Listening to the Words

Detecting deception in what they say

By Pamela Meyer, CFE
Do you think you can spot liars? Here are some tips for mining deception indicators in subjects' choice of spoken words and phrases.
"People want to tell you what they've done. They want to confess to you. We just have to listen."
— Todd Brown, detective1

In the January/February 2012 issue, Paul M. Clikeman, Ph.D., CFE, taught us "The 10 Tell-Tale Signs of Deception" with linguistic text analysis. Now Pamela Meyer, CFE, further shows us how to detect deception in the words subjects speak. Meyer, an expert on using visual clues and psychology to spot liars, will be a keynote speaker at the 23rd Annual ACFE Fraud Conference & Exhibition June 17-22 in Orlando, Fla. This article is an excerpt from Meyer's book, "Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception." – ed. 

From "Liespotting" by Pamela Meyer. ©2010 by the author and 
reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.

MayJune-lie-spottingJeff was a district manager for an industrial copier company. His sales force sold to businesses all over the East Coast. Though he was generally satisfied with his staff 's performance, Jeff was starting to wonder whether one of his sales reps, Wade, still had his heart in his work. Wade had always been a great team member, reliable and on target, but lately he seemed to be struggling to meet his goals and closing deals in a panicked rush at the last minute. Over the past year, he had started going for long periods of time without answering his cell phone. Finally, Wade missed a meeting without offering any reason why, and a client complained to Jeff.

Jeff believed in second chances. He didn't want to fire an employee who had shown so much potential. Hoping to get a better sense of what might be going on, Jeff asked Wade to join him for lunch at a local café. When the men were led to a corner table by the hostess, Jeff allowed Wade to choose his seat. He didn't want to make any gestures that Wade could interpret as one-upsmanship.

The men ordered. Jeff noticed that Wade seemed a little quiet and that he kept fingering the tines of the clean fork resting next to his plate. His right hand remained somewhat awkwardly in his lap. Already he seemed uncomfortable, but Jeff did his best to put him at ease.

After some easy banter about local sports and the two men's families, Jeff remarked brightly, "I've been meaning to congratulate you on the sale to Bayern Designs. I can't believe they're taking over two additional floors in their building. Things must be going well for them."

"Must be," replied Wade, nodding, as the food arrived. Before Jeff could even arrange his napkin on his lap, Wade was diving into his lunch.

"Well, how about you? How are things going with you?" Jeff asked. He did his best to sound unthreatening.

Wade finished chewing, swallowed, and replied, "How are things going? They're going fine."

Clearly, Wade wasn't going to give him an easy way in. It was time to get to the real topic. Jeff put down his fork. "Wade, you know I have to ask you about the missed meeting with Ann Fischer. Can you tell me what happened?"

MayJune-lie-spotting-coverWade took a sip from his glass and put it down carefully before answering. Holding Jeff 's gaze, he said, "I know. I sent her an apology, and I called her, too. Not that that will make much of a difference. It was just a rotten day, I guess. I got a late start. I printed out some proposals at home, and that set me back. And then . . . well, then I shouldn't have bothered with the drive-through at Starbucks; it always takes too long. I was so frustrated I just grabbed my coffee and drove off without the muffin I'd ordered. I was really worried that I'd be late for the presentation, but I made it by nine. It went great. They seemed mostly interested in the features on the Canon, but they asked a few questions about the Toshiba, too. Once I pull some numbers together for them, I think they'll see the Canon is a perfect fit for what they need."

Jeff said, "Good, good. Now, what about the meeting?"

Wade shook his head. "Oh, sorry. Well, so then I was really hungry because I hadn't eaten breakfast, and I decided to stop for a sandwich before heading over to Fischer's office. When I came out, my car wouldn't start. I do not know what happened, but, uh, the battery was just dead. And on top of that, I'd left my charger at home and my cell phone was out of juice, too. Sounds crazy, I know, but I swear it's true. I was banging my hands on the car and yelling at people to see if they'd let me use their phone, but I must have looked like a maniac — no one would help me.

"Finally I got the manager at the sandwich shop to jump-start me. But by then I was so late that it didn't seem worth it to drive across town to the meeting with Fischer — I figured the woman was pissed at me anyway by then. So I just went home. I know that was a stupid thing to do. I'm really, really sorry, and it will not happen again. It will not. You have my word."

Wade looked earnestly at Jeff, who nodded. He wasn't ready to say that he knew Wade wasn't telling the truth. The two men finished their lunch pleasantly enough. But when they got back to the office, Jeff told Maxine, the head of HR, that he needed to draft a warning letter informing Wade that he was in danger of being terminated. "Keep that file close," he told Maxine.

Within a few months, Wade missed another appointment, and Jeff fired him. He found out shortly thereafter that Wade had checked himself into drug rehab.

Humans excel at adapting language to suit their needs. We hear a clever phrase and make it our own; we pick up slang; we order "soda" until we move to another part of the country and start ordering "pop." Each of us has developed a singular style of verbal communication that is heavily influenced by our geographic location, our life experience, and our social, ethnic, and economic demographic.


Yet trained deception detectors know that though everyone has a unique way of expressing himself, there are some near-universal ways in which liars reveal themselves when they speak. 

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