Suppose you're a human resources manager interviewing a job candidate, a prosecutor interrogating a witness, or a party activist vetting a potential candidate for office. What you're trying to get at-in each case-is the same thing: Are your job seeker, witness, and higher-office aspirant telling the truth? And, just as important, how do you figure out if they are?
Susan Ibitz, the founder of the firm Human Behavior Lab, asks, and answers, these questions day in, day out.
The human equivalent of a polygraph machine, Ibitz, who lives and works in the Indiana Dunes, has been studying the science of body language, facial expression, physiognomy, and neuro-linguistic programming (the interrelationship of thought, language, and behavior) for several decades. Her teachers have been some of the masters in the field, including the Israeli-born Avinoam Sapir, who developed the SCAN technique to determine the veracity of witnesses through the close reading of texts.
Working with businesspeople, political consultants, physicians, investigators, intelligence agencies, and others who want training in "reading" others, Ibitz reminds clients that "your face is always going to give you away … [it is] the GPS to your brain."
Now, in a COVID-19 environment, with most American workers communicating solely through phone and platforms such as Zoom, how we convey messages across a screen and how we look when doing so are assuming greater importance.
Making sure that you are looking directly at your teleconference partner is key, Ibitz said. So are making sure that people can see your hands and that you present a professional background without distractions. Dress professionally; limit meeting times. To accommodate those who are more productive in the morning as well as those later in the workday, schedule Zoom meetings between the hours of 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. only.
Even when the pandemic abates, Ibitz said, these protocols will still have plenty of application, since many employers are discovering that a telecommuting staff can yield greater efficiency and cost savings.
The genesis of Ibitz's interest in uncovering human behavior, she said, dates to her childhood in Buenos Aires, where, she said, "I was always curious like a monkey."
She and her late father would binge-watch episodes of Peter Falk's Columbo mystery series, with Spanish subtitles, and she set her mind "to be a profiler for the FBI," she said.
Dyslexia might have derailed her professionally, but only made her work harder. "I'm stubborn like a mule," she observed. "Besides being clumsy and switching letters, I can do anything … [including] reading a book seven times in a row" to acquire needed information.
Apropos of information gathering, Ibitz set out some years ago to solve a fundamental puzzle about herself: her affinity to Judaism.
Formerly married to a Jewish man, Ibitz began exploring her attraction to Judaism when she and her husband were living in Miami, the city she called home before moving to Chicago in 2011. She began attending synagogue and was considering conversion when she extracted a vital piece of information.
"'I think I should tell you this,'" she recounted her mother telling her. "'You're already Jewish.'"
Ibitz learned that her maternal grandmother was an Austrian Jewish refugee who fled Hitler's Europe and immigrated to South America. Like many who lived through the Holocaust, she noted, her grandmother had complicated feelings about her past, which prevented her from talking about the family's history.
Jumping back to the present, and anticipating the future, Ibitz is now preparing a keynote address for a conference later this year with hostage negotiators, including FBI personnel. Finally, she said, she is going to work with the FBI: her childhood dream come true.
Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago.