Deception is Not the Point

Posted by on Apr 28, 2012 in Coaching, Conference | One Comment


Last week, I spoke at the Roots conference in Bergen, Norway. Linda Rising’s closing keynote on Deception inspired me to think about communication and the importance of meaning or truth in human interaction… Note that this post doesn’t address or contradict Linda’s keynote—it inspired me to have conversations that led to the thoughts in this post. Thank you, it was a pleasure to meet you!

[amazon asin=”0393337456″ template=”simpleimage”] The quote that sparkled my interest was: “The average person lies three times per ten minutesof conversation.” I think it’s from Paul Ekland’s book Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage. I haven’t read that book, I just started to wonder (and in consequence discuss with other people) why deception (as a human habit some scientists seem to think it to be) would be important to understand.

For the purpose of this post, I understand deception as intentional propagation of beliefs that are not true or not the whole truth. While I do not doubt that a lot of statements made in any conversation are not strictly true, I doubt that in most cases this essentially affects the meaning of the conversation. And I think in many cases the level of intention is debatable. As always, this depends…

Conversations and Truth

Within any conversational context, for any participant in the conversation, there is a continuum of truth. Seriousness and focus of the situation, our perception and frame of the “reality” as we retrospectively construct it, the level of importance we put on details and the point we’re trying to make… All these factor into the truth of the story we are telling. Reception of this story is as subjective as its telling, adding subconscious, body language, expectations and the listeners’ personal goals as dimensions, further complexifying the conversation. Sounds difficult?
We all know this, as we are pan narrans, the only animal shaping its individual world and that of our peers using stories. It’s our method of sense-making, we are just aware of it to a different degree.

Deception as a concept doesn’t pay respect to this complexity (neither does this quick off-my-head exploration) and I’m not sure how much statistical analysis can help, either.
Complex systems are dispositional, created from a given context. All we observe, process and consequently say is valid or “true” in that very context, only.

Is Deception Irrelevant?

No. Truth is relevant, and deception is bad. All I’m saying is that even in a single conversation it’s hard to draw a strict line between “true” and “false”. What works as still honestly emphasising your point in one context might be misleading in the next—and neither speaker nor listener are necessarily aware of that. To collect samples of data from diverse contexts and reduce the complexity with statistical means does not help me lead more meaningful conversations.
So instead of talking about deception as if that were the default mode of human communication, I’d like to create a positive frame of human dialogue:

  • increase meaning in a given specific context,
  • strive for a balance of true and false, focussing on purpose and impact of the conversation,
  • increase collaborative sense-making in a complex environment, integrating diverse perspectives on the “truth(s)”, and
  • challenge assumptions to uncover individual and organisational self-deceptions.

I intentionally omitted references to the long history of philosophical exploration about what truth is (and is not), and what it means when we come into contact with it. That might be a topic for a later post:-) Thanks to Pascal Pinck for pointing that out! Another thanks to Renee Troughton for the quick feedback encouraging me to elaborate this post!.

1 Comment

  1. AgileRenee
    May 2, 2012

    Sorry Olaf,

    What I meant to say in twitter is that summed up – that deception is a reality, but not one which you feel should be focussed on.

    By focussing on the positives you are really showing that characteristically you are a glass half full; or an optimist.

    I feel that a lot of people either put themselves in the half full, half empty buckets. Personally I just prefer to say the glass is at 50% capacity. Metrics are metrics. There is not point hiding from them. They just are.


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