With all the ruckus in recent months about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the accusations against him, it’s being driven home once again that deception detection is a critical skill. When it comes to your hiring practices, caseload, or even relationships, the importance of being able to recognize deceit is paramount.
Analyzing people’s written or verbal statements for deception is a learned and perishable skill. As you get better at it, the principles get more advanced. Eventually you can construct a profile of the person, identifying far more than whether they are being deceptive. You’ll be able to see their core motivators, their agendas, and more. This gives you the ability to see past what their goals are, and thwart or pervert those goals.
There are many principles behind this type of analysis. To get started, however, we’ll just look at three basic ones, and we’ll use a sentence from Kavanaugh accuser Christine Ford as our example.
As with any analysis, we will start with the belief that she is telling the truth. When I sit down to begin analyzing a statement or constructing a profile, I start with the assumption that I am looking at truthful words from a truthful person. If my assessment changes, it is based upon their own words. They’ll need to talk me out of believing them. So let’s get started.
Principle 1: People mean what they say.
Speech in someone’s native language is so ingrained that it is beyond second nature; it’s instinct. Speech conveys visceral concepts like possession; even the smallest of toddlers understands the idea of “mine.”
The free editing process is where someone is given the chance, space, time, and freedom to relay information using their own words to convey what they want conveyed. They choose the words, they choose the concepts, they choose what they tell you. That means, you can trust that what they tell you is what they meant to tell you.
That doesn’t mean they’re telling you the whole truth. You see, most deception is done by omission, not fabrication. Find the information that’s being left out, and you’ll find the sensitive information that changes the scope of the bigger picture.
The good news is that people telegraph the information they’re trying so hard to keep out. As people, we can’t help it. The brain knows what it knows, and leaving information out (or fabricating it) causes internal stress that the brain will try to avoid.
Principle 2: Everyone has a subjective dictionary.
The average person has a vocabulary of about 25,000 words. If they’re in a specialized career, such as law or medicine, they may have another 5,000 to 10,000 on top of that.
Why is this important? It’s actually critical because a person’s brain chooses, specifically, the exact word for a concept, idea, or story in a fraction of a second. It doesn’t matter how you would define a term they use; what matters is how your subject defines the term they chose. For a classic example of this, see Bill Clinton’s definition of “sexual relations.”
To understand how deep this runs, let’s say you’re telling me a story about getting pulled over by a cop. Look at the following two sentences:
“I noticed a cop behind me so I pulled over. The cop told me to give him my license and registration.”
What changed? “A cop,” the nameless and faceless officer pulling you over, changed to “the cop.” What forced that article change in your brain? His position at your window.
Pronouns and articles give away a lot of information.
Principle 3: If they don’t say it, you cannot say it for them.
Now is when we tie these principles together. Since we are going to go into this believing her; since we are going to take her at her word as we start; since we can trust that her brain is choosing the words that she will use, it means that we need to take the words she offers, and nothing else. We do not put words in her mouth, we do not add in outside information we learned from the media, we look at her words. We read what she chose to tell us, we don’t interpret it through our own experiences or beliefs or notions; we simply take her words, the way she said them.
There is a saying for analysts; we say that we’re “slaves to the statement.” We must go where the words lead; we don’t get to put our own spin on it, we don’t get to make a value judgment about who the statement comes from or whether we like them. We simply look at the material they give us.
With these things in mind, as an example of this in action, let’s take the first sentence of Ford’s initial email to Senator Dianne Feinstein.
I am writing with information relevant in evaluating the current nominee to the Supreme Court.
We will literally look at this one word and phrase at a time.
“I am writing” – Order equals priority. In this free editing process, she could have started anywhere in her narrative. She could have chosen any one of the 25,000 or more words she has in her head to begin this letter. She chose to start by saying the purpose for her letter, like most writers do, and it’s important that we actually CATCH it when she says it.
The first question I have here is why did she use the word “with” instead of “to”?
This type of analysis is often a study of expected vs. unexpected language. What do we expect to see here? She starts by saying “I am writing,” and the next logical word we would see is “to,” or “because.” She might even use “about.” After all, she is explaining the purpose for her writing, yes?
The word “with” actually signifies distance. It’s a way to link two things that have distance between them. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.” They’re at opposite ends of the sentence, linked by the word “with.”
Here she says “I am writing with information,” but she herself does not want to be near the information, even in her words. She needs to use a connecting word. (For contrast, consider “I have information” or “I am writing about…”)
So far, we are half a sentence in, and we already see that she does not want to put herself near the information that she felt strongly enough about to write to a Senator. We file this tidbit away for later. We want to see how it keeps going.
“relevant” – The word “relevant” is important. Why did she use it? Why does she feel the need to tell the reader that her information is relevant? When people announce that something is relevant, or shocking, or some other adjective to describe their information, it’s because they need you to characterize it in that way. They are framing the information.
“in evaluating” – Not only does she tell you that her information IS relevant, she tells you HOW it is relevant. Note the use of “in,” and not “for.” The word “in” suggests placement. Her brain felt more comfortable using a word to describe closer involvement with evaluating.
“the current nominee” – This is significant because the word “current” is a delineation and time separation. It’s meant to separate this nominee, the one she means to refer to, from another nominee. Current, as opposed to future.
She may be expecting/desiring a different nominee in the future, and so her brain automatically made the distinction. Not the one coming up later; the one that is nominated now. A question to be asked is, is there another nominee she knows about or expects later?
A followup question to that refers to her priority. Remember, order IS priority. She gets to choose what she says and how she says it, and her brain, up front, has told us the following so far:
- She put distance between herself and the information. As a sexual assault victim (since we believe her at this point), her expected priority/core motivator is to be heard. Would that fit this situation? Or would she have stood close to the accusation in order TO be heard?
- She tells the reader HOW to characterize her information before she gives it. She frames the scenario and tells you it is relevant.
- She separates the current nominee from a potentially expected future nominee, during the setting of priorities.
Since we understand that order is priority, we know that the first sentence is often going to contain the writer’s true reason for writing. In this case, her motivation in writing may not be justice, it may not be setting the record straight, it may not be personal healing. None of those things are mentioned here, and we cannot say those things for her.
What she does say is that she has information that you should see as relevant, information that she distances from, and that she wants and expects a different nominee.
Wait, you might be thinking. She never said she wants a different nominee. Except, yes, she did — by delineating and separating the “current” nominee, as opposed to the next nominee, the future one — and she did so in the first sentence, telling you it is her priority.
In fact, she does not even mention the accusation of assault until several sentences in. Which means it is of less priority than the first thing she talked about.
Is this one sentence enough to cast doubt upon her entire story? No, we would need to analyze the rest of her statement for that — which I’m considering doing. Is it enough to be significant? Yes, because she has told us WHY she has come forward.
As we move through the rest of it, we would give it all the same treatment. We look to see if further in the statement, her words confirm, disprove, or are neutral with assessments we are making.
That’s how analysis works. That’s how you CAN see deception where others miss it. That’s one of the tools you can use to keep your group safe. If we got that much from one sentence, what’s in the rest of her story? Is it possible to deduce her core motivations without bringing anything in but what she herself has written? Absolutely.
For information on training for yourself or your workplace, or to discuss a specific situation, feel free to email me.