IT leaders can find themselves seeking responses to questions in any number of scenarios, from interviewing job candidates to negotiating with vendors to find the right services provider for a multi-million-dollar project. Regardless of the scenario, the ability to tell when a person is being less than honest can be a career-saving talent. Enter, of all people, Lance Armstrong.
Oprah Winfrey’s recent two-part interview with Armstrong provided some textbook examples of what to listen and look for in order to identify a lack of truthfulness or conviction when you’re interviewing someone. As I’ve noted in a couple of previous posts, I wear a second professional hat as a partner in QVerity, a company that provides training and consulting in deception detection and critical interviewing techniques, and as co-writer of The New York Times bestseller, “Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Teach You How to Detect Deception.” I watched the Armstrong interview wearing that hat, and found plenty of examples of behavior that you might find very helpful the next time you’re asking your vendor rep about the performance of the system he’s trying to sell you.
Here, then, are nine tips on what to listen and look for in a question-response scenario:
Inappropriate level of concern. This category of deceptive behavior is often exhibited in the form of smiling or laughing in response to a serious question. There were several examples of this in the Armstrong interview, including his response when Winfrey asked about Christian Vande Velde, one of Armstrong’s former teammates, who told the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) that Armstrong threatened to kick him off the team if he didn’t shape up and conform to the doping program. “That’s not true,” Armstrong said. But he chuckled when he said it.
Convincing statements. When the truth is not a person’s ally, he will often respond to questions with “convincing statements,” which are statements made for the purpose of influencing the questioner’s perception rather than conveying truthful information. Winfrey asked Armstrong about the fact that USADA CEO Travis Tygart had said that someone on Armstrong’s team offered a donation of over $150,000, which USADA did not accept. So Oprah asked, “Were you trying to pay off USADA?” Armstrong responded, “No. That is not true.” If he had stopped there, it wouldn’t have been a problem. But then he resorted to making convincing statements: “And in the thousand-page reason/decision that they issued, there was a lot of stuff in there. Everything was in there. Why wasn’t that in there? Pretty big story.”
Inappropriate level of politeness or nicety. After those convincing statements in response to the question about the alleged $150,000 offer to USADA, Armstrong said this: “Oprah, it’s not true.” It was the only time during the entire interview that Armstrong addressed Winfrey by her name. A deceptive person will often try to influence the questioner with flattery or familiarity, such as the sudden use of the questioner’s first name, without even thinking about it. Why did Armstrong address Oprah by name in response to that particular question?
Behavioral pauses. A noticeable pause often precedes the response of a deceptive person. The reason is that he needs to buy himself time to first, decide whether or not he’s going to lie, and second, figure out how he’s going to pull it off. This occurred several times during the interview, perhaps most noticeably when Winfrey asked, “Do you have remorse?” The question elicited an extended “Ummm” as Armstrong scrambled to decide how to respond.
Repeating the question. Winfrey thereupon elaborated: “Is there real remorse, or is there a sense of, ‘I’m sorry I got caught, I’m sorry I had to go through all this, I wish this hadn’t happened’?” Armstrong responded by repeating the question: “Do I have remorse?” This is another tactic deceptive people use to buy themselves time. If Armstrong had truly felt remorseful, his natural response would have been an immediate “Yes.”
Non-answer statements. Another way deceptive people try to buy themselves time is to begin the response with a non-answer statement. Winfrey brought up David Walsh, the sports writer for The Sunday Times in Britain, who for years was relentless in chasing the story of Armstrong’s doping. In 2006, Armstrong sued the Times, and the paper settled the case for approximately $500,000, after spending $1 million in legal fees. Winfrey asked, “Do you owe David Walsh an apology?” In response, Armstrong laughed (again, an inappropriate level of concern), and said, “That’s a good question.” That statement is one of the most common non-answer statements we hear.
Unintended messages. Following that non-answer statement, Winfrey asked the question again: “Do you owe David Walsh an apology, who for 13 years has pursued this story, who wrote for the Times, who’s now written books about you and this entire process?” Armstrong’s response was, “I would apologize to David.” This statement was an excellent example of an “unintended message,” a thought that a deceptive person conveys without realizing it. What’s significant here is that Armstrong didn’t say, “Yes, I owe David an apology.” Instead, with his response, “I would apologize to David,” he conveyed the unintended message that he would apologize out of necessity, but not because he believes he owes Walsh an apology. This is another indicator of Armstrong’s lack of remorse. Note that literalness is key: To spot an unintended message, you need to focus on what the person is literally saying.
Refusal to answer the question. Winfrey asked about Betsy Andreu, the wife of Armstrong’s former teammate Frankie Andreu, who was one of the first people to speak out about Armstrong’s doping. She visited him in an Indiana hospital in 1996, and she said she overheard him talking to a doctor, and admitting to using performance-enhancing drugs. So Winfrey asked, “Was Betsy telling the truth about the Indiana hospital, overhearing you in 1996?” Armstrong paused, and then responded, “I’m not going to take that on. I’m laying down on that one.” But Winfrey persisted, and asked again: “Was Betsy lying?” Armstrong again paused and said, “I’m just not … I’m going to put that one down.” Refusal to answer the question is a glaring deceptive indicator. There’s a reason for that refusal, and it’s typically that the truth isn’t the person’s ally.
Hand-to-face activity. In addition to verbal deceptive indicators, there are a number of non-verbal indicators to watch for. Non-verbally, during Armstrong’s responses to several of the questions, the cluster of deceptive behaviors included touching his face. This is something people do when the question triggers a spike in anxiety. What happens is the fight-or-flight response kicks in — the body reroutes circulation from blood-rich regions of the body, notably the head region, to the vital organs and major muscle groups to prepare the body to respond to a perceived threat. This irritates the capillaries in those regions, like the face and ears, and the person will touch those areas without thinking about it.
Keep in mind that all of these behaviors are only meaningful when they’re exhibited in direct, timely response to a question (that way you’re able to identify the stimulus of the behavior), and when they appear in clusters of two or more (an isolated behavior doesn’t pass the reliability test). Also, ignore any “global” behaviors like posture and general nervous tension, since you have no way of knowing what’s causing those behaviors. Think of it as taking the guesswork out of the equation.
So let’s say the next time you’re meeting with your vendor rep about your ERP rollout, you ask him whether there are any unforeseen glitches. “I’m glad you asked that,” he says. “We’ve got a great reputation for avoiding unforeseen glitches.” Sounds good, right? Well, he’s just given you a non-answer statement and a convincing statement, and that’s a cluster of deceptive behaviors. You don’t know for certain that there’s a problem, but you do know you have some work to do to find out.