Are you lying?


Melissa Killeen

As a recovery coach, I can’t tell you the number of times I have looked at my client and thought, “Are you lying?” Probably, thousands of times.

There are a lot of telltale signs that a client is lying. A slight facial expression can reveal when someone is lying. Paul Ekman in his book Telling Lies, describes these minute facial expressions as micro expressions while the body language clues to deceit are called micro gestures. I find that many of my clients show their deceit not on their face but rather in their body actions or voice intonations.

I have one client that has a sing-song, childlike voice that “tells” she has been drinking before I ask the question. Another client sits with me, with every point of her body facing away from me – her toes point away from me, her knees follow suit, her hands clasped in front of her body, as she rests her elbow on the arm of the chair farthest from my chair. Yet, her face looks at me as stoically as a dog looks to its master and her eyes are glued to me as if they have been affixed with super glue. I read these as signs of concealment.

Are my clients simply concealing the fact they relapsed or are they outright telling me a lie? After all, I have not come out and directly asked if they drank, used or acted out. So they may think they aren’t lying to me because I have not asked the question. In their minds, there is a big difference between lying (guilty) and concealment (innocence). Not a single client that lies to me glances to the left (a standard deceit revealing gesture). Every client looks me straight in the eye and fibs.

To answer the question “Did you drink?” would most certainly mean a display of unconscious signals even before my client opens their mouth. So I am watching for these signs, with my conscious mind. My unconscious mind has already picked up thousands of clues. The key word here is unconscious, because unless my client is a superior liar, a con-man or thief, it is likely that I received some notice, “tell” or a signal that the client is lying.

In Nick Morgan’s book, Power Cues, he discusses reading these unconscious signals and how we can be aware of them. He suggests looking at the person’s hands first. The hands are marvelous weather vanes signaling the state of the soul within. In fact, the hands are a more reliable indicator of a poker player’s cards, rather than their face. Are they nervously kneading their hands? Is the left hand clenched, as the right hand reaches to shake yours? Hands are reliable giveaway to the pretender, again, better than the face.

Paul Ekman maintains we cannot be sure if someone is lying or telling the truth. Of course, sometimes we are dealing with a stranger, a very good liar, perhaps a pathological liar, leaving us in the dark about what is actually the truth. However, Morgan maintains most of the time we know the liar fairly well – they could be our husband, child or employee. So we look for the out-of-the-ordinary expression, and the unusual or atypical body language.

Look for an unusual stillness, the frozen wide-eyed innocence from a person that has not looked you in the eye in years, which is a probable sign that a deception is being prepared. Beyond the eyes, is the person’s head tipping up or down and away from you? For more of an honesty-test, step in towards or move into the alleged liar’s space. Closing in towards the person will make them uncomfortable, and that shows in their body language. Often times they move some part of their body in the opposite direction. Many times they step back. If they do, well, shut the barn door, the cows just got out.

Morgan’s finest test for truth telling is a workout for strengthening your unconscious truth telling capacity. One of the toughest things for a parent, spouse or even a coach is to ask the hard questions. Did you drink? Did you use? Did you sleep with that woman? It is really tough to ask those questions because not only are you fearing the deception from your husband or child, you also fear the truth of the situation.

Morgan suggests to ask this person unconsciously, “Are you telling the truth or lying?” Yes, never letting the words out of your mouth, but looking that person in the eyes and in your head ask the difficult question. For example, your husband comes home from a late night at the office, and his clothes look rather wrinkly. After a causal conversation on the merits of him working late and how tough this project is, you look him directly in the eye and ask yourself silently, “Is he telling me the truth or lying?” Then wait. Keep your mind as blank as possible, and the answer will appear. The idea is not to answer the question with your own mind’s chatter, but to let the answer come to you.

Your unconscious mind has already picked up some clues, the wrinkled clothes for one. Your mind picks up 660 million unconscious messages per minute versus your conscience mind, which can only process forty bits of information in one second. Your unconscious is the “Sherlock Holmes of deception detection” as compared to your “capable as Columbo conscious mind.” In this exercise, you are asking your unconscious mind what it thinks. So wait for the answer. When you receive it, know your unconscious mind has processed billions of pieces of evidence, and you can trust the results. Of course, if you really, really want to believe your spouse, your child, your recovery client, you have to be prepared to not allow this chatter to answer the question before your unconscious mind does. This is an exercise of seeing, hearing, feeling and knowing what your unconscious already knows.

You also have to be prepared for the answer … the truth.

Resources Used in this blog:

Paul Ekman, Telling Lies – Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics and Marriage (1985), WW Norton and Company, New York City, New York

Nick Morgan, Power Cues – The Subtle Science if Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact, (2014), Harvard Business Reviews Press, Boston Massachusetts

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