By Elly Johnson
Having found myself at the age of 22 in a role designed to maintain public peace, gather information and keep people safe, I realised I needed to know about lies and deception. I considered my level of expertise on the topic and with an honest perspective, I labelled it low. I felt certain about one thing. All humans tell lies. I knew that the policing career I had just embarked on was going to not only be packed with adventure, but also full of people hiding behind lies and misleading information.
I recognised that one of the core responsibilities of my new role as a Police Officer was conducting interviews and with that task came the complexity of unravelling truth from lies. I reflected on exactly how much training they had given us in the Police Academy in distinguishing truth from lies and as it turns out there was little to none.
Recruit training had equipped me with the ability to run for 6 kilometres without stopping, taught me to shoot a gun at a central point on a target and drummed into me the legal points of proof for at least 10 serious crimes.
In training I had seen autopsies, taken part in role plays where I had deliver death messages to a parent and I had also learnt how to twist someone's wrist behind their back until they buckled and fell to the ground. I knew how to give a dummy CPR and I also knew sections 458 and 459 of the Victorian Crimes Act fluently.
So if interviewing people and effectively distinguishing truth from lies were of such critical importance to my new role, why did I, and my fellow squad mates, know so very little?
I started to ponder on questions I couldn’t yet answer; "Why would someone give me critical information that was against their own self interest or that of others, just because I ask them to?” and "How would I know if it was the truth if I had little or no other evidence?”
One of the early tests of my ability to ask effective questions and spot truth or lies came a couple of months after graduation when working at Brighton Police station in Melbourne. Myself and my more experienced Senior Constable partner were called to a train bridge that spanned across the busy Nepean Highway in Gardenvale. The report was that someone was throwing rocks from the bridge onto the busy road and passing cars.
Long story short, let me just say that the 12 or 13 year old boy I was tasked with speaking to seemed ever so convincing. Whilst my partner chatted with 2 other teens further down the bridge, I questioned this lad until I was convinced he had nothing to do with the dangerous behaviour I was alleging. On reflection I'm not sure how he swayed me away from suspicion and allowed me to let him happily run home to his mum.
My wise partner on the other hand was furious I had let him go and could not understand how I could possibly believe that this kid was not involved. I explained that "he was really believable, he told me he didn’t do anything and I just didn't feel he was involved." It turns out the 3 of them were all equally involved, plus a 4th one who ran off when he saw the police car arrive. I decided at that point that I desperately needed to fill the gap in my knowledge and awareness.
5 years in the police force, 7 years in sales, recruitment and senior management and now 16 years in a business teaching people to conduct better interviews with a focus on evaluating truthfulness and credibility, has opened my eyes to the topic of truth and lies from many different angles.
I now know there is more to the topic of truth and lies than just trying to teach people to be 'a human lie detector'. The topic is rather more complex and includes understanding ourselves better, our own filters, human behaviour and our own truth.
In my view, those working in any role involving the safety of people or property should have a solid grounding in the many facets of human behaviour, including understanding how to better read people and situations. Most entry level courses don't teach these skills and if they do, it is a brief introduction to what is a complex topic. From there most of the learning comes from being thrown in the deep end with the occasional formal skill top up for some positions.
Asking better questions, reading between the lines, understanding the impact your own behaviour has in the interaction, encouraging truth and spotting lies are not skills that you can master overnight. It takes ongoing education, practice and guidance to continue to develop a more comprehensive awareness.
This article is first in a series of three that aims to offer tips and insight for those involved in dealing with people where obtaining accurate information is important. Some of the tips come from courses that have been developed over the past 16 years, including the original Perceptive Interviewing® program. Other concepts are drawn from research by experts such as Dr Paul Ekman and form part of our licensed courses in evaluating truthfulness and credibility.
Some of the methods and ideas will come from personal experience or from people I have worked with or trained.
Author: Elly Johnson (former name Lizz Corbett) is Managing Director of Training Group International.
If you are interested in building interviewing skills and awareness, connecting with people, encouraging truth, spotting lies or asking better questions then book our Perceptive Interviewing® course or call 1300 855 618.