When teaching communication skills, I’m often asked is how to spot a liar or how to use particular questions to expose when deception is being used.
As I explain in my training, spotting a liar is fairly straightforward if you follow the right approach. However, dealing with a bulls***ter can be more difficult. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt expresses it broadly that the liar knows the truth, but tries to guide a person away from it and towards a falsehood. This is classic deception, like ‘sleight of hand’, the illusionist who leads you to believe his closed hand is empty, but knows
it contains the ball that they palmed earlier. The bulls***ter’s relationship with the truth is described by Frankfurt as more complex, that they either don’t know the truth or they are indifferent to it. Basically, their bullsh**ting is not about the truth or falsehood, but rather how what they are expressing benefits or brings an advantage to them.
Intention and Calculation
In my view, when a person lies they have conscious awareness or compass as to where both the truth and falsehood are located in their map of reality. They are choosing to deceive and communicate the falsehood. The key is the intention and calculation that precedes the lie itself. Through appropriate questioning techniques and cross-examination most lies will eventually be revealed. This is made even easier when the person making the enquiry can begin to understand the liar’s map of reality. Since the liar knows both the truth and falsehood, the more they reveal about either, the closer you will get to understanding the value they prescribe to them. This in turn will start to reveal their motivations for lying in the first place.
Vague and Nebulous
Whilst the liar’s intention and calculation can be seen more as black and white, the bulls***ter’s deception is much greyer in complexion. The intention behind the bulls***ter’s communication is to reflect well on the bulls***ter, for example through embellishment or exaggeration. Intention and calculation is central once again. Since the bulls***ter is indifferent to whether the communication is true or false, there is no real calculation or enquiry. The intention is therefore not the same as a lie which intends to guide the person to a falsehood, but rather, no matter what, for the communication to reflect well on the bulls***ter. It is simply not a priority for them as to whether it is a truth or falsehood being communicated. Questioning a bulls***ter is often harder because whereas the liar usually has the concept of the truth or falsehood established in their mind (so can make mistakes of contradictions upon questioning), the bulls***ter is not actively deceiving. There is no coherent narrative to the communication and as they may not know the truth or the falsehood, they just stick to the same bulls***t message.
The Subtle Power of Bulls**t
We often think of the skilled liar as more intelligent than the hapless bulls***ter, but this is in itself a deception. Even if the intention behind lying is well hidden, most liars trip themselves up in the calculation. Put simply, they calculate too well and under questioning will often reveal clues both in terms of their language, verbal delivery and body language. When we think of a detective interrogating a liar, we often use the phrase ‘getting the truth out of them’. The problem with the bulls***ter is precisely this – there is often no truth to get out! A bulls***ter can genuinely and honestly be communicating falsehoods, having made no inquiry as to their validity. In a very real sense, they can believe their bulls**t and passionately express and defend it.
Focus on the Message and the Messenger
When dealing with both liars and bulls***ters, always start by trying to assess the validity of the communication plus the intention and any calculation on the part of the person delivering it. However, the priority of which to start with will vary as described below. Either way, a simple starting point is asking:
- Who is this person?
- How did they get this information?
- What are they trying to sell me? (could be an actual financial transaction or an idea / concept)
- How could this communication be designed to reflect well on them?
If you feel you are dealing with an outright liar then you can start to question the message, to request a detailed expansion of it and force a deviation from the false narrative. Then you can start to question their motivations as the messenger of the communication. If you feel you are dealing with a bulls***ter then focus first on their motivations and intention for the communication. There is no point trying to work out if they know the truth as they probably don’t. Instead, probe as to how the communication is an advantage to them and then question the validity of the message itself. The phrase ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ is very true for bulls***ters as it is their ignorance, often deliberately cultivated, that can make this type of deception so difficult to detect and expose. Whilst it may sometimes seem that ‘bulls**t baffles brains’, with the right approach to analysis and questioning you can defend yourself against both liars and bulls***ters, online and offline.