques we write about in the book, which were developed in the secretive world of counterespionage and counterterrorism, can be applied in business, negotiation and everyday life.
Let’s get back to Larry. The case facts certainly suggest that he took the $50, so what’s your game plan to get him to tell you the truth? Here are 10 tips that our experience has shown to be remarkably helpful:
- Understand that the reason the individual wants to conceal the truth is the fear of negative consequences if the truth is revealed. He likely feels that there is just so much he can tell you and still keep himself out of harm’s way—he can go only so far without stepping over the cliff. Think of your goal as diminishing that fear so you can determine what’s on the other side of the cliff.
- Adopt a sincere, understanding tone and demeanor. There’s a saying to the effect that the guilty person seeks only to be understood, for to be understood gives the appearance of being forgiven. Far from confrontational or belligerent, the demeanor you project should be engaged, calm, empathetic, and most of all, sincere. Slowing your rate of speech and lowering your voice a bit will aid you tremendously in evincing sincerity.
- Help the person rationalize his actions. This will nudge him a step in the direction of being less focused on long-term consequences, and more focused on the reasons you’re giving him to see telling the truth as a viable option. Rationalizing his actions or behavior by reminding him, for example, that everyone is human, and that everyone makes mistakes, will help weaken his resolve to withhold the truth.
- Minimize the seriousness of the situation. The more you’re able to downplay the consequential nature of the matter about which the individual is withholding the truth, the more comfortable he will be to share the information you’re seeking. When he hears you say, “It’s important that we not blow this out of proportion,” he’ll be struck by how reasonable you are, and you’ll likely be perceived as much less of an adversary.
- Socialize the situation so the person doesn’t feel so alone. If I have the impression that you and others might think of me as a pariah if I admit that I did the bad thing, I’m going to be awfully reluctant to admit it. On the other hand, if you tell me this is the sort of thing you see all the time being done by men and women in all walks of life, I’m going to feel much less alienated. I’ll be more willing to recount the experience I now realize I share with plenty of other people.
- Assure the individual that there is plenty of blame to go around. Chances are, a person who wants to conceal the truth will not have adopted a “buck stops here” mentality. It’s always easier for someone to fess up if he sees that the finger isn’t being pointed solely at him. Liberally shower the blame wherever you can convincingly do so—society, the system, management, bad apples are all potential accomplices in causing the bad thing to happen.
- Don’t allow the person to voice a lie or a denial. If the person is in lying or denial mode, you don’t want his lips moving—the more opportunity he’s given to articulate the lie, the more psychologically entrenched he’ll become, and the less likely he will be to reverse himself and tell you the truth. If the person starts to express a lie or denial, immediately disarm him by simply holding up your hand, saying his name, and using a control phrase like, “Hang on just a minute.” Then go right back to giving him all the reasons why telling the truth is a viable option.
- Take advantage of the power of repetition. Human nature is such that the more frequently we hear something, the more likely we are to believe it, or to at least be open to the possibility. Remember that if the person is in denial mode, you don’t want his lips moving, so you’re the one doing the talking. Freely rearticulate the rationalization, minimization, socialization, and projection of blame that will help the person, even if only temporarily, see things your way.
- Use implicit rather than explicit language. The more implicit you are in the language you use, the easier it will likely be for the person to buy in to what you’re saying. If you tell the person you want to work with him to help get the matter “resolved,” let his mind take that where it will. To you, “resolved” might mean a conviction. To him, it might mean something he can live with. Similarly, avoid any language that might remind the person of negative consequences: He “took” rather than “stole” the money; he “gained unfair advantage” rather than “cheated” on the test; he “inappropriately touched” rather than “assaulted” the woman.
- Never sit in judgment. Remember that your goal from the outset was to get the truth, not to assume the roles of judge and jury. That goal will be considerably more difficult to accomplish if the person feels that you’re judging him, so make sure you avoid chastising or reprimanding him in any way. You want him to see you as a confidant, not as an arbiter of his fate.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.