Saul Goodman, master of paltering. Image via AMC.

There are three types of lies: omission, where someone holds out on the facts; commission, where someone states facts that are untrue; and paltering, where someone uses true facts to mislead you. It’s not always easy to detect, but there are a few telltale signs.

So how do you spot this type of deception? Here are a few tips:

  • Know when to expect it: Paltering is common in business negotiations of all types, politics, and sales, but the tactic can also be used in personal relationships when the pressure is on.
  • Listen to their language: In the book Deception: From Ancient Empires to Internet Dating, Frederick Shauer and Richard Zeckhauser suggest you watch for exaggeration or vague language. For example, when a real estate agent describes a location as “highly desirable,” or when a restaurant’s signature dish is “famous.” That listing may be highly desirable, but by who? That signature dish might be a famous item, but only at that restaurant. Does it feel like you’re just being told what you want to hear?
  • Yes or no questions have power: Listen to the way someone answers a simple yes or no question. Open-ended questions give palterers more wiggle room to conjure true, semi-related information and use it to side-step the main issue. But with a yes or no question, all they should be responding with is either “yes” or “no.” If they’re not, something is probably up.
  • Keep questions focused if you get to ask them: If you’re the one who gets to ask the questions, keep them focused. You want to ask yes or no questions that bypass the possibility of paltering. For example, if you were to ask a significant other if they were cheating on you, don’t ask, “Are you cheating on me?” What if the affair was over by the time you asked? They could tell you the truth by saying, “No, I’m not cheating on you.” You should instead ask strict questions like, “Are you now, or have you ever, cheated on me?” The only answers are “yes” or “no.”
  • Only accept answers to the questions asked: Whether you’re watching someone answer other people’s questions, or asking the questions yourself, train yourself to reject unrelated answers. Don’t let your brain forget what the question actually was! If the person answering questions responds with related facts, long explanations, or questions of their own, assume they are paltering.

Lying by telling the truth is, unfortunately, highly effective and we’re all pretty used to it by now, so detecting it will take some practice. Remember, just because what you’re hearing is true doesn’t mean they’re not talking around the issue. Don’t just seek the truth; seek the right truth.


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