Here are a few thoughts on dealing with deception. For those of you dropping by from my response to Robert Reich on Huffington Post, the levels of deception are what may interest you most. How far has Washington gone with deception? Certainly beyond the benign form. And that is where feelings of betrayal come from — going beyond the types of deception expected socially, or even in politics, to something much more self-serving.
Most communication involves an element of deception. In order to live and work with each other effectively, we can’t simply say whatever occurs to us. So to facilitate social discourse, people engage in social deception.
However, deception operates along a range of intensity. There’s a point at which deception becomes obstructive, unethical or destructive. Here are definitions and examples of three types along the deception continuum – and then some ways of responding to each type.
Benign (relatively) Deception – the purpose is to avoid offense and be civil. Examples include:
- Dressing in a manner that is unusual to your style but impressive to others.
- Disclosing information to others in a manner that suggests it’s private.
- Giving the impression of greater knowledge on a subject than you actually have.
- Downplaying some of the less attractive aspects of an item, product or idea.
Strategic Deception – the purpose is to achieve advantage, usually through the management of information. Examples include:
- Agreeing to something you may not be able to do.
- Fogging or confusing an issue – strategic ambiguity (e.g., making it more complex than it is).
- Misrepresenting by omission.
- Bluffing (to a limited extent).
Malicious Deception – here the purpose is to obtain goals by harming others usually achieved through outright dishonesty.
- Agreeing to do something you know you won’t or can’t do.
- Switching sides on an issue at the expense of others who trusted you.
- Suggesting the other side will receive something you don’t intend to deliver.
- Making intentional misrepresentations.
- Pretending to be angry, insulted, or annoyed to induce cooperation.
Of course, some similar behaviors may belong in one category or another depending on a host of circumstances. For our purposes, however, the questions are: How should we respond to deception? What are effective comebacks to these different levels of benignity/maliciousness?
In most cases of relatively benign deception it’s usually best to recognize it but let it pass. After all, relatively benign deception is often expected in communication. When people write letters of recommendation, for example, they may tend to emphasize the positive characteristics of an applicant and downplay or overlook the negatives. Since this is expected, most people reading a letter of recommendation will take that into consideration. They are unlikely to phone the writer and say, “Isn’t this letter rather one-sided?” If the letter goes too far, embellishes too much, then it may be ignored.
When benign deception presents obstacles, it can be addressed with comebacks such as:
- “We can afford to be a little less kind to each other here.”
- “If we’re all too considerate, we won’t get anything done.”
- “I’m all for civility until it becomes unproductive.”
Strategic deception comebacks address how information is being managed:
- “We’ve come a long way in terms of being honest with each other, but I sense there’s more here than meets the eye.”
- “I can’t say I blame you, but you’re not being completely up front on this issue.”
- “Your words tell me one thing, but the look on your face suggests another.”
Malicious deception requires more direct comebacks:
- “If you’re telling the truth, why do you look so uncomfortable?”
- “That just sounds too good to be true.”
- “It’s clear that what you have in mind is much better for you than for me.”
Often malicious deception masquerades as as a less virulent form. It takes skill to distinguish among types because clever people provide so many seemingly acceptable rationales for their actions. After a while, however, it’s difficult for anyone to disguise inconsistencies between words and actions that result in harm to others. This disconnect is a sign of self-serving if not malicious deception.