How to Spot a Lie (and Deliver Alternative Truth)

Let’s face it: we live in the world of lies. We are telling lies and are being blatantly lied to every day, 24/7. That’s exactly why my initial statement may have surprised you – at first: because we are all used to lies. Not you? How about these:

“Guys, I know you work hard.”
“No, you don’t look fat in that dress.”
“Sorry, I was on a conference call.”

We all feel when someone is lying. Do you recall getting this fleeting impression that something is not correct about what you have just seen and heard? Due to the evolution, we humans have lost our natural ability to follow our self-protective instincts. Instead, we have trained ourselves to find a logical explanation to everything, thus proving to ourselves that we are the smartest in the animal kingdom.

“Maybe she is not a %@$#. Maybe she just did not read your text message?”

Although in most cases the situation is more complicated than the one that led to the example above, we feel that things just do not add up. The trick is to capture that fleeting impression and analyze it. With practice, you will be able to spot a lie almost instantly. This skill has almost nothing to do with the words or the content, although “how to spot a lie” search will return hundreds of thousands of items mostly pointing to changes in the vocabulary or logical inconsistencies, for example:

“Planned to enclose the $20 that I borrowed last week – but had already sealed the envelope.”

Agree, that was a stupid one as well, but my point is that verbal cues are often too obvious to an observant listener and therefore are easy to replicate for a creative speaker. Any verbal cues can be learned, controlled and “scripted” for the occasion, rehearsed – and finally delivered with excellence. If you closely observe a reasonably successful politician delivering a speech, you will get my point. Chances are that you have never watched them with enough attention because of the reasons explained in the opening paragraph.

On the other hand, some politicians are great actors, and some actors can deliver a really stunning performance. You must have seen this one delivered by Meg Ryan. According to Rob Reiner, the movie director, he had every sound of this scene scripted, and coached the actress for the entire day.

The masterpiece they have created proves that verbal cues and major gestures are not reliable indicators of genuine thoughts or emotions; with some coaching help, they can be realistically replicated.

Our innate ability to detect a lie is based on the subtle spontaneous nonverbal cues more than on anything else.

This should not come as a surprise. The human species as we know them have been in existence for about six million years; the modern form of human beings evolved about 200,000 years ago; we believe that our civilization is about 6000 years old. This means that we have been using verbal communication for less than a year in terms of human lifespan.

According to an oft-quoted research, human communication is only 7% verbal – and 93% non-verbal. I would suspect that the authors of this research were biased (I wish I could see them announcing the results), but it is a fact that the non-verbal part of the message may be responsible for at least half of its meaning.

Why this half is more important than the other, verbal half?

The verbal part can (and will) be scripted, edited, rehearsed and polished. Even the tone of your voice can be adjusted and tuned. What is extremely difficult to fake is the non-verbal cues that accompany your words. You can – with the help of a professional – learn when to look with your eyes wide open – or squint; when to open your palms – or rub them together; when to smile – or stay silent. However, in a real-life situation, even the best James Bond or Mata Hari will inevitably betray themselves.

It is practically impossible to deliberately exhibit genuinely involuntary body cues in appropriate clusters.

The inevitable delays and incongruences between the spoken words and the deliberately generated body cues will be instantly intercepted by the human eye, processed and questioned on the subconscious level, resulting in “cognitive dissonance” – that fleeting impression that makes us suspicious when somebody is telling a lie.

Just to give you an example. Almost exactly 19 years ago today, President Clinton proclaimed, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman…” Have a look at this footage. Does Mr. Clinton look trustworthy? Most of us would doubt that. But what exactly is wrong?

One of the ways to answer the question “What’s wrong?” in a real-life situation is to “calibrate” your internal lie-detector, i.e. to ask innocent questions that you know the answers to and watch if the body language of your interlocutor changes when you switch back to unwelcome questions. In the case of Mr. Clinton, we can compare his “denial” clip with the “admittance” clip.

In the first clip, Mr. Clinton’s “body gestures” are quite good on the surface. His moves are stately and confident, and he even uses his index finger to drive his point home, in the usual presidential manner. But if you scrutinize his micro movements, then the following becomes apparent: the squint of his eyes and his contracted pupils in the “denial” clip indicate that something is wrong.

This is confirmed by the decreased blinking rate, as compared to the blinking rate during his “admittance” recital, in which he is apparently telling the truth. Although some lie-detection textbooks will state that an increased blink rate is an indicator of anxiety (and potential untruth), politicians and other trained professionals tend to control their body cues by suppressing them. In the first video, Mr. Clinton is trying not to blink in order to look confident.

Generally speaking, if you want to develop your innate ability to spot a lie, you simply need to pay attention, i.e. increase awareness.

I don’t feel comfortable sharing this experience publicly, but I decided to tell you the entire truth:

In order to become really good at spotting liars, you have to practice. I mean practice lying.

Only through conscious lying, in conjunction with continuous monitoring of your own speech and spontaneous non-verbal cues, you will polish your skills to such an extent that your colleagues will call you a walking polygraph.

And if you are in a leadership position, chances are that with this skill you will be considered a charismatic leader.

But here’s the caveat: if you fail, you may rather be called a pathetic liar. To avoid this unfortunate result, polish work with your coach. In the spirit of full disclosure, I assure you that lying is a learnable skill.

Here’s one practical hint: If you want to be convincing while telling utter lies, forget the word “lie.” Use “alternative truth” only.

All you have to do is to convince yourself that this is the truth. Alt-truth that is, but a truth nevertheless. With this basic reframing, you will be in better control of your body language and of all the non-verbal cues.

Mr. Clinton provides another good business-case example when he delves into the discussion of “what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Although here Mr. Clinton’s situation, political and personal, is nothing short of a disaster, and he is testifying in front of the Grand Jury – he looks and sounds better than in the first clip.

Because he does not lie. Or so he thinks.

Jokes aside, here are the key takeaways:

1.      We are lying all the time, but nobody is able to control their non-verbal cues.

2.      Awareness is the quality you need in order to become a “human lie detector.”

3.      The most effective way to learn how to detect a lie is to practice this necessary social skill.

4.      Working with a coach improves your chances of success.

PS: Remember to share with your peers if you like it. Leave a comment if you disagree or have anything to add. Thanks!