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Handy hints for spotting liars

Published on Friday, 08 Oct 2010
Illustration: Bay Leung
Bosses speak differently when they are lying in video conferences (below), but it is difficult to spot if someone is not telling the truth unless you know their normal behaviour.
Photo: Bloomberg

How do you tell if a colleague or business associate is lying over the telephone or in a video conference? Help could be at hand, provided you know the person you are dealing with.

In a recent study, David Larcker and Anastasia Zakolyukina, of Stanford's Graduate School of Business, examined deceptive discussions in almost 30,000 conference calls by CEOs and chief financial officers in the United States from 2003 to 2007.

The result? Bosses speak differently when they are lying. Among other traits, they tend to be vague and often make things sound more attractive than they really are.

But how about detecting whether people are lying in person or during virtual meetings or video conferencing?

The idea that we can discern the truth by observing body language is a common misconception. For example, looking for a particular facial twitch, or pattern of movement or speech, may not be helpful.

"There are no reliable methods of detecting if a person is lying or not," says London-based business psychologist and coach Rob Yeung, an in-demand television personality on CNN and BBC.

"You need to observe how someone is behaving in a situation relative to how they normally behave. If you are meeting someone for the first time, you can't tell if they are lying - they might just be nervous; maybe it's an unfamiliar topic they are talking about or they are not very confident."

Don't be too harsh in judging people who avert their gaze or shift their position - actions associated with lying.

Yeung says that when people tell lies, they have to think hard as much of their brain is tied up in concocting a false story while suppressing the truth. "They also might have difficulty with body language and their tone of voice. Often, such people come across as a little rigid and inhibited."

However, concluding that someone is lying because he or she looks stiff does not always wash. It must be compared with how they normally are, whether effusive or bland.

Another clue is that people aiming to deceive tend to speak more slowly, concentrating on what they say. There may also be gaps before they speak.

"People may fill the gap with something like 'ah, it's interesting you asked that ...' or 'well ...' - speech fillers or phrases that sound like words but actually impart no content," Yeung says, adding that others may say less than usual, concerned that extraneous words may give them away.

Yeung advises that one should ask a lot of questions if one thinks someone is lying during a virtual meeting or conference call.

The session should be seen as a forensic investigation, he says. "Think of yourself as a police detective and really go into the detail. If you think someone is telling you something that doesn't quite add up, ask for a response and check later to see if the facts add up."

Be careful

  • Even if you suspect somebody is lying, don't jump to conclusions
  • A mumbler is not always a liar - he may only be stressed or anxious
  • When you expect to be deceived, you often find self-fulfilling evidence
  • Don't anticipate any deception - it may be all in your mind


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