Spotting Falsehoods: Watch What They Do, Not What They Say

By David M. Schneer, Ph.D.

Mark Twain Quote:

“Another good thing about telling the truth is that you don’t have to remember what you say.” 5 August 1922, Tampa (FL) Morning Tribune, pg. 4, col. 6

In our previous blog, we shared the startling assertion that we are exposed to as many as several hundred lies per day. Writes Paul Eckman in his seminal book on lying: Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage (Revised Edition): “Lies occur between friends (even your best friend won’t tell you), teacher and student, doctor and patient, husband and wife, witness and jury, lawyer and client, salesperson and customer.”

Why would a person say one thing when their body language suggests something else? Lying starts in early childhood. We learn from a young age to say what others want to hear but not necessarily the truth.  As they grow, people are untruthful for all sorts of reasons, either consciously or unconsciously: for financial gain, love, power, to hide shame, and often to be nice or not hurt someone’s feelings.

There are numerous physical signs that indicate incongruence between what a person says and how they really feel. How can you tell if someone is being less than truthful? Before we look at that, we must first recognize what is not a single proof of lying. That is, these expressions and gestures—in and of themselves—are not signs of lying:

  • Panic or fear (called the “Othello” effect by Eckman, some people react dramatically out of fear or anger when accused of lying)
  • A micro expression (anger, contempt, sadness, happiness, surprise, anger, or a neutral “poker face”)
  • Trembling hands (cold, or medical condition?)
  • Change of intonation (medical condition?)
  • Constant blinking (sensitive eyes?)
  • Swallowing hard (medical condition?)
  • A poker face (some folks are just plain hard to read!)

So, what are reliable signs of lying? Before you can ascertain if someone is lying you must determine if there is a motive for doing so.  Typically, the main reasons boil down to three things: sex, money and power. Big surprise there!

If you sense there is motivation to lie, these 10 telltale signs can be indications of falsehoods:

  • Liars tend to exhibit an incongruity between what they are saying and what their body language reveals. The Body Language Congruence Model—too detailed to discuss here—helps to track words with body motion.
  • Excessive staring (to avoid blinking, and the common myth that constant blinking is a sure sign of lying)
  • If you know a person’s typical eye pattern movement, a serious deviation of that pattern can be a sign of lying. But be careful here, some folks look up when they are trying to remember something, while liars tend to look down in shame. But not always.
  • Constant talking (as if the liar is trying to convince you of their lie by repeating it over and over again, often with much detail. Liars hate pregnant pauses).
  • Displaying a red or rosy face or constant scratching, as lying increases blood pressure—making the liar feel hot, flush, and itchy.
  • Increased rapid breathing, as lying also increases one’s heartbeat, creating more excitement than normal.
  • Consistently struggling to find the right words—an indication that the liar is conflicted internally as he or she tries to spin their falsehood.
  • Covering their mouth. An unconscious body reaction to the lies coming out of the liar’s mouth.
  • They are anxious to leave—watch peoples’ feet. If they are pointed to the door, that is an indication that they want to escape the situation.
  • People who tell falsehoods often fidget—shuffle or tap their feet, tap their fingers, tug on their ears—as they are worried internally that you won’t believe them.

So, how can you apply all of these observations to your life? In your next meeting, or in any conversation for that matter, notice how the person is receiving your message. Are their arms crossed? If so, are they cold or is it an indication that your message may not be resonating? Knowing the answer can make all the difference between good communications and positive results rather than communications breakdown.

We believe we can change lives, improve business, and facilitate better communication by teaching others what body language to look for, how to interpret it, and how to leverage this knowledge to improve the way you do business.

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