To Catch a Liar
Posted on Harvard Business Review: June 17, 2011 9: 15AM
In business, there is no shortage of lies. People tell them at all levels—sometimes to seek a payoff and other times to avoid responsibility, some lying with guilt and others lying with a habitual delight.
But the complexity of business makes lies hard to detect. In business settings, liars manipulate people and evade giving answers, so they easily fall under the radar. One way to deflect liars is to look for and understand their behavioral clues, or use what's called the entrapment defense, which is when the liar confirms a statement that the speaker merely assumes to be true.
When evaluating a potential liar, consider these three behavioral signals—that is, both what they say and how they say it:
Does the person seem uncomfortable about what she is saying? The visible anxiety may be caused by guilt or fear of getting caught, which leads liars to hurry to end the discussion and even look relieved when it's over. Their feet might be pointing in the direction of their getaway—perhaps a doorway, or a hallway. They may also "freeze" the top half of the body, because of the tension they feel, or even put a barrier—such as a briefcase or purse—between themselves and you.
Liars also tend to avoid eye contact. Practiced liars sometimes become good at maintaining eye contact, but often their anxiety emerges in the form of leg movement. Be wary also of people who make excessive eye contact—they might be trying to prove that they're telling the truth.
Another visible sign of a liar's discomfort is the fake smile. The best way to tell if a smile is fake is to look for a lack of movement of the muscles surrounding the outer corners of the eye (the "crows' feet").
Someone who withholds information or keeps the conversation vague when you ask for specifics might be lying, particularly if that person finds it hard to remember something that should easily be remembered.
Watch out for choice of language that distances the speaker from a difficult situation. For example, during his impeachment trial in 1998, former US President Bill Clinton evaded questioning concerning his inappropriate relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky by speculating on the meaning of the word "is."
Is the person using data that's suspect? When you ask her a question, the liar may answer with much more detail than is needed. She may also use overly explicit language for emphasis: Adding lots of detail is a common trick of con artists, for example
And if the speaker is committing to something, does the promise sound extravagant? Does it run counter to what the person usually says? Ask yourself if you (or the speaker's audience) have ever been duped before because of wishful thinking, because the liar may be counting on that.
Aside from those three behavioral clues, you should also consider if the speaker is more likely to lie. You'll find plenty of new research on this subject, much of which has been conducted by Pamela Meyer. For example, she explains that a person who is under pressure (behind on a project, needing to earn a performance reward, struggling to meet quarterly expectations) is more apt to stretch the truth than someone who is not.
Also keep in mind that certain people might be better liars, or more inclined to lie. A person who has power over others often feels more comfortable lying, but a CEO presenting to angry stockholders won't easily lie well because he doesn't feel powerful. Other frequent liars include extroverted people and those who excel at "reading" others. And in general, people feel more comfortable telling lies when they perceive their audience to be deceptive themselves.
As they gain success in evading and manipulating the truth, liars find it increasingly easy to lie. Use your common sense and ask yourself if the person has been truthful in the past—and be particularly suspicious of those who haven't.
Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.