Every month, the small alternative school for at-risk youth where I worked as a young man ran a “recovery” group. This group was for those students in active recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. This always included some whose recovery wasn't quite “active,” but were seriously contemplating sobriety none-the-less.
I had only been working there a few months. After co-facilitating one of these groups for the first time, I was processing with my supervisor. She asked me what I thought. I shared some impressions, none of which were particularly interesting.
Next, she asked me about one of the students who had talked at length about how the school had helped him get clean and the wonderful new world of sobriety now before him. I shared that the student’s story was inspirational. It was clear that the staff were making a big impact in these kids’ lives.
My supervisor nodded slowly. Then she said, “Yeah well, that student is totally lying. I bet he hasn’t had a sober day in the past two weeks.”
“I don’t know…”, I said tentatively. “That was a pretty powerful story he told. I don’t think someone could fake that.”
My supervisor smiled a bit and nodded again and said, “I want you to talk to him.”
“Okay. What do you want me to say?” I asked cautiously.
“Just look him in eye and tell him that he needs to get honest.”
“Then what?” I asked.
“Then don’t say anything else. Just be silent,” my supervisor instructed me.
“That’s it?” I asked.
“That’s it.” I was told.
I thought that my supervisor must be crazy. This student just poured his heart out in group talking about the changes in his life and profusely thanking the staff for their help. Now, I’m being asked to call him a liar and start grilling him for information about supposed drug use, about which I have no proof?
Yes, that’s precisely what I was being asked to do. So, I did it. Begrudgingly.
I walked down the hall to the English classroom and asked if I could speak to the young man. Once we were away from the class and in a quiet office, I did as I was instructed.
After an awkward pause I said, “Simon, I need you to get honest.”
“Honest about what?” he asked looking surprised.
Not sure what to say next, I said, “About what’s going on with you.” A very long pause followed his eyes flicking about and looking at me curiously.
Then, breaking the silence he said, “What are you accusing me of, man? This is bullshit! I’ve been doing good. I just told you all how much this school is helping me. What do you want from me?”
He folded his arms and glared at me. Since I was told not to say anything else. I just sat and stared back at Simon. After a minute or two, I asked him to wait there and told him I’d be right back.
I found my supervisor and told her what was happening. Once again, I said, “He just looks angry. After all, I’m accusing him of something I can’t prove. I don’t know what to do next.”
My supervisor said, “Okay. Do you want to try again?”
I told her that I was beginning to feel bad for this student. I questioned whether this was the right thing to do.
She offered, “I understand. Would you like me to come with you this time? Would that help?”
“Sure. I don’t know where to go with this,” I said. I was a little relieved, but still feeling very uncomfortable.
I entered the room first. Simon just glared at me, arms still folded.
Then my supervisor entered. I was surprised to see Simon’s demeanor change immediately. There was a flicker of panic on his face. Then he quickly re-commenced his glaring. My supervisor just stared back. The silence seemed to go on forever. Feeling unsure and half-frozen, I just stared back too.
Then my supervisor said, “Simon. We all care about you. It’s time to get honest.” She was gentle but firm. Simon seemed locked in her gaze. More unbearable silence.
Then, slowly, his lip began to quiver. His eyes started squinting. In the next instant, he was crying. Over the next twenty minutes or so, he told us that he’d been using drugs nearly every day. He was doing his best to hide it, but said he felt out of control. He didn’t know how to stop. He asked for our help.
What strange magic was this? What the heck just happened? How could my supervisor possibly have known that all this was lurking beneath the surface with Simon? Whatever secret Jedi powers my supervisor possessed, I wanted to know them. Please Master, school me in the ways of the Force!
From that moment on I watched and learned like a faithful padawan, rarely questioning her instincts again.
That was nearly twenty years ago. Since then, this is what I’ve learned from her and many others about lies and deception:
Most of the cues that someone is lying are non-verbal. There was a great TV show called, Lie to Me, that ran from 2009-2011. The show followed the cases of a professional “deception expert”. The show was loosely based on the real-life work of Paul Ekman, who studied how “micro-expressions” can give cues to presence of deception. Ekman’s work was in turn influenced by the work of Silvan Tomkins and Don Nathanson regarding the "psychology of affect." In the school above, all staff had basic training in the psychology of affect.
So, we all had a little formal training.
However, detecting deception was not a clinical exercise for us. Most of the time, it was just trusting one’s “gut” feelings and on-the-job learning combined with experience working with people struggling with addiction, personal trauma, and delinquency.
You can seek formal training in all of the above, but there are simple cues you can pay attention to, such as…
Often, when someone is lying their body language and facial expressions will not match the words they are saying. We notice this all the time in social situations and usually explain it away or simply let go so as not to inappropriately pry into someone’s personal life. However, when explicitly tasked with supporting someone or getting to the bottom of behavior happening in the organization, practice pressing a little further when you notice this. When you ask a leader how things are going in their unit and they tell you things are going great, you might notice that they have a flicker of fear or anxiety. You might say, “Okay. I hear that you think things are going well. However, you also look concerned. Can you tell me about that?” Or more boldly, when you ask someone how they are doing and they tell you that they are doing "great", you might say, "That surprising. You don't look like you're feeling great."
Facts communicated verbally are easy to hide, distort, or invent. Feelings, especially as expressed by the body, are very difficult to hide.
If they don’t “bite” on the opportunity, maybe you can let it go. Maybe not, depending on the circumstances. However, taking small risks like this can often give the other person the opening to willingly take the conversation to a deeper level of honesty. As in the case with Simon above, no one forced him to tell the truth. There was some situational pressure, but it was really the pressure from within that did the work. With that in mind, trust that…
Lies and deception cannot be maintained forever, especially when placed under explicit and consistent scrutiny. When someone is maintaining a lie, or simply withholding and masking strong feelings, they do more damage to themselves than to others.
The internal pressure to let the truth out only increases and never decreases over time. It’s basic human hardwiring.
Watch real footage of a great detective performing an interrogation. They never appear to be working harder than the person being questioned. From the outside, the whole conversation might look quite effortless. That’s what I thought about my supervisor in the story above. It looked like “magic”.
It wasn’t magic. What she did, just like a great detective, was put Simon in a position to do the work on himself. She let the internal pressure build and then provided a safe outlet to let the truth come out. The "safe outlet" was the trust and relationship she had with him.That brings us to the truism that…
If you want someone to tell you the truth, they have to believe that you actually care about them and want to help them. This is the essential ingredient. In a storm, we seek those we know we can trust. Even if we know they will not approve of what we’ve done, are likely to be upset, and won’t protect us from natural consequences; we tell the truth to people who care about us. Whether you are a CEO, assembly-line foreman, teacher, or a sixteen-year-old kid trying to get clean, the same rule applies.
Running around sniffing for deception is a useless exercise unless people already trust that you are genuinely concerned for their well-being and want the best for them.
Work on that first. Then you can practice putting some of the insights above into practice.
Finally, as I learned from Paul Ekman’s work, knowing that someone is lying will not tell you why they are lying. Getting to “why” requires a strong relationship and a long-term commitment to working on the relationship, at work as well as other areas of life.
Subscribe now at the top of the page to receive free subscriber-only tips.
Check out the Leading Conflict Store for practical and hard-hitting resources that will help you put these ideas into action.