Thursday, July 2, 2015

Spy the Lie

When J-son joined our family at age 11, it seemed like nothing that came out of his mouth matched reality.  There are lots of reasons for that -- he confabulated, he made mistakes, he lied outright.  Behind all of his warped utterances was the background that his early childhood was less-than-ideal; he had learned to make up stories as a way of coping with erratic adults.  "Tell the grown-ups what you think they want to hear" was a survival mechanism, not a moral choice, during his formative years.

Still, as our family social worker pointed out during our foster training, survival habits that kids pick up in negligent or abusive families can be "maladaptive" in more normal families.  We've spent a lot of time working on learning how to tell the truth.  By that, I mean teaching J-son how to tell the truth, but also figuring out ways that I can get the truth out of him -- a task that includes constantly trying to evaluate the veracity of the words coming out of his mouth, as well as encouraging him to come clean even when it's not easy for him to do so.

For most of the time J-son has been with us, I've had only one basic Lie-->to-->Truth tool in my parenting toolbox:  I tell him over and over again,
"I don't want you to do [stupid bad thing X], but the one thing I care most about is telling the truth.  If you tell me the truth, I won't care as much about [stupid bad thing X]."  
The "Truth-Will-Set-You-Free" tool not a horrible tool to use, especially because it was a new way of looking at the world for J-son.  But it has limited success. Y'know.  It's still a lot easier to lie about embarrassing stuff than to admit to being depraved, or stupid, or greedy; it's a lot simpler to say you did your homework or that you folded the laundry than to have to stop playing video games and go do that boring stuff. I admit that there have been times I've been . . . exasperated.

About a year ago, I stumbled across this little book ("Spy the Lie") at our local the library, and I've read it over and over and over again.  And over.  The subtitle is "Former CIA Officers teach you how to detect deception"; but the subtitle is misleading, at least for me.  For me, the best part of this book wasn't how to look at my kid's answers (although they do offer insight there); the best part was that this book gave me a better way to have those hard conversations . . . the ones where I knew the truth was a round, hard stone somewhere at the bottom of that rocky well, and I had to draw it up from the depths slowly, slowly, using only a long piece of dental floss and a wad of chewing gum.  One wrong question and the truth would detach itself from my line and plummet back to the bottom of the well.

The big help that I got from this book -- although they don't quite put the issue the way I'll describe it here -- is that when I'm asking questions I can't be both judge and jury.  A telling example comes at the beginning of their book, when they describe their method of "non-coercive interrogation".  [I thought that phrase was a euphemism, but the Q&A sessions the authors hold are with job applicants, friendly agents, companies under audit, media events, and other non-prison related interviews.]

Here's the story that flipped my head around.  It begins with one of the authors (Phil Houston) letting a senior CIA officer observe a job interview that Phil conducted with a young man who was applying for a position as a contractor.
As Phil proceeded with his questioning, he identified behaviors that led him to probe more deeply into certain areas to elicit more information.  Before long, the applicant admitted to being a recreational drug user, and said he used marijuana and cocaine on a fairly regular basis. As the interview progressed, he admitted that he was also an occasional drug dealer. In fact, he said he had made a profit of about $1,500 on the sale of some coke just within the past several weeks. He went on to admit that he had stolen a stereo system worth about $500 dollars from a local retailer, and that he had broken his girlfriend’s collar bone during an argument about six months earlier.
Okay, so Phil got the guy to admit to a bunch of behavior that completely disqualifies him from getting a job with the CIA.   But the kicker was how this story ended:

When the 30-minute interview ended and the applicant was leaving, he turned to Phil and asked, “When will I know if I’ve gotten the job?” Phil glanced over at the senior officer, who had an incredulous look on his face. Phil suppressed a grin. “It shouldn’t be more than a couple of weeks," he said. "We’ll be in touch.”
They describe their approach as "non-confrontational, with noone feeling belittled, and without putting the interviewer or [the] organization in harm's way."

I should point out that this is very different from my own style, which can be a "What!?!  Are you crazy??? Who would use a mallet to fix a BIKE!?" style.  (I do not recommend the Exasperated Yelling style of truth-elicitation, by the way, except that it makes you feel temporarily really good to blow up at a kid who's just destroyed your tools and his bike at the same time).

Later in the book, they describe other advantages of this non-judgmental (but fairly crafty) method of asking the right kinds of questions in a non-confrontational way:  "[the person] may still want to say he didn't do it, but he may be thinking about what he could share that might make himself appear to be more cooperative.  If the person gets into the mode of wanting to share something, that will often open the door to allow you to explore other pieces of information."

Getting at the truth is more than just playing Good Cop.  It also means asking the right kinds of questions, and the authors give a lot of helpful examples.  My favorite is the "presumptive question".  That is, instead of asking "did you put anything on your phone that I shouldn't see?" (which has only one comfortable answer: "no"), you can ask, "I'm about to look on your phone. Can you think of any reason I might see something there that shouldn't be there?".   This works particularly well with N-son, who will immediately start making excuses for wrong-doing, even before I've accused him of anything.

In addition to asking good questions, working toward the truth also means listening carefully.  The authors do, as they promise, have descriptions of behaviors and answers to watch out for.  They are emphatic that there's no such thing as a human lie detector, but they point to a number of responses that suggest the questioner ought to examine that area more carefully and deeply.  These include responding in a way much more general than the question, refusing to answer the question, confronting the questioner, offering too much information, invoking religion ("I swear to God!"), and using qualifiers (basically, probably).

One of the lessons of this book that was echoed in both Being Wrong and the Invisible Gorilla is that once a kid starts telling an untruth, you don't then issue a direct challenge to the false statement; that will make the kid repeat the story and dig in -- possibly even make the kid believe the story is true.
Every time you allow the deceptive person to verbalize the lie in response to your hammering on the question, his entrenchment deepens, and his advantage rises. You may think you’re influencing or encouraging the person to come clean, but you’re more likely to be shooting yourself in the foot. The more times you allow him to say “no”, the easier it typically will get for him say it. 
Approaching an interview with a cynical, “if your lips are moving, you must be lying” mind-set would get you nowhere. What we can say, though, is that if the person is lying, you don’t want his lips moving—you want to provide as little opportunity as possible for him to engage in deception.
So my conversations with my sons have taken on very different shapes over the past year, and thank goodness for that!

This post is really long, but the book has a lot more good stuff in it, including lists of questions you might ask your kids about drugs, or questions for potential caregivers of your kids, or for people you suspect of theft.   There are all sorts of stories that are fascinating on their own, and a few celebrity analyses (media interviews of Weiner and Sandusky).

This book has changed the way I talk to my kids, for the better.   And that's basically the truth: I swear to God!


  1. fascinating, I'd love to read this!

    1. Yeah, it's a really good book. I don't think it's wildly popular (the Invisible Gorilla has a bit of a cool science-y aspect, and the Being Wrong book got a huge plug from Bill Clinton), but think it's by far the most practical and helpful of these three books I wrote about. Definitely worth reading!