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How can you tell when somebody is lying to you?
Deception abounds in media, business, and social circles, but it’s most destructive in personal relationships. Why? Because we’re most susceptible to deception from the people we trust most. Trust breeds comfort and causes us to let our defenses go down. That’s as it should be—but it makes us vulnerable to a spouse or partner when they find a need to deceive us.
The danger with deception is that everyone lies, but few of us use effective techniques to find the truth. After all, they didn’t teach us this stuff in school, did they?
Most of us fail to detect lies by relying on one of three techniques:
- Gut instinct -“I just know she’s lying” (worthless).
- Myth – Techniques that have been passed around for years – “liars won’t look you in the eye” (worse).
- Home-brewed – Techniques we’ve erroneously placed our faith in, i.e. “John gets that little crease in his brow every time he lies” (worse yet).
Why would my partner want to deceive me?
Deception is typically used in personal relationships for self-preservation. We’ve done something we don’t want the other to know about, so we conceal it.
A less-obvious variation: Lying to save another person’s feelings—a little more benevolent, but still a form of self-preservation. Consider this: When they ask our opinion, how eager are we to tell our partner we don’t like what they’re wearing? A lie at one of these moments preserves all.
Body language is the buzz-word of the “deception industry” and it has some limited validity, but think of this:
How do people lie? With their bodies… or with their words?
People may reveal information through body movements, but they use words to deceive us—and so words hold the greatest power to reveal that deception. To go even deeper, here’s a little secret that few appreciate: Whether your aim is to influence, create rapport, or get at the truth, nothing gives you more power in conversation than having a mastery of how to ask questions—and knowing how to interpret what you get back.
5 Questions To Ask If You Think Your Partner Is Lying:
1. Did They Hesitate?
The average person probably subscribes to my Deception Myth #11: “A person who hesitates is lying.” (false) Here’s the real deal: To judge whether a person who hesitates before answering is deceptive, we have to consider the nature of our question. Some questions naturally require a moment of thought. For example: “What did you eat for lunch last Tuesday?” (Draws on memory) or “Who do you think will win the next presidential race?” (Draws on imagination.)
If, on the other hand, you asked, “Did you talk to Janet this morning?” there should be no hesitation—unless the person is considering a deceptive response. Because this question concerns fact, and a very recent event, an honest person shouldn’t need to hesitate before giving you the answer.
Hesitation can be a very reliable sign of deception, just be sure to consider the question; is it reasonable that a person would need just a moment to come up with the answer?
2. Did They Avoid A Direct Response?
Given that I told you “everyone” uses deception, it might surprise you that I now tell you this: People usually tell the truth. The catch? Here’s my Deception Myth #46: Telling the truth is not the same as being honest. Believe it or not, people avoid outright lying if they can. One alternative to lying is to speak the truth while avoiding subjects they’d rather conceal from you.
So rather than lie, a person who wants to keep something from you can simply change the subject, give an indirect answer, or even tell the truth—while leaving out the details he doesn’t want you to know. This way he accomplishes the deception and avoids the tricky and dangerous sport of lying.
An example: Now, I wasn’t in Phoenix last weekend, but suppose I wanted you to believe that I was. If you were to ask me, “Jef, did you have fun in Phoenix last weekend?” I could reply, “I always have fun in Phoenix, I love that city. Have you ever been there?”
Without actually telling a lie, I confirmed your belief that I was in Phoenix simply by avoiding the question. People routinely avoid what they don’t want to discuss and will often divert you by throwing a question back at you, as I just did… so it’s up to you to notice when they violate this next question:
3. Did They Answer or Just Respond?
Most folks don’t notice when their questions go unanswered. Many times we get a response, rather than a substantive answer. When you fail to pick up on non-answers, you leave yourself open to the tactic of avoidance I mentioned with the last question.
So why do we fail to notice when a person gives a response instead of an answer? Because most of us are so consumed with our own thoughts and what we’re going to say next that we just don’t listen well. A lot of these non-answer responses sound intelligent, may be lengthy, and address something, just not the question we asked. We get distracted by what is said and fail to notice that they avoided our question. Watch any political news conference and you’ll see masters at work. Politicians rarely give direct answers. It’s even more seldom that they’re called out for their indirect answers.
In all fairness, sometimes people fail to give a substantive answer because of their own internal distractions. It’s not that they’re being deceptive. They just aren’t listening so well themselves and are consumed with what they want to say. I’ve always had a “3 Strikes & You’re Out” policy. If a person fails to give a direct answer on the same subject three times, it’s safe to conclude they don’t want to address it.
Always ask yourself, “Was that an answer… or a response?
4. Did They Revisit the Question?
Back when I was a police detective interrogating crooks, I had a burglary suspect in my office one day. It was just the two of us, the door was closed, and there were no distractions. We were eye-to-eye just feet apart. I asked him in a clear voice, “Did you break into the house?” He hesitated, then said, “Who, me?”
This is an example that embodies the first three questions all rolled into one! He hesitated, he avoided giving an honest answer, and he gave me a response instead of an answer. If you ask your partner a simple, direct question (you always should), and there’s no logical reason for them to have not heard you clearly, they’re buying time to think through their options by revisiting your question. If a person says, “Could you say that again?”, “What?”, or repeats your question back to you verbatim, they’re Revisiting the Question. Stick with it. You’re onto something.
5. Did You Ask For A Lie?
Rather than a technique for spotting deception, this one’s actually a pitfall that can inadvertently land you in deeper chaos if you don’t avoid it.
No one likes being lied to or deceived. (The ego is fierce beast, isn’t it?) When we know about something “bad” our partner has done, we already feel wronged. Especially in personal relationships, we often know the truth already. Rather than exploring, we’re testing. Deep down we want them to fail the test. So instinct (and ego) leads us to ask a question that’s unwittingly designed to get them to lie to us.
When they predictably lie, now we have two offenses against us:
- The action that inspired our question.
- Their lie about it… which we needlessly invited.
If you already know the truth, don’t ask about it. Instead, tell them what you know with absolute confidence and certainty. Then move on to addressing the issue. Hard as it may be, a great way to do this is by demonstrating some empathy and allowing them to save face. Depending on the circumstances, lines like, “We all make mistakes,” or “I can understand why it seemed right at the time,” or “I just want to know why you did it,” can ease the way for their owning up.
The idea of reading body language is alluring, but the underlying key to spotting deception? Listening. Speak less, keep your ears open, and notice the subtleties in what people say to you.
What you’ll find is that they’re giving you more information than they realize, and more than they intended.
What about you? Have you ever caught a partner in a lie? What happened?