A Simple Trick to Help You Read People Better

The key is not to focus on them.

Originally Published In Psychology Today

James (not his real name) was a chain smoker, so we had to go outside the building to have the long conversation I was hoping for.

I had reached out to James, an experienced interrogator, because I was as an intelligence officer interested in learning more about deception detection. As we strolled around a grassy area on the south side of the East Coast facility, I asked James whether he thought it was possible to tell whether a prisoner was lying.

He took a deep drag on his unfiltered Camel while he considered my question. “Well,” he said, a faint smile playing on his lips, “sort of.”

My own breath looked like cigarette smoke in the February morning air as I asked, “Sort of?”

More puffs of the Camel, followed by a ritual in which James dropped his half-smoked cigarette and ground it out under his heel while lighting another. While watching this, it occurred to me that I was interrogating an interrogator who didn’t appreciate being interrogated. So, uncharacteristically, I waited patiently for an answer.

“All of us [interrogators] have certain ‘tells’ we look out for,” James said, squinting at me through a cloud of smoke. “We watch for, you know, eye movements, too much fidgeting, too little fidgeting, changes in tone of voice, inconsistencies in timelines, posture, yada yada yada. But I’ve come to doubt that stuff, at least when I’m the one doing the questioning.

“What I like to do now is watch someone else put questions to a detainee. But I don’t watch the prisoner. I look at the officer asking the questions. How he reacts to answerstells me more than how the detainee reacts to questions.”

© Dr. Eric Haseltine

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