“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on ME,” says the old adage. But how do you spot a liar? Not everyone has a “tell” that gives them away instantly, and – in the work scenario – we often don’t know people well enough to spot theirs.
Lying was once the domain of theologians and ethicists, but the study of lying has broadened. Psychologists, behaviourists, psychoanalysts and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency have published reams of findings and theories on the subject. Can this information help us sort the truth from the lies?
Lying is probably more common than you realise – a study at the University of Massachusetts found that during a 10-minute phone conversation, 60% of adults lied at least once!
While the “white lies” employees and employers use often grease the machinery of interaction, “yes, you look good…”, will foster better relationships than, “Wow! That suit makes you look like a toad!” Or “I’m late because I was stuck in traffic,” certainly works better for the speaker than, “I overslept”. But what about those huge lies which can end up costing corporations and individuals large sums of money – not to mention market share and other less-quantifiable aspects like reputation.
We are told lies on a huge scale by our trusted politicians and public officials. The list of high-ranking South Africans in the public sector who have lied about their qualifications seems to be growing fast! We seldom ingest a month’s news without an article about some or other chairperson, deputy minister, minister or MEC who has faked his or her qualifications.
Some argue that the trend is not necessarily growing, it is simply that it is easier to access the information needed to verify such lies. Technology allows us to do a lot more lie detecting and private detective work. Just look at the number of employees who have lost their jobs because of information they themselves put into the public domain. But seriously, it really isn’t too difficult to search online or pick up the phone and call a university to check on a person’s credentials. So some of the onus for these placements must fall on the employer.
In a competitive labour market which is not producing the number of jobs needed, or the correct skills for the jobs that are available, it seems the trend to embellish CVs is a growing one. And this is happening at the highest level of employment. The most memorable example was that of a former ANC MP who let the ANC and South Africans at large believe he had earned a PhD for decades!
What’s most important to us in the human resources sphere is honing our lie-detection skills. Many HR professionals consider themselves expert ‘BS Detectors’ but some liars are quite adept and nobody is immune.
Dr Gordon Wright, a London-based behavioural scientist, cites research saying that people can only determine whether or not someone is lying 54% of the time. He explains, “We all have a truth bias… If we didn’t assume people were being honest with us, then the whole communication process would break down.”
According to TV psychologist, Dr Phil, the number one way to spot a fibber is to observe the amount of eye contact they employ. Too much or too little can be a giveaway that something isn’t adding up. Secondly, he advises to listen for too much detail; sometimes liars are quite well-rehearsed and tend to add loads of detail where it isn’t needed. He says that body language can also be a tell – even children fidget when they are lying – especially touching one’s nose!
People who are lying also tend to breathe through their mouths because they can’t get enough oxygen, so listeners should look out for a pursed mouth. Most people are aware that hesitations, fillers (‘um’, ‘basically’, ‘you know what I mean’, etc.), throat clearing and other stalling tactics are also clues that they’re being lied to, but listeners should also be on the lookout for speakers who answer questions that weren’t even asked! This is often because the lie has been rehearsed or because they are on the defensive.
Dr Phil also advises to be cognisant of, “excessive blinking, dilated pupils, pitch changes, less smiling, and shrugging shoulders.” The CIA experts believe that if someone is exhibiting two or more of these behaviours, one should assume they are not telling the truth.
Pamela Meyer, America’s foremost expert on lying (she’s the CEO of Calibrate, a Washington, DC, company that trains people in the legal, insurance, financial, and college admissions fields in the art of lie spotting) says that the best way to catch a liar out is to ask him to tell his story backwards!
“That way, you raise the cognitive load – you make the situation more challenging for him. A liar doesn’t rehearse telling his or her story backward. A person’s mental energy will get depleted by trying to act composed and spontaneous in spite of these demands, and involuntary expressions and gestures will leak out,” she explains.
When I feel I’m being lied to, I sometimes try and ask unexpected questions. Sometimes I butt in with a quick question about a detail in the story (something I know or can prove). This often elicits squirming or some of the other tells that Dr Phil mentions.
Short of hauling out the polygraph and keeping people wired up to it, there is no foolproof test for truth – even the polygraph has its detractors. As trite as this may sound, the best we can do is be aware and create working environments that foster truth and trust.
Vanessa Gibb is people operations manager at NATIVE VML.
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