Although I’ve used the above phrase for a very long time, it is perhaps more famously known as the title of an autobiographical memoir (published in 2006) by the Nobel Prize-winning author Gunter Grass – an account of his boyhood in a cramped two-room apartment in Danzig through the late 1950s, when his first great literary success (The Tin Drum) was published. The idiom refers to learning more about something or someone by peeling back the multiple layers of concealment, one at a time, that often arise from asking thoughtful, strategic questions. It’s a skill I nurtured as a fact finder in a wide variety of intriguing client engagements.
When something “bad” happens, we’ve been taught from early childhood to look for the cause. In the work I do, the ultimate goal is usually to fix what’s “broken” or sub-optimal. The process of artfully and intelligently peeling the onion, without bias or presumptions, leads one closer to understanding the true nature or essence of the problem. It’s a time-consuming process requiring patience and an unrelenting focus on detecting new, hidden or occasionally deceitful information. Some paths lead nowhere, some lead away from the real issues, and some reveal potentially richer avenues worthy of deeper exploration. Every complicated story is multi-faceted and layered.
Our understanding of causality probably dates to Isaac Newton, who examined how forces lead to effects (such as motion). A cause is whatever enables or allows something to subsequently happen. If you were to lose your job for circumstances beyond your comprehension, you’d surely want to know why. The reasons may involve factors of which you are unaware and, not knowing the real cause, might impact your life in further, unnecessary ways.
The proximate cause for your termination might be that the company was experiencing financial difficulties and had to reduce staff in certain areas of the enterprise. Were that the case, your performance was not a consequential issue. The root cause, however, would be. If you were not valued by the firm, then you would be near the top of the list of employees to be let go. The next layer or level of enquiry is why were you not valued? Were you not developing the skills required in the context of changing technological or marketplace needs? Were newer employees with more up-to-date knowledge available to do your job at a lower cost?
Peeling the onion is digging beyond the first or obvious answers to ascertain fundamental causes. Some refer to fact finding as Socratic questioning, a disciplined process used to uncover truth, reveal underlying assumptions and separate knowledge from ignorance. It begins with general enquiry: What happened and what made it happen? Assumptions must be challenged: How do I know this is the actual cause? What might have preceded that cause?
Relevant evidence must be gathered: How do I know that for certain? What can I do to prove or disprove my theories? Alternatives must be considered: What might others think? Have I identified all potential or relevant factors? Consequences must be thought through: How will this information be helpful? In essence, peeling the onion is less about finding answers and more about framing, then questioning, the questions. Deconstructing and reconstructing a causal chain of events gives depth to our understanding.
A related skill is to factor into the investigation a deeper appreciation of our hard-wired tendency to make assumptions and accept “rule of thumb” shortcuts in our reasoning. These include (but are not limited to) such mental heuristics as Hanlon’s Razor (don’t attribute to malice that which might well be incompetence), Occam’s Razor (the simplest solution is often the best one), black swans (unpredictable outliers), and narrative fallacies (what actually happened is an over-interpretation of the evidence). Add in a bunch of innate cognitive biases that filter out or obscure the truth – like availability or recency bias (considering only that which comes to mind quickly or easily), hindsight bias (seeing events as predictable from the vantage point of the rear-view mirror), and the mother of all convoluted thinking: confirmation bias (accepting as fact that which confirms pre-existing beliefs).
To be a good fact finder, you must also know a few things about why and how people lie. Research tells us that more than 75% of lies are undetected, that the average adult can distinguish truth from falsehood only 54% of the time and that the more confident we think we are in our ability to detect lies, the worse we are at doing so. With study and practice however, you can improve your ability to spot lies by almost 50%.
We lie, as well as trust, in order to survive; otherwise we are placed at a social disadvantage. Everyone lies – babies learn to lie before they can walk. We lie to advance our position, protect ourselves, avoid conflict and minimize hurt feelings. The larger the potential incentive at stake, the more people are prone to lie. People in power find it easy to lie (more a function of their neurology than their position). We are hardwired to assume that what we are told is true (this is known as the truth bias). A delusion is when we lie to ourselves.
Purposeful lying is hard work, which is why the clues to deceit can be detected by knowing eyes and ears (understanding where to look and what to listen for). We cannot completely control our facial expressions, hence there is little we can do to prevent our feelings from being interpreted by a skilled reader of body language. We have 43 different facial muscles and some are much harder to control than others. We can produce 10,000 possible expressions, almost 30% of which are indicators of our true emotions.
Fact finders pay attention to exactly what is said or not said and resist the temptation to fill in missing information. They understand there are distinct gender, age and ethnic differences in how people lie (though Canadians, for example, are culturally predisposed to focus on the mouth, the eyes are more revealing). Split-second flashes of emotion and asymmetry of micro-expressions are clues to our true feelings. Your brain detects these gestures better than your eyes so, when in doubt, go with the gut.
The objective in peeling the onion is not to catch a lie; it’s to gather useful information. Liars tend to rehearse their words, not their body language, which is why they occasionally use past and present tenses inappropriately. They also like to tell their fictitious stories in chronological order; so get them to start at the end or the middle. Lies of omission or concealment are more common than deliberate falsification. (In one particular study, 100% of the participants actively lied about a problem when no one directly quizzed them about it.) Ask open-ended questions to collect facts and yes/no questions to assess behaviours. Recognize the phrases people sometimes use to evade, deflect or commit outright fraud.
Lastly, be strategic and artistic in your questioning. Ask seemingly innocent questions to which you already know the answers. Ask the same question in different ways and ask questions they would not likely expect. Be patient, not intimidating or accusatory, even though you may feel the urge. Display inquisitive but appropriately supportive behaviour. When you observe a deviation from their baseline behaviour, say “Maybe I’m wrong here, but it seems like there’s a bit more to that story.” Then wait; silence is priceless when it comes to peeling the onion.