Is Someone Lying to You?

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July 26, 2010

Everyone lies.

Try to think of one person you’ve met who doesn’t lie.  It’s impossible.  From the moment we’re old enough to start having some shred of freedom to make decisions as children, we lie.  Of course when young children do it, we tend to call it a “fib” or a “white lie” because this implies that it is not a big deal.  “Johnny, did you color on your wall?”  “No mommy.”  Johnny says this even though he’s an only child and the only one in his room all day.  Why?  Because the power that Mommy has over him scares him and he’s afraid to tell the truth because he knows there will be consequences and he doesn’t want to deal with them.

We also deceive in order to:

  • Avoid disapproval
  • To manipulate
  • To maintain control
  • To avoid consequences
  • To save face for ourselves or others

That is really the essence of why people lie.  As adults we may try to convince ourselves or others that lying is a good way to spare someone’s feelings or avoid a sticky situation.  It becomes so routine that we do it almost involuntarily and even when we don’t need to lie.  Ever ask a co-worker how they’re doing and they say “great”?  Then a day later you learn they just lost their house or their spouse lost their job?  But, the person lies to you so they don’t have to deal with explaining how they really feel.  Most people would argue that this type of lie is about saving face or keeping things private.  That’s fine.  It’s still lying.

So, knowing that every one of us tells little half-truths, lies by omission, and some tell outright huge lies, what are some signs we can look for to determine if we’re being lied to?  As managers or leaders, how can we tell when it’s happening?  Working in HR certainly gives one the upper hand in spotting deception.  After years of interviewing, questioning, and investigating employee relations issues, I’ve been able to learn what to watch for.  Here are a few common tell-tale signs:

  • Body language–  When someone is being honest, they will turn their body toward you.  They will look you in the eye and you will not see them being nervous.  If the person is lying, they will do all they can to look away  or down without realizing it.  They will fidget and move their hands either to their face or mouth.
  • Speech and word choice–  In my experience, I’ve found two extremes in this area.  Some people will talk more quickly and become defensive.  You’ll notice that they are speaking in a way not normally characteristic of their behavior.  The other extreme is that the person may shut down.  They become quiet and do not want to answer your questions.  They also tend not to use words like “I” or “Me” in what they are telling you.  This is a subconscious attempt not to take responsibility for what is going on.
  • Changing the subject- Another tell is that the person will try to get you off the current line of questions and change the subject so that they can feel comfortable again.
  • Avoidance- You may not know that someone is lying behind your back.  One way to tell is the person will begin dodging you.  Do you have an employee that is normally friendly and chatty and suddenly they are not taking your calls or avoiding you when they see you coming?  It’s a definite sign that they’re avoiding you for a reason and this is a subconscious way people cut you out.

There are many other signs, but these are the ones that are often most noticeable.  What signs tell you that someone is lying to you?  Share them in the comments.

As an aside, the thing that got me thinking about lying was hearing an old Thompson Twins song ‘Lies’ from 1983.  Enjoy!

6 Comments

  • Learned a few things about lying when I learned how to interrogate in service (non-waterboarding/non-toture interrogation btw). People who are lying often touch their face when they are speaking, particularly their nose. When someone is attempting to fabricate a lie, they often roll their eyes up.
    A good way to ferret out a lie is once some one has finished telling you their lie. Break it down and have them tell it chronologially backwards, or have them start in the middle. For some reason it’s hard to maintain a lie out of sequence.

  • Good blog Trish

    For me “too much information” is always a red flag

    Someone who is comfortable and not lying will give a succinct answer to your question and display congruent body language. If the answer is long winded, circuitous and seemingly full of reasons, alibis, justifications and explanations etc, well they are probably being deceptive or lying.

    Larry

  • Sometimes I have actually seen people trying harder to look you in the eye and try to get into your personal space as an aggressive measure to lie. But read aggressive, as they will try to make you uncomfortable in order to just let them off.

    I have a real-life experience with this, and the person who was trying to lie to me was actually getting in my face to tell me that she was telling the truth!!! I guess she had read enough about how people turn away from you when you’re being lied to. I had overwhelming evidence to the contrary, but she was squirming while she was getting in my face. It was actually quite amusing…

  • @Matt (aka Bruno)- Wow. Well if you’re Paul Hebert, that means you are the one who has to call me this week to catch up!

    @Puf- PUF!!! I can’t tell you how happy I was to see your avatar pop up. I love the idea of making them tell the lie backwards. I hadn’t heard that tactic but I will certainly try it now.

    @Larry- The readers always come up with ideas I had not thought of. I also love your recommendation to listen for the person that gives too much information. Good tip! Thanks

    @Doug- What a great example. I wonder if that is becoming more common now that the “tells” of lying are becoming more available to the public. Sounds like you still knew the truth from the lie. Bravo!

  • Most habitual liars can go “out of sequence”, but they can’t handle when you question every step of said sequence. Furthermore, they hate when you offer to help the often seemingly insurmisable problem…

    I guess I have dealt with lairs a WHOLE bunch…

Comments are closed.

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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.

HR HAPPY HOUR LIVE! TALENT ACQUISITION & ONBOARDING

THE FUTURE OF WORK

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