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How to tell when you’re being lied to

People believe that it is obvious to others when they are lying, when in fact people are not very good at detecting the lies of others.

How to tell when you’re being lied to
[Photo: allanswart/iStock]

Conversations can’t get off the ground unless there is some degree of trust. You establish this trust in part through the mutual knowledge that grounds what you say to other people. If someone says to you that “Sara in accounting has some questions about the Murphy project,” this statement assumes you know who Sara is, and that you have some clue about what the Murphy project is. If you don’t know these individuals, then you will be skeptical about the conversation.

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In a sentence like this, there is some information that is shared, and then there is some information that is expected to be new to you. In this case, Sara (who you should know) has questions (that is new to you) about the Murphy project (which you should know about).

The new information in a sentence is the place where someone has an opportunity to lie to you. They could choose to pass along information that they know isn’t true. And it slips in, because it is embedded inside of other information that you already know is true. On top of that, it would take too much effort to be skeptical of everything you hear, and so you generally believe what other people say.

Because people generally believe what others tell them, it isn’t hard to lie. And you’re much more likely to get away with lying than you think you are. Studies suggest that people believe that it is obvious to others when they are lying, when in fact people are not very good at detecting the lies of others.

Some lies are benign, of course. If you had a bad morning and someone asks you how you’re doing, it is not a problem to say that you’re doing fine rather than dragging someone else through a detailed account of everything that has gone wrong so far. It’s the big lies that have real business consequences that are a problem.

Because many people have concerns that others might be lying to them, there are a lot of articles and suggestions of clues that indicate whether others are telling the truth. As it turns out, many of these cues are not that good at helping to detect liars. Paying attention to eye contact, fluency of speech, or facial expression won’t really tell you much about whether the person you’re talking to is credible.

Instead, the best technique you can use is to ask questions. Often, when someone tells you something truthful, there are other facts they should also know about when and where something happened, or what else was discussed in a particular conversation. The trick is to ask questions about the entire situation in which something happened and see if the person you’re talking to really seems to be describing a real situation. If they have just made something up, then they are likely to have a hard time adding the kinds of details that they would simply know if they were telling the truth.

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By asking a series of questions, you will find that people are inconsistent in their ability to tell you about something they should have experienced, or they have to think a lot to provide details that ought to have been obvious to anyone who was actually present at the event that they’re describing to you.

That isn’t the only clue. Another thing that helps is to listen to how people tell you things. In particular, liars are much more likely to provide you with explanations for why things happened than truth-tellers are. When you experience a situation, you don’t feel the need to explain why it happened, because it happened to you. When you’re lying, though, you add explanations to make the situation seem more believable.

Just because you suspect that someone in the workplace is lying to you doesn’t mean that you should confront them directly. Instead, you should verify the truth of the situation before saying something.

If you catch a colleague in a lie, it is worth saying something. Each of us has a responsibility to set the tone for our workplace. It is hard to collaborate with colleagues when you have to be skeptical about everything they say.

If the liar is a supervisor, then it will probably be hard to say anything. In that case, you’re probably going to need to find other sources of information–at least until you can get yourself moved to another work group.

Finally, if there is a customer or client who is not telling you the truth, let your colleagues know. You want to make sure that everyone is aware of those individuals who are not trustworthy. Ideally, you would avoid working with groups outside the company that play loosely with the truth. At worst, though, you want everyone to verify what they say before working with them.

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