Of Course I Love You! Five ways to spot if the other party is lying

“Did you pack those bags yourself, Sir?”

“Yes”, I replied, locking eye contact with the Customs officer for as long as possible.

“And what is the purpose of your trip?” he asked.

“Business”, I replied, again making eye contact.

“Are you carrying anything in your bags that would cause you to break out in a sweat if I were to look
inside?” he asked, looking intently into my eyes.

Despite having nothing to hide, it took all my nerve to not look away or blink, and to maintain unflinching eye contact. “No” I said, surprised at the slight tremor in my voice.

He paused and, with a final penetrating stare, waved me on.

This is a typical exchange that we encounter every day at borders or when being questioned by someone in authority. A series of easy questions to which we know the answers allows them to calibrate our body language, followed by a difficult question designed to illicit a change if we decide to lie when answering it. Even when using techniques such as this, it is still very difficult to detect if someone is lying. In fact, former FBI Agent, John Navarro rates the chances of successfully spotting a lie at 50%, at best.

Assessing the validity of what is said certainly has implications for negotiations, as lying often forms a key part of a negotiation. Therefore we need to be as prepared as we can be to spot when the other party may be misleading us.

Customs officers and police are trained to detect lies; however, often this training is quite basic. You may have heard that eye movement can indicate if someone is lying. If you watch their eyes when someone responds to a question and their eyes look up and to the right (their left) then, in theory, they are accessing the left side of the brain concerned with facts and — i.e., what is real and truthful. Eye movement going to the left (their right) suggests they are accessing the creative side of the brain associated with constructing a lie. Whilst some research suggests eye movement can reveal lies, this is not infallible, as some people are ‘cross wired’, especially if they are left-handed. Of course some accomplished liars can fake the eye
movement that a customs officer might associate with a truthful statement.

Increasingly, research in this area is suggesting that the key to detecting lying is the voice and specifically in the form of microtremors. An extreme example of this occurs when a person stands on stage and appears nervous; their voice might tremble a bit. Modern technology is emerging that can detect these microtremors and is already being used by police and security services to help identify when a perpetrator is lying. Even some insurance firms are beginning to apply this technology to call-handling equipment for calls with customers reporting a loss. If the screen flags a potential lie, a loss adjuster might be dispatched to investigate the claim more thoroughly. I’m certain the smart phone app that can monitor your call and flash green or red depending upon whether a caller is really where they claim to be is just around the corner!

Microtremors are generally less easy for humans to detect; yet we can sometimes detect changes in tone or cadence. A change in the way the individual is speaking at that moment may be an indicator that we are being intentionally misled.

In a negotiation, however, it is impractical to ask our opponents if we can hook them up to the latest lie-detection equipment — but does it really matter? Why do we need to detect lying anyway? The answer is simple: people lie to hide their real position. In a negotiation, if we are to be successful, we need to determine the other party’s real position—how high or low will they go—as this represents the greatest potential win for us. So a key aspect of effective negotiation is developing our ability to spot when our opponent is creating a smoke screen.

Despite the challenges I’ve outlined, detecting lying can often be straightforward, but that requires us to tune in to certain clusters of signals from the other party. Here are five things you can do:

1 – Watch for involuntary body movement – Our brains have evolved to automatically protect us without us being aware it is happening. Our unconscious brain will actually try to prevent a lie because it believes it is bad for us. Our unconscious brain wants to raise a hand to our mouth as if to stop the lie coming out, yet our conscious brain is trying to sit still in order to pull off the lie convincingly. The result of this inner conflict is likely to be some involuntary movement in the body somewhere: perhaps a slight arm movement, shifting on the seat, touching the nose and so on. In all the negotiations that I have witnessed it is these seemingly innocent little movements that give the game away.

2 – Don’t forget the eyes – Although never 100% reliable, don’t rule out involuntary eye movement. Make sure to calibrate the person first, during chitchat before the negotiation starts. Ask them questions about vacations or their company, so they will need to recall information; look for clusters of repeatable responses not a single action.

3 – Listen to the voice and what they say – We might not be able to detect specific microtremors but sometimes the voice may sound slightly different. If we listen carefully for this we will begin to hear it. Listen also for what is said as, without realizing it, people will attempt to bury a lie in a sentence by de-emphasizing or over-emphasizing it with other embellishments. “Of course I love you!” has two additional words that provide unnecessary embellishment to “I love you.” If we say something we don’t believe ourselves our sub-conscious tends to try to make up for this by adding in other words to make it ‘super believable’.

4 – Overcome trust – As humans, we naturally want to trust and believe others, particularly the more likeable ones and it is easier for us to ‘give them the benefit of the doubt’. This tendency can however make us blind to spotting a lie. When we negotiate we must hold fast to the principle that we cannot be certain of anything. In fact I know a number of very capable negotiators whose default position is to assume that pretty much everyone is lying most of the time!

5 – Do your homework – Of course having facts and data that tell you what the real position is for certain is the most powerful weapon in any negotiation. However, this is often the hardest to come by, so it is vital to do as much research and planning as possible. The better informed, the stronger our position and the more we know for certain, the harder it is to slip a lie past us.

If you put all these things together and practice as often as you can, it is possible to get quite proficient at spotting lies both in negotiation and everyday life. When you think you spot something, probe further to see how easily they can hold up their position, and then make a judgment as to whether their position is true. Armed with this intelligence you can decide how you play the rest of the negotiation.

Jonathan O’Brien is a leading expert on negotiation and the architect of the Red Sheet Negotiation methodology. To find out more or to get negotiation training for your business, explore our website.

Jonathan O’Brien