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I Believed Every Word

Stephen White

During the Pistorius trial I happened to spend some time with a friend who is a judge. I asked him if over his 30 years of experience he had developed a sense of who was telling the truth, particularly important when the outcome of a court case between a plaintiff and a defendant at war depended on which version of events the judge believed because there were no witnesses. Yes, he said, you do get a feel for it; it’s not infallible but you usually know who is telling the truth.

Did the histrionics we had seen from Oscar, behaviour which included crying, sobbing, retching, vomiting, head-in-hands, and so on, tend to make you believe or disbelieve him, I asked. Well, said my legal friend, being able to read the body language and the sincerity of emotion was a key factor, but culture had to be taken into account in the evaluation. For example, he said, in Western European culture we are taught to place more trust in people who look you in the eye than those who don’t. But there are a number of cultures where the vestiges of a hierarchical society mean that it is impolite for some to look directly at others. That doesn’t mean that they are not telling the truth.

Being able to identify truthfulness and establish trust is just as important in a commercial context as it is in a legal one. We sit in meetings, often with strangers, and listen to their statements of fact (I must have it by Tuesday, your competitor is 5% cheaper than you, everyone else has agreed to forego a price increase this year) with no corroborative evidence. So however counterintuitive their ‘facts’ might appear to be, in the end it is their word challenging our opinion.

The solution for us is the same as in the Pistorius trial – curiosity. The star performer in my opinion has been state prosecutor Gerrie Nel. Some have described his interrogation as overly aggressive; that is a matter of style, but his determination to delve into the detail and unearth inconsistencies gives him, Judge Masipa and the onlookers like us a better ability to identify truthfulness. In the commercial world our style might be less bombastic and adversarial, but the method is the same – we test assumptions, explore inconsistencies, interpret language, listen for signals – all to help us evaluate the quality of the information we have been given.

As a sales manager in the packaging industry I once accompanied a colleague to a meeting with a client. We were being threatened with the loss of a significant piece of business on the basis of an identical specification at a  price from a competitor which was so low that we couldn’t get anywhere near it. My colleague and I gently probed the information we were being given; the client was cool and apparently open and I begin to believe every word he said. Until, that is, we asked for some evidence – we didn’t want to see the competitor’s quote but we did want to see the specification they had quoted for to check that it was like-for-like. Quickly the client became indignant, emotional and aggressive (although he fell short of retching, vomiting or crying), accusing us of not believing him and refusing point blank to continue the meeting.

We walked away resigned to losing the business. But the client had boxed himself into a corner, because the lower quote didn’t exist, it was a ploy to get us to drop our price. A week or so later the meeting reconvened; we made a token gesture on the price and he saved face by claiming that changes to product artwork made it too sensitive to change supplier at that time.

Our reaction to Oscar Pistorius’s dramatic behaviour probably leads us to the conclusion that he is guilty as charged – in my opinion the evidence certainly points that way too. What is important is what the Judge thinks. We will know that very soon.

Stephen White

Stephen White
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