Are you an effective interviewer?

Are you an effective interviewer?

Communication is the process of conveying words, actions, thoughts, beliefs and feelings.  The process of communication can be done either through words (verbal) or through actions (non-verbal). A third area that needs to be evaluated is how that communication is conveyed (paralinguistic delivery). Finally the content, structure and detail of the language used also needs to be examined.  In order to identify if deception is occurring during an interview it is important to understand and appreciate how the communication process takes place.

When a person lies they often do so by omission rather than commission. That is, we become evasive when answering a question rather than directly lying to it.  This is the selective editing process taking part.  In other words deceptive people will often edit the information that they supply being careful not to divulge information that may implicate them in wrongdoing or deceit.  In many cases deceptive people will edit themselves out of the story, create distance, avoid providing content and detail and/or fail to answer questions altogether. During the analysis of any interview I look for either qualifying statements, avoidance, deflection or blaming a bad or poor memory together with a number of other areas as I have illustrated below.

Whether it be analysing the spoken word, body language or the content and structure of language I look holistically for several indicators not just a single or random “one off”. Where possible I will benchmark a behaviour and then look for deviations from that person’s normative behaviour. I will also look for inconsistencies, contradictions and retractions together with distancing language or whether the person is taking ownership by using pronouns, or lack of pronouns. For example is the person editing themselves our of/from their story? This is where a deceptive person may create distance, disassociation or separation in their story by saying; “Then went to the store” instead of saying “I then went to the store”.  This lack of inclusion and ownership denotes an editing process taking place.


Quite simply verbal communication relates to the spoken word, or if you like, the content of what we say.


Non-verbal communication relates to posture, facial expressions, body movements, eye contact, blocking, masking and concealment gestures and any other body movements including micro expressions or facial configurations.

The key to understanding body language and non-verbal behaviours is to understand where they are normal and where they are out of the ordinary or contrived.  As an interviewer I need to be cognizant of when a person’s body language and verbal responses conflict.  Usually a person’s body language will be at odds with the spoken word during the process of deceit or avoidance.  This, I need to stress however, is contingent upon such factors such as ethnicity, culture and confidence.

Although analysing body language can give an interviewer insight into whether a person’s body language is contradictory to what they may be saying, there are inherent dangers in analysing non-verbal cues in isolation.  One of the major mistakes made when analysing body language is taking only one gesture (such as loss of eye contact) alone to be indicative of deceptive behaviour.  I look for clusters or groups of behaviour at the time the interviewee answers a specific question or shortly thereafter that may potentially conflict with their verbal responses.

For example a person may respond to a question saying the word “no” but a

number of positional or transitional changes may be at odds with their verbal responses such as nodding in the affirmative whilst denying an act (once again depending on ethnicity, culture and confidence).  Lying creates responses that often manifest themselves in different ways. By identifying non-verbal cues together with inconsistencies in the spoken word we are able to identify defensive and protective behaviours associated with concealment, blocking and masking gestures.  It is important to remember that our body language will sometimes betray the spoken word.  We can lie with words but sometimes our body language is much more overt.

Further when analysing body language or the content or structure of the spoken word I need to identify if these changes are consistent with previous answers given or only during certain responses where the interviewee is attempting to deceive the interviewer.  In order to identify body language changes and transitions or inconsistencies in language I need a point, or points of comparison or a benchmark to compare with or against.

To illustrate, say for example an interviewee sits still, looking directly at the interviewer when answering a question then this may be important.  If later when asked a question such as “Tell me what happened after you removed the file from the draw?” and the interviewee looks away, repositions themselves, puts their hand over their mouth and repeats: “What did I do after I took the file from the draw?” then this may be considered a deviation from their normative behaviour demonstrated during a non-threatening question asked earlier. The more benchmarks analysed the better.

One of the major traps that interviewers fall into when evaluating body language is looking for a loss of eye contact.  A loss of eye contact may not be indicative of deception at all but more due to neurological processing, recalling events, a distraction, cultural issues or part of their normative behaviour.

I look for groups or clusters of behaviour at the time of the question, or shortly thereafter the interviewee’s response not one single gesture in isolation. These may be either verbal, non-verbal, paralinguistic or a combination of all three. Is the person emissive, defensive, dismissive, evasive, vague, uncertain, ambiguous or unclear?  These are behaviors that are often associated with avoidance. It is easier to be evasive or defensive than it is to lie.  Lying requires cognitive loading and processing together with a good memory. It also takes time to answer questions with content and detail as the deceptive person often doesn’t want to trip themselves up as they have to remember what they may have previously said that could possibly contradict earlier statements or contradict what they are saying now about earlier events.

In effect for every one lie that a person tells they need to invent two or three further lies to protect themselves from the first one.  Neurologically truthful people only need to rely on the facts or experiences that they lived through whereas deceptive people need to fabricate, embellish, invent or create a false memory. Under MRI scanning during a lie much more brain activity can be observed in the pre-frontal cortex than simply recalling a past memory. Telling a lie can be taxing, take a lot of processing whilst creating concern, discomfort and/or anxiety. This anxiety can be released by non verbal gestures as some of those listed above.  A further challenge for a deceptive person is that they may be able to think of a lie but can they effectively communicate or deliver that lie with believability and credibility in a convincing manner without drawing attention to themselves?

Paralinguistic Delivery

When a person makes a conscious effort to conceal information or wrongdoing, in most cases they experience internal conflicts that create increased tension and/or anxiety.  The very question they are lying to may very well become a threatening stimulus to them. Essentially paralinguistic delivery relates to the tone, pitch, voice modulation, rate and response latency (umms and ahhs)

The most common deceptive/avoidance indicators

Although this list is not exhaustive some of the more common major indicators of deception/avoidance to look out for may include:

  • Is the person answering the question or sidestepping the issue altogether?
  • Often a deceptive person will sidestep the question, fail to answer it or answer the question with another question.
  • Is the person deflecting? This is the situation where a person will deflect the question altogether or talk about a separate matter. Similar to above they may be avoiding answering the question at all.
  • Is the person omissive, defensive, dismissive, evasive, vague, uncertain, unclear ?These are behaviors that are often associated with avoidance. It is easier to be evasive or defensive than it is to lie.  Lying requires cognitive loading and processing and a good memory. It also takes time to answer questions as the deceptive person often doesn’t want to trip themselves up as they have to remember what they have previously said that may contradict earlier statements.
  • Is there conflict or contradiction between what a person is saying and what their body language is doing?This is very common when a person may be making a statement but we can observe contradictory or counter behaviours in disagreement such as nodding their head in the affirmative while denying something with words and covering their mouth with a hand.
  • Is the person using concealment, blocking or masking gestures such as covering their mouth or face whilst talking?
  • Are verbal statements accompanied by contradictory non-verbal cues of doubt eg. shrugging of shoulders, raising of eyelids and upward display of open palms.
  • Is the person slow to respond to a straight forward question? A deceptive person may attempt to buy time in order to configure a response when a clear denial would suffice. Attention needs to be paid to unnecessary or superfluous fillers in sentencessuch as uhms and ahhs. In some cases deceptive people will often become more verbose or answering questions that haven’t been asked.
  • Is the person editing themselves from their story? This is where a deceptive person may create distance, disassociation or separation in their story bysaying; “Then went to the store” instead of saying “I went to the store”.  This lack of inclusion and ownership denotes an editing process taking place.
  • Is the person exhibiting micro expressions or distress signals?These could include facial configurations such as anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, contempt or surprise that are out of context or incongruent with what they are saying? Sadness is one of the more difficult micro expressions to emulate.
  • Do the questions asked induce a change in the behavior of the person being interviewed?That is does the question invoke changes or create an anxiety in the person being interviewed?
  • Is the person blaming their poor memory?This relates to the circumstances whereby the interviewee finds it easier to blame their memory for not being able to recall making statements such as “I don’t remember”, “I’m not sure”, “I can’t recall”, “I think”, “I believe” “Sort of”, “Maybe”, “Possibly”, “I’m not certain” etc.
  • Is the person making succinct and clear denials or objecting? There is a clear difference between denying something and objecting to what is being asked. eg. “Did you steal that money?” and the response is “No I didn’t” as opposed to “Why would I do that” or “I don’t need to steal money” or “I’m not that kind of person” or “It’s wrong to steal”.  The last statement is a view or opinion but not a denial.

Using past and present tenses

Typically when a person is answering a question they will rely on memory to recall historical events through sensory input.  Often they will invoke their senses so will be able to relate what they saw, what they heard, what they felt, smells, feelings at the time, fears, emotions, conversations and thoughts. This being the case a truthful person’s answers are often usually clear, concise, spontaneous and direct with little or no evasion and will often include an emotion or statement about how they felt eg. “I stayed in Dubai for a couple of days and it was 45 degrees. It was so hot I just melted.”

Conversely a deceptive interviewee who has to fabricate information or a story to protect themselves needs to consider a multitude of issues.  Firstly the deceptive person needs to process the question and then answer without any contradiction to previous statements or answers given.  That is, the deceptive person has to think about what they may have previously said that could contradict them now.  This is where many inconsistencies may be exposed. Accordingly the deceptive person now faces a dilemma in trying to remember what they may have previously said that could contradict them and needs to create a believable or convincing story.

Taking this a step further the use of past and present tenses can be an indicator of when someone may be fabricating a response.  If I were to ask someone what he or she did from the time that they woke in the morning up until lunchtime they would need to delve into their memory and recall historical events.   This being the case we can expect a person to use singular person past tense phrases when relating a story or information from a historical perspective.

For example one would expect to hear statements like:

“I woke up and had a shower” (Past tense)

“ I walked the dog” (Past tense)

“I cooked my breakfast” (Past tense)

These statements above are historical events that have occurred in the past.  The use of past tenses here would more likely be: I had a shower, walked the dog, cooked my breakfast.  If someone was to say I was having a shower, walking the dog or cooking my breakfast then this may be significant as they are now talking in present tense.  Attention needs to be given as to where the tenses start to change from past tense into present tense.  This may signify missing information, changes in delivery or creating a story.

Steve van Aperen is an international Keynote and Conference speaker and speaker coach who teaches executives how to present, read customers, conduct effective interviews and improve their negotiation skills.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *