What We Can Learn From Nonverbal Communication in Interviews

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During her keynote session at this year’s virtual ACFE Fraud Conference Asia-Pacific, forensics and nonverbal communication expert Kiki Wong explained how we can deepen our understanding of body language and use that knowledge to conduct more thorough and effective investigations and interviews. As head of forensics at The Forensics Company and director at The Silent Company, Wong has spent years researching micro facial expressions, handwriting analysis and lie detection. Her presentation focused on various in-depth examinations of both nonverbal and verbal deceptive measures to be attuned to when investigating fraud.

First, Wong invited attendees to expand their general definition of communication. Rather than conceiving of communication as simply spoken words, Wong noted that 93% of communication is based on nonverbal signals. According to research into that 93% of communication, 55% comes from body language and 38% is through tone of voice. When meeting someone for the first time, the first four seconds are the most crucial, and these small moments are often composed entirely of nonverbal signals. Wong also mentioned that babies as young as 36 hours can decipher and mimic facial expressions that they see on their parents. However, Wong lamented that as we grow older and learn to understand more words, we neglect to further our understanding of body language.

To illustrate the importance of these nonverbal signals, Wong likened a conversation to a road map: “When you are traveling, you want to go from A to B. Just like when you’re having a conversation, you’ll start at A and finish at B. So when you walk along the streets, looking at the map, you will come across many different road signs or signals telling you whether you are going the right way, whether you stop, whether you turn left or right. And this is just exactly the same as how a conversation will go. When you have it, there’s going to be nonverbal signals sending out to you all the time, and that’s when you will observe these signals to tell yourself whether you’re going down the right route or not.”

Wong identified seven universal micro-expressions that come across in facial expressions regardless of where someone grew up or how they were raised. These expressions are fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, anger, contempt and disgust. As Wong pointed out, since the brain transmits information to the body before we can actually speak, our initial responses are often communicated nonverbally through these expressions before we can even convey them verbally.

In a case study example, Wong shared examples of nonverbal communication conveyed through these micro-expressions and body language by someone being investigated for a crime. Part of the investigation involved information stored in an alleged perpetrator’s phone. When Wong asked, “Do you own this phone?” before taking the phone into custody as evidence, the alleged criminal flashed a look of fear on his face and slightly raised one shoulder. Wong pointed out that both of these are indications of deception and were surprising and suspicious to witness after asking such a simple question.

Elaborating on the case study, Wong explained that investigations into the data on the phone found that the phone most likely did not belong to the accused man because all the previous login information stored on the phone corresponded to someone else. When Wong returned to questioning the man again if he owned that phone, the man did not make eye contact, rubbed his neck, and groomed his mouth with his tongue. Wong identified these signals as self-soothing gestures — a category of gestures someone may use to comfort themselves when they knows they’ve done something wrong. This category also includes actions like pulling at a tie or necklace, playing with an earring, or clasping hands and rubbing fingers. Finally, the man in the case study admitted that the phone was indeed not his and belonged to a business partner.

Next, Wong introduced the body language congruency model, a means of testing whether or not someone is acting in a way that does not accord with their baseline behaviors. For an investigator to accurately and consistently be able to detect deception and lies from an interviewee, it’s important to have an understanding of the baseline of what that person is normally like. When body language seems noncongruent to how someone would normally react, then their reaction may have some underlying emotions attached to it. For example, this can be expressed through verbal and nonverbal disconnects, such as saying something positive but nodding the head “no.”

When engaging with the congruence model, two factors are important to keep in mind:

  • Context is crucial when judging the timing of getting a response; if you ask a question that should take some time to think about, it might seem suspicious if someone answers very quickly. Had they rehearsed their answers? Or did they assume you’d ask that question? Conversely, if someone spends far too long to answer a simple yes or no question, this could be a red flag.

  • Cluster refers to the frequency of deceptive behaviors that you may observe during a person’s response. If you witness a high number of these behaviors, it may be worthwhile to be wary of what someone is saying.

Deceptive behavior can be both verbal and nonverbal, Wong reminded. She gave examples of four types of verbal deceptions: nondenial, failure to answer a question, convincing statements, and when someone offers up too much unsolicited information. To illustrate nondenial, Wong offered the example of “A question such as, ‘Did you take a bribe from your client?,’ and the response was, ‘I’m not that sort of person.’ There was no denial. That person never said no or yes.” She elaborated on the meaning of “convincing statements” to suggest that, after being asked a simple yes or no question, if someone responds in a way that lists their favorable character traits or aspects of their résumé, they may be trying to convince you that they’re believable or that they have a certain position at the company that warrants your trust.

In a final case study example, Wong turned toward the handwriting aspect of nonverbal communication. Referencing a case of a potentially forged will, Wong noted aspects of the will that seemed like something a forger wouldn’t do. For example, there was a crease in the paper right where the will had been signed, and specialists deemed that the signature was added after the crease had been made. Wong noted that signing a fake signature on top of a crease would have complicated the job of the forger in unnecessary ways. In addition, the company stamp on the will was upside down; why would a forger have done something so blatant that would no doubt draw more attention to the will? While Wong noted that finding a template to see if a signature matches exactly is a sure indication that it was traced, she acknowledged that detecting a forged signature if often not that simple and requires a large group of reference signatures and a detailed look into smaller details that the signature shows, such as speed of writing, thickness of line and how the ink is deposited onto the paper.

To conclude, Wong summarized her points through the “OUR system”: Observe, Understand, and React. If you observe a lawyer clicking their pen every time a certain subject arises, you may be able to understand that the subject makes them uncomfortable, and you can react to this information by informing the opposing counsel so that they can use this body language tick to their advantage. Overall, Wong’s guiding principle is to make sure you’re trying to communicate as effectively as possible with each specific person you address.