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Life By Design Blog

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Business Book Club: Get the Truth

I've set myself a goal to read one self-development book per month. To make sure I really reflect on what I'm reading I'm going to extract the wisdom from the best business and personal development books and share it with you.

This month I’ve been reading Get The Truth Don Tennant, Michael Floyd, Peter Romary, Philip Houston, and Susan Carnicero

Getting someone to tell the truth is an essential skill that most people would love to have but very few people possess. Former CIA agents and professional interrogators Philip Houston, Mike Floyd, and Susan Carnicero are among the world's best at detecting deceptive behaviour. Not only can they convince people to share things they don’t want to tell but often the subjects of their interrogations thank them for the opportunity afterwards!!! I don’t feel that I deal with deceptive people often but I was fascinated to learn how they do it and if those skills can be learnt by anyone.

The book:

Get the Truth promises to be a step-by-step guide that empowers readers to elicit the truth from others. The authors share the fascinating story of how they used a methodology Houston developed to elicit the truth in the counterterrorism and criminal investigation realms, and how these techniques can be applied in our day to day lives. We hear how they got the truth in a variety of scenarios ranging from people stealing from their employer to interrogating double agents. They also share a transcript of the shockingly bad OJ Simpson police interview and outline how they would have handled it differently in a section titled ‘If OJ did it’

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We learn every step in this methodology from preparation, gaining trust, how they elicit honest answers to closing the investigation.

Here are some of the key messages I took from the book. I’ve focused on the key messages with regards to how to get people onside rather than how to conduct an interrogation as I feel this is the most useful learning in the book.


Spoiler Alert: It’s not about banging fists on tables or shining a bright light in people’s eyes.

One of the first things that struck me about the interrogator's approach was that it is the opposite of what you see depicted in the movies. It’s not about shouting at people and shining a light in their eyes in order to pressure them into talking. In fact, it’s the complete opposite.

Successful interrogators focus on getting the interviewee to like and trust them. The interrogators spend a lot of time up front making the interviewee feel valued and safe. Even the most criminally minded and traitorous people are treated with empathy and respect. The very best interrogators manage to convince their interview subjects that they are on their side.

This approach is also at odds with some of the ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ previously used by the US military in the middle east. The book illustrates why the shining a light in someone's eyes approach is flawed and why waterboarding, as well as being unethical, doesn't get results. You can pressure someone into a confession but this doesn't mean you have been given the truth.


Understand the person, don’t attack the person

If you want to get the truth from someone you need to understand them and make them feel understood. The first step is to get as much background information as you can. Not just related to the situation at hand but also about their personal lives too. The key relationships in their lives, any prior convictions, troubles at home or any addictions they’ve had in the past. All of this will give you some clues as to their motives and how they might see the world.  

The next step is to conduct a fact find. Before accusing, ask lots of questions and gather as much relevant information from the person as you can. It’s interesting the note that interrogators start with an interview. At this point, they are discovering information. Only when they feel they feel that they have learnt enough to be sure that an interrogation is needed will they transition into interrogation mode. They use a transition statement which outlines their suspicions and the format of the discussion goes from question and answer into the interrogators ‘monologue’. However, this can’t be done successfully without the interview phase first. Sometimes if the interview reveals that the person isn’t to blame, no interrogation ever takes place.


Use your judgement-best case/worst case

Another interesting decision the interrogator has at this point is to decide where the interviewee is on the best-case/worst-case continuum in terms of just how much wrong they have done and how premeditated it was. On one hand, it can be beneficial to give the interviewee the benefit of the doubt but this may also allow them to get away with admitting less than they have done. On the other hand, starting at the worst case scenario allows you to work back to a better scenario if you’ve got it wrong but that may put the interviewee's guard up and close the conversation down completely.


Stay calm

Sometimes interrogators are faced with sex offenders or agents whose actions have lead to their fellow countrymen being killed. No matter how angry or upset this might make the interrogator feel they never let their personal feelings show. Even if they find the other person utterly repugnant they still empathise with them and make the other person feel valued.

They speak slowly and calmly using a low tone of voice at all times to keep the interviewee engaged.


Neutralise objections by agreeing with them

An interesting tactic I picked up from the book is to neutralise objections by agreeing with them. The book shares the story of Jan who is accused of stealing at work. In her defence, she highlights her unblemished record at work, her years of service and how respected she is. All of this is true but it’s an attempt to paint a halo around her and deflect from the fact that she stole. So how do interrogators handle this? Do they shut her down? Nope, they agree with her. This shows that they have heard Jan and she has been understood. This also confuses her as she is trying to put up resistance but they have just agreed with her. This is likely to make her realise that her tactics didn’t work. She is now more likely to consider giving the truth as an option. This is an approach I have been taught many times in the past. I have to say it is surprisingly effective.


Treat People With Dignity: Do no harm

Houston and his team have a mantra: do no harm.

It would be easy to be angry at people who have committed crimes and to stand in judgement of them. However, successful interrogators always treat people with dignity and respect. The reason for this is that it puts the interviewee in the best emotional and psychological state to tell the truth. They make it psychologically safe to admit wrongdoing. Attacking someone or judging them will only put up their resistance and close down any hope of getting the truth.

Interrogators also don’t use the word interrogation. Often they don’t use the word investigation either, preferring to use the more neutral term ‘enquiry’ at first. They choose their words carefully preferring words like ‘took’ rather than ‘stole’ to prevent resistance. Even after someone has finally admitted wrongdoing they never gloat or respond by saying “I knew it!”. They are always sure to thank the person after they tell the truth.

Admitting to making a mistake feels awful for any of us. Sometimes good people do bad things. If they are to face the consequences of their actions they want to feel that they’ve been treated fairly in the process. This also helps prevents any nasty reprisals or people doing anything drastic when they are ashamed of their behaviour. Treating people with dignity means a graceful exit for all parties. This is why the interviewee, who in some cases has just been sacked or admitted to a crime’, often thanks them afterwards. They were relieved to have been able to confess but also feel that they have been understood and treated fairly.


Some final tips

If you are to conduct an enquiry of your own here are some final tips

  • Prepare-have a plan
  • Tell them the situation-be open and upfront
  • Collect information in chronological order
  • Test the information you are given. Ask “how do you know?”.
  • Ask open questions. Use closed questions only to close down lines of enquiry.
  • Use presumptive questions sparingly.
  • Follow up answers with questions like “what else?”
  • Keep very few notes so that you don’t miss anything
  • Don’t rush
  • Keep the conversation non-adversarial.
  • Thank the person



So much in this book resonated with me. One theme always comes up whenever I coach or train people on communication, influencing or conflict handling. The fact that ultimately all human beings just want to be heard and valued. I have to admit though, I’d never imagined that this would be a theme in a book about interrogation techniques. However, it makes perfect sense. It’s easy to understand that a combative approach will only cause people to put their guard up and get no results at all. How often do we see people fall out and never reconcile because each party has dug their heels in? I can clearly see how making it psychologically safe for someone to admit that they are wrong yields better results.,

It really got me thinking about how I deal with general conflict situations in day to day life. I think all of the above lessons can be deployed there. The interrogators are not ‘too nice’ and they certainly aren't pushovers, but truly understanding people, building rapport and and creating an environment where it feels like both parties are working together to create the best possible outcome in the circumstances they can learn more than they ever could have with confrontation or by shining a light in people eyes.


What should I read next?  

Have you read the book? What did you think? What shall I read next?

If you have any recommendations let me know below or via Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn

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