How to Tell if Someone is Lying (Tips from a Savvy Trial Lawyer)
Every single day we struggle with trying to figure out who’s telling the truth. Social media posts, the evening news, and our daily business conversations all often revolve around each of us searching for accuracy and the true facts and story.
The problem we all face is this: How do we know if what people are telling us is the truth?
A decision based upon someone’s lie can harm relationships, put you out of business, and destroy your reputation in the community. When it comes to politics, a lie can turn love into hate and peace into war.
As a trial lawyer, I’m always challenged to try and figure out if my jurors, witnesses, and opposing counsel are being honest. In high-profile cases, it’s tough to determine if reporters are truthful with why they want to do an interview or have me on a panel.
It’s never easy but, over the past three decades of using the approaches I’ve outlined below, I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring our who is telling me the truth and who is lying. After you apply and practice what I share in this post, I think you’ll also have a much better handle on who’s a straight shooter and who’s trying to pull the wool over your eyes.
Some of the approaches I share with you in this post are based upon things I’ve learned from personal experience while fighting my client’s legal battles in court. Others are concepts and approaches I’ve learned from judges and from studying decades of research by talented psychologist, psychiatrist and other professionals. While you’ll never be 100% sure if the person you’re talking to or watching on television or a livestream is telling you the truth, the use of these techniques should help you get better at making this determination.
Three-Step Approach (When You Can Plan Ahead)
The easiest way for me to tell if someone is exaggerating a fact, misleading me, or straight out lying, is when I’m able to use what I call the “Three-Step” approach. Before talking with someone, I determine specific facts that are true and then when we meet, I naturally and comfortably incorporate questions about those established facts into the conversation.
I then listen to and watch how the other person responds to my questions and how he acts during the conversation. It’s a easy to follow process and you can do the same thing.
For example, before I take a person’s deposition or cross-examine a witness during the trial, I spend time on Google, Nimble, and social media to learn facts about that person. You can do the same thing before a lunch or business meeting.
Step #1: Set a Baseline
Let’s say the person I’m negotiating with just returned from a family trip to Italy. I know this because during the journey, he shared his journey and pictures on Facebook and Instagram.
During our conversation, I might ask, “I understand you just took a trip to Italy. Did you enjoy your trip?” “What was your favorite experience?”
I then pay attention to what the other person says or and how he acts. If while telling me about his trip to Italy, he comes across as being nervous or has the jitters, I make a mental note to myself that this particular characteristic doesn’t necessarily mean he’s lying. I say this because he’s simply telling me something that he did and I’m paying attention to his behavior to set a baseline I can build upon.
I watch his eyes. What are they doing? How about his body language? Is he rocking back and forth? Did he clear his throat before answering my question?
Now that I know how the other person acts when truthfully answering a simple question (the baseline I mentioned), I move on to the next step.
Step #2: Raise the Bar
I expand the conversation over the next couple of minutes to a question that, because of my research, I also know the answer to. However, unlike the above question, it’s also the type of question the other person might try to avoid answering and may even lie about. Let’s say that I read that while in Italy, the other person was detained by immigration authorities for some type of investigation.
During the conversation, I casually ask about this. Maybe a question like, “Did anything unusual happen during your trip?”
Now I listen to the tone of the other person’s voice. I watch his mannerisms. What characteristics did he just exhibit that are different from how he acted to my first question?
If he openly admits to the detention and shares his story, his tone or body language will probably be similar to when he honestly answered my earlier question. If he fails to bring up the detention or even denies it, I pay attention to what his eyes are doing, his body language, any noises he makes like clearing his throat, his voice tone, and other mannerisms. I notice what’s different. These are his “tells” that will help me figure out if he’s being evasive or lying at some point in the future. More on all these below.
Step #3: Ask The Important Question
Depending on what happened above, you now have a good understanding, or baseline, for the other person’s mannerisms when he tells you the truth, or lies, in response to a simple question or two.
Now it’s time for me to ask the question that I want answered (remember, I don’t know the answer). I carefully and casually incorporate the question in to our conversation and then watch and listen.
Based upon the other person’s response together with his voice and body language, I’ll have a much better idea if the other person is being honest.
The key is that I combine the three steps over a twenty-minute conversation and let the other person do most of the talking. I listen, watch and take mental notes. The result is that my “bullshit” meter will be much more accurate than ever before.
8 Clues To Look For When You Can’t Plan Ahead
What about when you’re watching or engaging people you are unable to research? I’m talking about last minute meetings or maybe watching somebody on television or a live video. For me this might include prospective jurors during the jury selection process at the beginning of trial or maybe my examination of a witness I’ve never met before.
What works for me is shared below. I do want to caution you that while you’re using these approaches, keep in mind that everyone is different and other cultures have unique mannerisms. Always make sure to take the totality of the circumstances into account when using these tips. This allows you to weigh, balance and put what you hear and observe into proper context.
Sign #1: Microexpressions
Generally speaking, it’s a myth that microexpressions (split-second facial expressions) are proof of lying. What I’ve learned as a trial attorney is that while microexpressions may indicate a lie, they also can reflect other innocent things like anxiety, nervousness, or the suppression of normal emotions (pain and anger).
What I have noticed and what has been documented by others are the specific types of microexpressions focused around a fast smile or fidget at the beginning or end of a lie that made by someone who feels as if he’s going to get away with a lie. Believe it or not, these people consciously or subconsciously get pleasure from getting away with a lie, and this microexpression exhibits this pleasure or trait.
Sign #2: Delays
I always pay attention to any delays in answers to my questions. At the same time, it’s important to remember that the nature and context of my questions dictate the importance of and, the significance of the delay.
For example, if I ask someone what he was doing on January 1, 2005, he may pause before answering the question because frankly, it’s an unusual question. Also, who in the heck remembers what he or she was doing on January 1, 2005. It’s a natural and predictable delay.
But if the other person pauses when I ask the question that I know he knows the answer to like, “Isn’t it true that you were in jail back on January 1, 2005?” then it may reflect there are issues in the other person’s past he’d rather not discuss during our conversation. It’s all about context, and how much emphasis you place on the delay depends on this context.
Sign #3: Body Gestures
Non-congruent body gestures during a conversation or in response to a question will often tell me much more than the words that are spoken. In fact, about 70% of all communications is non-verbal, so it’s important to keep this in mind. Be an active listener and use all your body senses when communicating with others.
If I ask a CEO on the witness stand if he’s sure the signature on a multi-million dollar contract is his, and he answers “yes” while looking down and shrugging his shoulders, then the jury and I know there’s a chance he may not be telling us the truth. Any non-congruent body gestures are reminders for me to dive a bit deeper in to my questioning.
Sign #4: Disconnects
In court, during depositions and negotiations, when I ask the other person a question, I pay attention to whether or not his verbal answer is consistent with his nonverbal behavior. Individuals who are lying will often cover or close their eyes or mouth when speaking. In the thousands of cases I’ve handled and, as confirmed by experts, I’ve learned that people will cover their eyes or look away when lying to shield themselves from the reaction of the other person that they’re lying to.
In open-ended questions that require more than a simple “yes” or “no” answer, look to see if someone is nodding his head while responding in a contrary way to your question. The key is to search for inconsistencies between what is being said and what you are watching the other person do. When it comes to a liar, actions can speak louder than words.
Sign #5: Throat-Clearing and Swallowing
A person who lies will often clear his throat or engage in an exaggerated swallow before answering my question. This happens because the individual who is lying is intentionally or unintentionally prefacing his lie with a nonverbal confirmation that what he’s going to say is important. From a physiological standpoint, this happens because the question and stress of an anticipated lie can create anxiety resulting in dryness and discomfort in the throat and mouth.
Removing drinks and food from the place of conversation may allow you to more easily notice when this happens. When you do this, the other person may ask for a drink to quench his thirst or for his dry mouth, and this will tip you off as to the possibility of a lie coming your way. How do I do this? Well, before I call the other side’s witnesses to the stand, I usually arrive to my courtroom a few minutes early and remove the water container from the witness stand and place it over on the counsel table.
Sign #6: Eyes and Gaze Aversion
A simple way for me to tell if someone is lying is by watching his eyes. If the other person stops making eye contact, then he’s probably lying. Studies have shown that the other person does this because he knows he’s lying, he knows it’s wrong, and by reducing his eye contact with me, he’s trying to reduce or eliminate the guilt in his mind.
A related factor is that it takes a great deal of cognitive and emotional energy and effort to lie. Maintaining eye contact takes effort. Because of this, and absent a good reason for the other person to do so (somebody walking by, noise…), looking away can be a definite sign that I’m being lied to. Researches have determined that looking away is a predictable physiological reaction to feeling uncomfortable or trapped by the question.
Another good way to tell if someone is lying is to watch if he blinks often or if his eyes are darting back and forth. Rapid blinking may indicate a lie (ordinary people blink an average of once every 11 seconds). People with health conditions like Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia are exceptions so always interpret what you are observing in the proper context based on the surrounding conditions and the other person’s physical and emotional condition.
Another interesting finding I’ve noticed over the years and supported by research is as follows: People who close their eyes for more than a second or two before answering your question may be lying to you. Most people blink quickly at a speed of 0.10 to 0.40 of a second. When the other person closes his eyes for a much longer period than normal when responding to my question, this is a red flag that a lie may be on the way.
Believe it or not, what direction a person looks when answering your question may also indicate he is lying. For example, when you ask a right-handed person a question, he’s accessing his memory if he looks up and to his left. He’s trying to remember something and that’s a good sign.
If that same right-handed person looks up and to his right, he’s tapping into the imagination portion of his brain and is probably in the process of creating a lie or alternate fact. Generally speaking, left-handed people have the opposite reactions. The more you pay attention to this mannerism the easier it is to spot when it happens.
Step #7: Hands To The Face
When I have a witness on the stand during a jury trial, I always pay attention to what he does with his hands and face when answering my questions. A spike in anxiety because of an anticipated lie may result in the other person’s nervous system creating blood loss that can lead to a feeling of itchiness and coldness. I find that a witness rubbing his face with his hands may reveal someone who is lying to me.
For the same reasons, people will bite, lick or pull on their lips. Some people will also pull on their ears. For the reasons mentioned herein, these signs may indicate that a lie was directed your way.
Step #8: Activity and Grooming
A person getting ready to tell a lie or in the middle of telling a lie may adjust his clothing like his tie or glasses. He may also use a handkerchief or Kleenex to wipe perspiration off his forehead. I see this in depositions and court all the time. If the other person has long hair, fussing with it and brushing it aside may be indicative of a lie taking place.
Sometimes people will distract from their lie by organizing or cleaning up their surroundings. They rearrange a notebook, move the phone, or push items in front of them over to the side of the desk or table. Pay attention to all of these activities because they may reveal a liar.
It’s not OK to mislead others or lie. But, the fact of the matter is that people lie all the time.
Because people lie all the time, it’s smart to learn how to detect a liar. There’s nothing wrong with improving you bullshit radar. In fact, in business and in life, I believe it’s smart to find out how to separate truth and facts from deception and alternative facts.
Despite all of these tips and approaches, keep in mind that there’s no perfect or full proof way to spot someone who is lying. However, if you use these proven time-tested methods, together with trusting your intuition and life experiences, I believe you’ll maximize your chances of figuring out who is telling you the truth and who’s trying to force false facts down your throat.
Mitch Jackson is an award-winning 2013 California Litigation Lawyer of the Year, who enjoys combining law, social media and live video to disrupt, hack, and improve his clients’ companies, causes, and professional relationships.
Connect with Mitch on social media and digital via Mitch.Social