What If Your Career Depended on Your Ability to Spot a Lie?

What If Your Career Depended on Your Ability to Spot a Lie?

What If Your Career Depended on Your Ability to Spot a Lie?

Deception is in the headlines and on the national stage.

We've been introduced to the concepts of “alternate truths" and a "post-truth" world.

But deception is also in the workplace -- and the ability to spot bluffing, empty promises, or misleading information is often a crucial factor in someone's career. So how good are your deception detection skills?

Do you know, for example, that much of what we call “lie detection” is actually “stress detection?”

Here’s why . . .

To tell a lie, the brain first must 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 nonverbal stress cues. These can include the following:

 • Pupil dilation. The larger pupil size that most 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.

• Increased pacifiers. To ease the tension, liars will attempt to soothe 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, there’s a good chance 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.

• The “telltale four.” According to research at Northeastern University, there is one specific cluster of nonverbal cues that proved statistically to be a highly accurate indicator of deception. The four nonverbal signals associated with lying are hand touching, face touching, crossing arms, and leaning away.

• 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.”

Notice that I haven’t listed decreased eye contact. That’s because the biggest myth around lie detection is that liars can’t look you in the eyes. While some liars do find it difficult to make eye contact, many practiced liars will deliberately overcompensate by making too much eye contact and holding it too long.

But here’s what makes deception detection so challenging: All of these stress signals may be caused by the effort of lying -- or by something else, including a truthful person’s fear of not being believed. Even verbal-nonverbal misalignment may be a sign of intentional deceit, or It may simply indicate an inner conflict between what someone is thinking and what they are saying.

In addition, 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.

I can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to identify every lie you hear, but I can help you become more keenly alert to the signs of increased stress and anxiety that most often accompany deception. As you increase your ability to spot these signals, you’ll begin to automatically 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. And this may be very good for your career.

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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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