10 Strategies for Detecting and Responding to Lying

Mike Labun

person in elegant blue suit has crossed fingers behind her back as a form of hand gesture when people are telling lies

Here’s the shocking news: We are all liars. Maybe that sounds harsh, but let me explain. Most of us lie just a little bit to make others feel better, prevent ourselves from being caught, simplify explanations, or get a small reward such as admiration from our peers. Our own lying makes it difficult to spot and respond positively to more serious types of lying, such as compulsive lying. So here are some tips for dealing with lying across the spectrum, from simple flattery to complex, compulsive lying.

Strategies for Detecting and Responding to Lying

1. Love Truth

You may like or unconsciously benefit from the lies people feed you, so lie detection weakens. If you actually want to know the whole truth, you will be better at finding it.

2. Forget Body Language, Focus on the Words

While body language expresses genuine emotion, we often know so little about the reason for that emotion that body language becomes an unreliable approach to lie detection. For example, you may correctly discern that your colleague is stressed. However, do you know if they are stressed because they are lying to you, because you’re asking them questions, because they are busy and your conversation is taking too long or because they just remembered they have to pick their child up from daycare in 20 minutes? You are better off focusing on the words the person says. After all, that is where the lie happens.

3. Ask Them How Honest They Are

As simple as it sounds, getting people to think about their own character, beliefs or religion at the beginning of a conversation can prime them to be honest later.

4. Observe What Happens When Details Are Questioned

When you casually ask someone who is comfortable with you about a detail that is inconsistent with their story, they will simply explain the inconsistency.   A person caught in a lie will stumble over their words at this point, particularly if they are not very good at lying.

5. Ask Open-Ended Questions

People who tend to lie are less likely to say, “I don’t know,” but instead offer an answer. Asking questions is an effective way to unmask lying. Come across as curious, not confrontational or suspicious, so they give you more information. Questions could be about:

  • Things you don’t know the answer to, but could research later
  • Things you know the answer to, but they don’t know that you know
  • Things both of you know the answer to, but you pretend you’ve forgotten the details
  • Their more fantastic stories

6. Don’t Let On

If you notice them saying something small that you know they did not do, do not let on that you know it is a fib. Continue to ask more questions and see if they embroider the story. If they do, this gives you something more substantial to confront them with later.

7. Watch for the Evidence of Patterns of Dishonesty

Lies from people who lie compulsively are particularly difficult to detect, because such people have vivid imaginations and believe their own lies. The first hints that a person lies compulsively are frequently that the person has a large number of broken promises, failed relationships, or is unable to complete important tasks on time.

8. Research the Big Ones

For potential lies that have serious consequences, such as those about work history or competence, connect with co-workers to compare stories. Look up all researchable facts. Even if they have been at your workplace for a long time, pull their resume and call the schools and past workplaces the employee listed. Check their references; you may find they’ve never been at the places they listed on their resume.

9. Do Not Call Someone a Liar

No one wants to be called a liar. If you call someone a liar they will respond defensively. Instead note your version of the facts, what they have said, and ask them to help you make sense of the differences.

10. Change the relationship

If someone continues to lie about matters of significance, be prepared to change or end the relationship. To paraphrase Nietzsche, the worst part about discovering a lie is not the lie itself, but the fact that the lie destroys trust in the liar.

In Conclusion, Be Principled

In all cases, remember that most people do not set out to be bad or hurtful. Most don’t see themselves as liars, and most don’t want to damage their relationships. Draw on these principles as you deal with lying and you will be off to a good start.

Mike Labun
Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership & Workplace Performance

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