Limit The Use of Questions When Trying to Get Others to Tell The Truth

The first strategy to getting people to be honest deals with limiting the number of questions you ask.

For instance, asking...

  • where were you?
  • who were you with?
  • what were you doing?

... is not always a good idea because it often leads other people to be less candid.

Expert interrogators know better than to ask a lot of questions when interviewing suspects—it only puts suspects on guard.

And while most people are not interrogating a suspect, the same principle applies in everyday conversations. Generally speaking, asking a lot of questions tends to make people more cautious, which ultimately leads them to give less truthful responses.

When you ask a lot of questions, people assume that you are trying to gather information AND that you want to do something with that information. As such, asking a lot of questions makes people more careful and they tend to give more evasive answers—just to play it safe (also see invasive questions and lying).

Asking someone a lot of questions also tend to make people feel less in control—it takes away their sense of freedom. People like to feel like they have some choice over what they talk about. So when you ask a lot of questions, people feel like they are being imposed upon. And when this happens, people often lie as a means of protecting their privacy or as an attempt to regain their autonomy (see lying to protect privacy).

And once people start withholding information they tend not to change course.

If you want someone to talk about an issue, rather than ask questions, it helps to offer similar information about yourself. When people disclose information about themselves, their is an obligation to do the same—this is "reciprocity" at work (see Altman & Taylor; Gouldner).

For example, if someone offers you details about their day, what they did, who they ran into, what they thought about... you should do the same. People are designed to treat others as they are treated. Kindness is generally met with kindness, meanness with meanness, and information with information (see Foa & Foa).

Moreover, this type of interaction seems more spontaneous and natural than asking a lot of questions.

For the most part, talking about yourself tends to be a great way to get other people to talk.