‘And nothing but the truth...’

There are ways to tell if a person is lying

Register reporter

Photo illustration by Richard Luken

Bill Clinton’s infamous declaration to reporters on Jan. 26, 1998, that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” has become synonymous with political doublespeak, i.e., lying.
The former president’s mannerisms that day — complete with finger wagging and lectern thumping — were not, as many suggested, of an angry public officer who was eager “to go back to work for the American people.”
Rather, they were a classic display of nonverbal miscues of a person telling a lie, said Allen County Sheriff Tom Williams.
Williams, whose career in law enforcement includes a 20-year stint as an agent with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, also teaches new law enforcement officers interviewing techniques as part of a criminal justice class at Allen County Community College.
Williams uses a video clip of Clinton’s speech to illustrate the techniques of one on the sly.
“The first thing you notice is his use of qualifying statements,” Williams said of the former president.
In most cases, a qualifying statement — for example, “I just want to say one thing” — is usually followed by a lie, Williams said.
“If I ask you a question, you’re not going to qualify your response if you’re telling the truth. You’re just going to tell the truth,” Williams said. “There’s no reason to give a qualifying statement.”
But Clinton’s speech featured three such qualifiers before his fateful quote: “But I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again.”
“It’s like he was building himself for a statement he knows is false,” Williams said. “He wants to say it, and he wants it to be the truth. But it isn’t.”
The former president’s nonverbal gestures were even more telling, particularly with his posture and the way he moved his arms — even without the finger wagging.
“Your body language tells me a lot,” Williams said. “When a person tells the truth, every gesture he makes is natural. It flows. It has a sense of agreement with what he’s saying.”
While many considered Clinton’s finger wagging as a sign of anger, the way he wagged it — and the way he moved his arm — was instead a sign of deceit, Williams said.
“He was moving with an emphasis, but it was not flowing,” Williams said.
The second nonverbal clue came in the president’s eyes, the sheriff said — taking special note of the way Clinton arched his brows midway through his declaration of innocence.
“The eyes show basic human emotions,” Williams said. “They can show disgust, fear, surprise. And those expressions are uncontrollable. They’re innate in any human being.
“I can remember the day he made that statement, and the way he said it, my response was ‘Eh, he’s lying.’ President Clinton was a very good communicator,” Williams concluded, “but a very poor liar.”

WILLIAMS AGREES with the adage that 80 percent of all communication is nonverbal.
And because any police interrogation session carries with it a level of stress, it’s important to distinguish between knowing whether a person is concealing the truth or is simply nervous.
The key is to make the interrogation as similar to a casual conversation as possible, Williams said.
He also begins each interrogation with what he refers to as “baseline” questions.
“We’ll talk about anything a person would consider non-threatening — fishing, hunting, the weather — whatever they like,” he said
The suspect’s responses to those questions provide the baseline, Williams said. A good interrogator will compare those responses to ones when the questions become related to the crime in question.
“How do they sit in the chair? How do they hold their hands? Why are they doing those gestures? Those are things we have to look at,” he said.
And while eye contact is important, it’s not a tell-all, Williams noted. A person who looks away while they’re conversing is normal.
“It’s not normal to stare at a person,” Williams said. “When a person is telling the truth, they’re not necessarily maintaining direct eye contact.”
In fact, a person who intentionally maintains eye contact may be attempting to conceal the truth, Williams said.
There’s one exception.
“If a person is trying to remember something, and they’re honest about it, they’ll usually look up,” the sheriff said. “It’s like they’re mentally searching through a file to find the answer. If they look any other way, it’s usually a lie.”

A person who takes the time to swear to something, be it on a stack of a Bibles or a dead parent’s grave site, frequently is not telling the truth, Williams says.
“Those are qualifying statements,” he repeated.
The sheriff recalled a recent conversation with a suspect who attempted to lie initially. The sheriff caught the lie before it came out of the suspect’s mouth.
“I asked him if he did it, and his reply was ‘To the best of my knowledge, no,” Williams recalled. “What the hell does that even mean?”
Williams found another sign the suspect was lying.
“He looked out the window when he replied,” the sheriff said.

THE KEY to being a good interrogator is to be a good listener.
Suspects tend to be more honest if they develop a relationship or a bond with their questioner — a conversational dance, if you will.
“The KBI calls it the ‘long ride home,’” the sheriff said. “When we would go to get a person, we could develop a relationship with the suspect on the drive back.
“He’s got to believe I will understand what really happened before he’ll be honest,” Williams said. “If you’re an empathetic figure, they’re more likely to open up to you.”
Eventually, if the interrogation goes according to plan, and a suspect is about to confess, the sheriff will incorporate a “winning question” into the conversation.
“It’s a question that a suspect cannot answer without me winning,” he explained.
Williams provided a theoretical winning question he would ask a robbery suspect: “I know that you stole that money, and most everybody thinks you stole it because of your drug habit. I think it’s just because you’re down on your luck, and you needed money for food. Is that why you did it?”
“If he answers it, I win,” Williams said. “He’s searching for a way to make it seem like it’s a less horrendous act. He’s looking for an out. Now there may only be a kernel of truth in his reply, that he was involved in the robbery, and that’s what I’m concerned about.”
Building an emotional contact with a suspect, particularly with those involved in the most heinous crimes, can be physically exhausting.
“I’d rather run 2 miles than to have to go through some of those interrogations,” Williams joked.
A suspect’s gender also reveals much in the way he responds.
“If you’re a male, and you fiddle with your hair, it usually means nothing,” Williams said. “But if you’re a female, fiddling with your hair means you’re hiding something.”
Physical distance between two subjects in a conversation also is telling.
“What most people don’t realize is that in a good, healthy, honest conversation, the two subjects will gradually — sometimes without knowing it — get closer together,” he said. “Eventually, you may wind up unwittingly mimicking each other’s gestures and the way you move.”

THE ABILITY to identify whether a person is being honest is not limited to law enforcement personnel, Williams said.
And even Williams admits to telling an occasional fib or two.
“I read a statistic that the average person tells between 10 and 12 lies a day,” he said. “And many of those are probably for a good reason. For example, if my wife makes me a meal, and I think it’s just OK, and she asks me how it was, I’m probably going to still tell her it’s great. And likewise, if I’m going out to the golf course wearing a gaudy shirt, and I ask her if she likes it, she’ll probably say yes, too.”
“Those are lies I’m happy to live with.”