What if Your Career Depended on Your Ability to Catch a Lie?

What if Your Career Depended on Your Ability to Catch a Lie?

Deception is in the headlines and on the national stage. But it is also in our workplaces. Your ability to spot liars - and not be deceived by empty promises or fabricated information - may be the crucial factor between professional success or failure. So how good are your deception detection skills?

Do you know, for example, that there is no single verbal or nonverbal behavior that automatically means a person is lying? Much of “lie detection” is actually “stress detection,” because the mind has to work a lot harder to generate a false response. In order to tell a lie, the brain first has to stop itself from telling the truth, then create the deception, and then deal with the accompanying emotions of anxiety, guilt, and the fear of being caught. And, because lying is taxing for the human brain, most of us are rather bad liars who signal our deceptions with verbal and nonverbal stress cues.

Of course, not all lies are stressful. Social lies, for example, are so much a part of daily life that they hardly ever distress the sender, and when liars are polished or pathological, they rarely display signs of stress or guilt. Truthful people can exhibit anxiety for a variety of perfectly innocent reasons including (ironically), the fear of not being believed. And if a person really believes the lie being told, there is no way that you (nor a polygraph, for that matter) can spot that falsehood.

While I can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to identify every lie you hear, I can help you become more keenly alert to the signs of increased stress and anxiety that most often accompany deception, and to the verbal “acrobatics” that often precede a lie. As you increase your ability to spot these signals, you’ll begin automatically to pinpoint and monitor behaviors that you feel need to be investigated: indications of concealed thoughts, feelings, or opinions, that suggest the whole story is not being told.

Tip #1 – Begin with a Baseline

The first and most important step in deception detection is learning a person’s baseline behavior under relaxed or generally stress-free conditions so that you can compare it with the expressions, gestures, speaking style and other signals that are only apparent when that person is under stress.

Experienced interrogators looking to identify guilt or innocence begin by asking a series of non-threatening questions while observing how the subject reacts when there is no reason to lie. Then, when more crucial issues get introduced, they watch for changes in behavior that may indicate deception around key points – or at least indicate areas that need to be further explored. In a business setting, you can follow a similar path. It only takes a few minutes to get a feel for how someone acts in a relaxed or neutral setting, and the best time to do this is before the negotiation/interview/meeting starts -- for instance while having coffee and making small talk. This first few minutes may be amazingly valuable later.

For example: Sometimes, in an effort to stop their gestures from "giving them away,” liars will make themselves sit or stand with unnatural stillness. (I’ve seen people freeze mid-gesture, as they suddenly realize that their body language was inappropriate.) This “statue effect” is a very useful cue, but is most revealing when it is in direct opposition to that person’s more relaxed baseline behavior.

Tip #2 – Request a Direct Answer your Question

Because most people would prefer not to lie, they will give answers that “talk around” the issue. Don’t let liars get away with “non-answers” that include:

• Stalling. Repeating the question, asking that the question be repeated, or asking a question back rather than replying to what was asked—all give the liar extra time to fabricate an answer.

• Attacks: Liars may go into attack mode and try to impeach your credibility or competence with questions like “Why are you wasting my time with this stuff?”

• Selective wording: Liars often avoid answering the question exactly as asked. In both of the following examples, the liar never really answered the question.

Question: “Have you ever used drugs?”

Response: “I don’t use drugs.”

Question: “Did you steal the money from petty cash?”

Response: “I wasn’t even working that day.”

• Quasi denials: Liars may say something that sounds like a denial but isn’t: “Do I look like someone who would do that?” instead of “No, I didn’t do it.”

 • Guilt-trip statements. Liars make a show of taking offense in the hope that you’ll abandon the question while defending yourself. For example, a female liar might say, “I’ll bet you aren’t hounding any of the men about this. Why is it that you presume only a woman would be guilty?”

• Convincing statements. Liars will deflect the question by trying to convince you that nothing in their past would indicate deceit. So the woman in the previous example might add, “Look, I am a hard worker and I have been a good employee here for 10 years. I don’t understand why you are treating me this way.”

Tip #3 – Stay Alert for Verbal Cues of Deception

When people lie, they often give themselves away by their word choices and speaking patterns. For example, stammering, stuttering, slurring words, false starts, hesitations and frequently repeating the same words and phrases are all signs of a higher cognitive load and the possibility of deception. Here are some other verbal cues that should put you on alert:

• Unnecessary elaboration. The more someone embroiders a story, adding unnecessary details and irrelevant information, the greater the chance he or she is making it up. 

• Qualifiers. “To the best of my knowledge,” “I could be wrong,” “You may not believe this, but,” “If I recall correctly,” and “As far as I know.”

• Disclaimers. “You won’t believe this, but,” “I know this sounds strange, but,” and “It’s not that I have anything to hide.”

• Modifiers. “Not necessarily,” “Most of the time,” “Hardly ever,” and “It depends on how you look at it.” 

• Overly-formal language. A liar’s language may become awkwardly formal and stilted, characterized especially by the avoidance of commonly used contractions. A liar might say, “I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky,” rather than, “I didn’t have sex with Monica.”

• Credibility builders. “To tell the truth,” “To be honest,” “Truthfully,” “In all candor,” “Honestly,” “Frankly,” “I swear on my mother’s grave,” and “I swear to God.” (Whenever you hear these words or phrases, a warning bell should ring in your brain.)

• Depersonalizing language. Deceivers use fewer self-references (“I,” “me”) and more generalizations (“everyone,” “they,” “them”). For example, a liar might say, “The accounting department must have made an error,” rather than, “It was my responsibility.”

• Changes in prosody. Prosody changes (how you say what you say) that often indicates lying are 1) rising vocal pitch as vocal chords constrict with stress, and a noticeable slowing down of speech rate typical of unpracticed liars.

• Ill-timed responses. If you ask a question that should require some thought, and the reply is a snap answer, the quick response is often a sign of a planned and rehearsed lie. When prepared, deceivers start their answers more quickly than truth-tellers. If your question comes as a surprise, however, liars will often take longer than usual to respond – simply because the process of inhibiting the truth and fabricating a lie to replace it is more complicated than answering the question honestly.

Also, keep in mind that people who tell the truth tend to jump forward and back in time. Deceivers need to construct their stories in chronological order. Because they are working from a false memory, it is almost impossible for liars to tell their stories in reverse chronological order.

Tip #4 – Watch for Body Language that Signals Deception

Reading body language to detect deceit in a business interaction is similar to what a professional poker player does during a card game. The card player is looking for “tells” – those nonverbal cues that indicate increased stress or are out sync with what the opposing poker player is saying. The tells of deception may include:

• Eye signals. The biggest body language myth about liars is that they avoid eye contact. While some liars do find it difficult to lie while looking you in the eyes, most practiced liars will deliberately overcompensate by making too much eye contact and holding it too long. However, one eye signal that is almost impossible to fake is pupil dilation. The larger pupil size that nearly all people display when telling a lie can be attributed to an increased amount of tension and concentration.

• Changes in blink rate. In general, blink rates increase with stress levels. But a unique pattern has been associated with deception: A study at Portsmouth University shows that a person's blink rate slows down as he/she decides to lie and stays low through the lie. Then it increases rapidly (sometimes up to eight times normal rate) after the lie.

• Fake smiles. It’s hard for liars to give a genuine smile while seeking to deceive. Real smiles crinkle the corners of the eyes and change the entire face. Faked smiles involve the mouth only and are often asymmetrical.

• Retracted lips. Lip retraction (where lips are compressed and pulled back between the front teeth) is a common reaction when people are drawn or maneuvered into a discussion in which they feel they must hold something back.

• Duper’s delight. A fleeting smile after an untruthful statement that indicates someone believes they have fooled you.

• Dry mouth. Watch for sudden the increased need to drink water and to lick or moisten lips when the autonomic nervous system downloads a rush of adrenaline, causing a dry mouth.

• Nose touching. A person’s nose may not grow when he tells a lie, but watch closely and you’ll notice that when someone is about to lie or make an outrageous statement, he’ll often unconsciously scratch, rub, or cover his nose. This is most likely because a rush of adrenaline opens the capillaries and makes his nose itch.

• Mouth touching. Mouth covering is a common gesture seen when very young children are being untruthful. Adults have learned to eliminate this “give-away” display, but the unconscious urge remains. It is not uncommon to see liars bring a hand to their faces to brush the side of their mouths or to touch or even cover one cheek.

• Foot movements. Because feet are the farthest from your brain, they are the hardest area to control. When lying, people will often display nervousness and anxiety through increased foot movement. Quite unconsciously, feet will fidget, shuffle and wind around each other or around the furniture. They will stretch and curl to relieve tension, rock from side to side in an effort to self-pacify, or point towards the door (signaling a desire to exit).

• Increased pacifiers. In order to ease the tension, liars will attempt to sooth themselves with self-pacifying gestures like wringing hands, massaging between the eyes, scratching the back of the head, grabbing the back of the neck, biting a lip, fiddling with jewelry or hair, touching the earlobe, pulling at a collar or loosening a necktie and touching the throat notch at the base of neck or playing with necklace.

• Decreased illustrators. Because liars are less spontaneous than truth-tellers, they use fewer illustrative hand gestures (pointing, drawing a picture in the air, holding their hands apart to show a measurement) to help tell their stories.

• Jaw tightening. When feeling stressed, a person may tighten his jaw. This cue is more obvious when it is clearly out of context with the message being delivered. For example, if your team leader is telling you how proud he is of the team’s recent efforts, but you notice he is clenching his jaw as he says it, you can be fairly sure he is not being entirely candid.

• Partial shrugs. A partial (abridged) shoulder shrug usually indicates that a person lacks confidence and conviction in what he/she is saying.

• Incongruence. When thoughts and words are in tune (when people believe what they are saying) you see it corroborated in their body language. Their gestures and expressions are in alignment with what is being said. You may also spot incongruence, where gestures contradict words -- a side-to-side head shake while saying “yes” or a slight shoulder shrug as your boss tells you he is “fully committed to this initiative.” Often, verbal-nonverbal incongruence is a sign of intentional deceit. At the very least, it shows that there’s an inner conflict of some sort between what someone is thinking and what they are saying. 

• The telltale four. My favorite research on nonverbal signs of deception comes from Northeastern University. They have discovered there is one specific cluster of nonverbal cues that proved statistically to be a highly accurate indicator of deception. Watch to see if all four nonverbal cues are displayed during a short conversation -- hand rubbing, face touching, arm crossing, and leaning away.

There is one other factor I'd like you to consider as you improve your skill at spotting liars. Most of the people you work with aren't trying to deceive you. So stay alert for those few "bad apples," but don't lose faith in the rest of your team. If you expect people to communicate with honesty, integrity and truthfulness – you’ve automatically increased the odds that they will do just that.

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  • Aaron Hickson

    Most lies are pretty easy to spot if you know how to read the signs.

  • Eddie Cotter

    Very helpful, thanks

  • Scott Andrews

    Liars often pull their body inward when lying to make themselves feel smaller and less noticeable.

  • Joseph Lopez

    Everyone has different “lying behaviour” so there is no one guaranteed lie-detection method.

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Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.

Leadership Expert

Carol is an international keynote speaker at conferences, business organizations, government agencies, and universities. She addresses a variety of leadership issues, but specializes in helping leaders build their impact and influence skills for fostering collaboration, building trust, and projecting that illusive quality called "leadership presence." She is the author of "STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence." and the creator of LinkedIn Learning's video course, "Body Language for Leaders." Carol completed her doctorate in the United States. She can be reached at http://CarolKinseyGoman.com

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