8 Methods To Get Anyone To Tell The Truth

Whether you’re interviewing a job candidate or sleuthing for information, these tricks will help you enter into deep conversation faster.

8 Methods To Get Anyone To Tell The Truth
[Photo: Flickr user photographer Mia Felicita Bertelli]

Professional interrogators use a number of psychological levers to get people to talk. Among them are techniques designed to instill fear.


But for those of us who aren’t facing hardened criminals and suspected terrorists–for example, we might instead be conducting interviews in the business world–we can rely on certain conversation motivators that don’t involve fear to uncover the truth.

These eight motivators have a foundation in military approaches, but the focus is more broadly on human nature and day-to-day applicability:

1. Childlike Curiosity

A good questioner is purposeful and provocative. The questions lead somewhere and they stimulate interest in the person being questioned. In terms of seeking the truth, therefore, we can view curiosity as a two-way street. You are driven to know something, but the person who is your source of that information will probably have questions rushing through her brain as well: “Why do you want to know?” “What else do you want to know?”

You can exploit the fact that your questions arouse curiosity in your source. You may be asking the questions, but those questions suggest you may know something that she wants to know, too.

When people feel they have gap in their knowledge, it’s like an itch that must be scratched. The more you can stimulate a person’s curiosity, the stronger the itch.

2. Incentives

Human beings are more inclined to want immediate gratification rather than wait for an incentive that comes later–even if it’s better than the quick choice.


Studies involving brain scans indicate that decisions about the possibility of immediate reward activate parts of their brain associated with emotion. Consideration of a long-term reward option activates brain systems associated with reasoning. For a lot of people, the emotion-related parts of the brain win out over the reasoning-related parts of the brain.

An important thing to note about the first two motivators, then, is that both often relate to satisfying a desire for something as soon as possible. Another important link between them is that one of the strongest incentives is sometimes providing information that satisfies your source’s curiosity. This is the foundation of the quid pro quo, a Latin phrase meaning “something for something.” You tell a harmless secret of yours and you might get a big secret in return.

3. Emotional Appeal

Think in terms of positive emotions and negative emotions and how you can use your awareness of them in others to get them to tell you the truth. Also think in terms of a desire for pleasure versus an aversion to punishment.

There’s a big reason why it may be easier to get your source to cooperate if he’s motivated by anger, disgust, hurt, or anything else in the family of negative emotions: People tend to spend more time and energy thinking about events that evoke strong negative emotions than strong positive ones.

On the positive side of the equation, love is thought by many experts to be the most powerful motivator of all. But not just any love–the kind of love that stimulates the same reward centers of the brain as cocaine is romantic love, not selfless love like your kindergarten teacher gave you.

Romantic love is an addiction, and we all know what diehard addicts will do to get a fix: anything. Sometimes “anything” means telling the truth.


4. Boosting Ego

You may be cynical and say that flattery from an auto salesman about your good taste in cars is supercilious junk, but this technique works. Flattery is a tactic that makes people more positive about and cooperative with the source of compliments.

At the heart of this phenomenon is the simple fact that people enjoy feeling good about themselves. Our brains are fertile ground for compliments, and people who understand how and when to plant those compliments gain a psychological advantage over others.

5. Deflating Ego

Done well, attacking a person’s sense of self-worth enables you to move the person into a vulnerable emotional state and make him more compliant. It’s often best used in conjunction with another technique that later makes him feel better. You use the desire to reconnect with you to get your information, and then you bring him out of his self-esteem slump.

Done poorly, you could easily alienate the individual if you’ve misjudged how far to go with that person. And you might get pummeled by crossing the line from ego deflation to insult.

Watch the body language of someone you use a deflating-ego technique with. If you see the person close up–arms folded in front as though she’s hugging herself, slight slump of shoulders, head down–you know you’ve succeeded in undermining her sense of self-worth. At that point, give her an immediate path to reconnect by providing you information.

6. Easing Fears

Mitigating or removing the fear of someone that you want to confide in you is one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal of conversation motivators. There are many possible situations at a workplace, for example, where someone’s competence or honesty comes into question, and the prospect of being fired makes him close up and not want to divulge anything about himself or others out of fear.


Offer protection–emotional, psychological, and, if necessary, physical–to help boost the person’s feeling of security and trust in you, and then carry on with the conversation.

7. Certainty And Uncertainty

Projecting certainty about what you know can another person to talk openly. This is the value of doing your homework about your source: You can go into a conversation with a level of detail on at least a few issues that suggest you know more about the person than you do.

A person feels a little off balance and out of control in the face of uncertainty. If your source is in that state of mild confusion–not completely disoriented, but a little off balance–the information you’re after may leak out because the person has less control over what he says.

8. Silence

Japanese call it shiin. It’s that awkward silence in a conversation that causes people to glance at their laptops, shift their posture, and look at the door as though they hope someone will enter the room and end the tension. Finally, someone can’t tolerate it any longer and says something.

Creating silence in the modern world is intentional. Even in a room full of people experiencing shiin, anyone has the option of speaking up, even if it’s just to beg, “Somebody please say something!” To many people, if not most, silence is unsettling, and someone will say something; it may even contain some substance.

Maryann Karinch has conducted seminars in body language and lie detection for the International Spy Museum, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, George Mason University, and the Colorado Association of Code Enforcement Officials, among other government and private sector institutions.