When I used to do executive assessments, people would ask me all the time, “What do you do if someone’s lying to you?”
And I’d say, “What do you mean, ‘if’?”
I assumed everyone was lying to me. Or more accurately, I assumed everyone was selling a particular point of view. Still do. When I’m in a conversation with someone—and especially when I’m in an interview—my job is to figure out which part of the other person’s perspective is based on what’s true, which part is based on what the person wishes were true, and which part is based on what the person is working to make true.
The existence of these three aspects is a given, so if you’re goal is to use body language to figure out if a person is lying to you, well—if we’re talking about a conversation that’s more or less a typical conversation—then you’ve already missed the boat. First, if you’re even thinking that someone might be lying to you, then you need to redirect attention away from the lie itself and focus yourself on finding the reason for it. Second, why are you talking with someone who you clearly don’t trust? Walk away! And finally, the minute you tell someone that you know she’s lying because she looked left, here’s what’s going to happen: nothing.
If she’s selling you on her perspective, she’ll debate your claim and show you why you’re wrong. If she’s telling the truth, she’ll double down on her story and tell you you made a mistake. If she’s building her future, she’ll say it’s not a lie, it’s a vision. In all cases, she’s offended. And here’s one more thing to consider: if she’s savvy—if she’s someone worth having a relationship with—and you pull that “look left” crap with her, then unless you can then back up your assertion with deep knowledge of body language in general, and the relationship between peoples’ psychology and physiology, and unless you’re able to tell someone how you can differentiate between a meaningful “tell” and an idiosyncratic tic, then she’ll dismiss you as someone trying to bluff his way through life.
Here’re a better approach to figuring out if someone’s lying:
- Assume the person you’re talking to is selling something, even if it’s just a point of view.
- Assume the person you’re talking lacks self-awareness.
Both of these assumptions are safe, for a variety of reasons, but most of all, because they’ve been shown scientifically to be true far more often than not. What this means is,
- Whatever story you hear first, it’s probably not the full or real story.
- Probe into the story. Clarify who, what, where, and when. Probe into why. Summarize the parts that seem to make sense to make sure you’ve got it.
- Look at the person’s overall approach and demeanor… does the total package make sense? For instance, let’s say you meet a woman who claims to regularly rubs shoulders with CEOs. If you talk for 90+ minutes and leave with no action items, she’s lying. If she puts an action on the table and is driving to close out your meeting after 30 minutes, that’s more believable. No eye contact analysis necessary!
More ways to tell if someone’s being dishonest that don’t require a PhD in psychology to see:
Jason Seiden is CEO of Ajax Workforce Marketing. Ajax amplifies brands by aligning employees' online messaging.