Body Language: I See What You're Saying

“Silence. Everybody has that tool in their toolbox, and it’s a great one,” said Gregory Coleman, Retired Special Agent for the FBI, in his session, “Body Language: I See What You’re Saying.” And he immediately showed just how much impact one minute of silence can have on a roomful of people.

In the middle of one of his first sentences, he abruptly stopped and didn’t say another word for a full minute. Attendees squirmed in their chairs or softly giggled as time went on. One even shouted something to fill the silence.

When the chapter volunteer called, “time!” Coleman laughed and said, “now did that feel like a minute or much longer?” Across the room people agreed that as time went on, they began to feel more and more uncomfortable. “I was able to influence the way you feel and it was pretty uncomfortable.”

Coleman explained that applying this tool to the field can help fraud examiners observe the body language of their suspects. He described a case he worked in which a young accountant was accused of committing securities fraud. Coleman and his team traveled to the accountant’s firm to interview him during the workday. They knew he was cooking the books on a publicly traded company and yet the accountant lied to them about it for two hours.

“Every lie locks them into a position,” said Coleman. “When I can make four corners with those lies, I’ve got them in a box.” Knowing he had the accountant in a tough spot, he gave him a couple of choices — none of the options were good for the accountant. What did the accountant do? He sat there silently for four minutes. During that time Coleman observed some non-verbal cues: The accountant twiddled his thumbs, looked at Coleman, looked out the window, unlocked his hands, crossed his legs and started shaking his foot.

“He had that tension in him that you guys felt this morning,” said Coleman. After four minutes, the accountant stood up and said, “I want to start over.” The verbal cues told Coleman everything but it took four minutes of silence for the perpetrator to decide that he was hosed. And during that time, Coleman didn’t say a word. “The first person who speaks is the loser,” he explained.

From silence to physical and environmental issues, the way human beings react in stressful situations can be telling. For example, taking off your jacket in a formal situation can make people feel more relaxed or comfortable. Conversely, invading their personal space will cause the gears in their mind to turn.

Whether you are leading the conversation, encouraging silent moments or altering the proxemics of bodies and furniture, tools like the ones Coleman outlined in his session can give fraud examiners the upper hand in an interview.