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Pants on Fire!

by Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.


April 1 is a day for practical jokes and light-hearted hoaxes - and many organizations dive right into that spirit of fun! (Sun Microsystems is one company famous for it's outrageous April Fool's Day pranks.)

But deception at other times is no laughing matter. Especially in the workplace . . .

Your boss tells you that "this change is for the best," but as she speaks, you notice her stiff body posture and forced smile. Is she being honest with you?

Your co-worker says he'd be happy to help you with your project, but he seems to pause a long time before answering - and while talking, his eyes stay focused on his computer monitor. Can you trust what he says?

Wouldn't it be great to know when we're being lied to? And, wouldn't it be nice if exposing falsehoods were a simple matter of analyzing someone's verbal content? But of course we human beings are more complex than that. And, as commonplace as deception is, deception detection remains an inexact science.

The polygraph, the most widely used method for lie detection, monitors heart rate, blood pressure, and skin conductance to detect the increased anxiety that often accompanies a lie. But one of the reasons that polygraph results are inadmissible in court is that lie detectors fail with people who are not anxious about lying - and may incriminate others who are anxious for different reasons.

The newest technology in the field of lie detection is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).  Brain scans map out the mental calculations of a liar by following the blood flow to various regions of the brain. (The areas of the brain associated with emotion, conflict, and cognitive control -- the amygdala, rostral cingulated, caudate, and thalamus - are found to light up, or look "hot," when someone is creating a lie.)

Basically, what we're finding is that the mind has to work a lot harder to generate a false response. One theory - posed by Daniel Langleben, a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania - is that, in order to tell a lie, the brain first has to stop itself from telling the truth and then create the deception, and then deal with the accompanying emotions of guilt and anxiety - and this process is what the fMRIs are charting.

So how can you tell when someone is lying to you? Well, it's extremely difficult if you're dealing with a pathological liar or a superb actor. But for the vast majority of the individuals you work with, the act of lying triggers a heightened stress response. And these signs of stress and anxiety are obvious, if you know where to look.

Spotting deception begins with observing a person's baseline behavior under relaxed or generally stress-free conditions so that you can detect meaningful deviations. One of the strategies that experienced police interrogators use is to ask a series of non-threatening questions while observing how the subject behaves when there is no reason to lie. Then, when the more difficult issues get addressed, the officers watch for changes in nonverbal behavior that indicate deception around key points. 

In business dealings, the best way to understand someone's baseline behavior is to observe him or her over an extended period of time. Once you've assessed what is "normal" for your co-workers, you will be able to detect even minor shifts, when their body language is "out of character." Just remember that the atypical signals you detect may be signs of lying -- or a state of heightened anxiety caused by other factors.

There is no single gesture that people will use when trying to mislead you. But, to increase your chances of spotting a falsehood, watch for these body language cues:

  • A fake smile. It's hard for liars to give a real smile while seeking to deceive. (Real smiles crinkle the corners of the eyes and change the entire face. Faked smiles involve the mouth only.)
  • Response time. When the lie is planned (and rehearsed), deceivers start their answers more quickly than truth-tellers. If taken by surprise, however, the liar takes longer to respond - as the process of inhibiting the truth and creating a lie takes extra time.
  • Gaze avoidance. When the stakes are high, liars tend to avoid eye contact unless they are very brazen - in which case liars may actually overcompensate (to prove that they are not lying) by making too much eye contact and holding it too long. With this exception, the tendency is for people to avoid direct eye contact when lying and, conversely, look with full focus when telling the truth or feeling offended by a false accusation.
  • Increased blink rate. Increased blinking is associated with stress and other negative emotions. So, when most people are lying, their blink rate increases dramatically. Police interrogators and customs inspectors look for a change in the blink rate that might signify areas where the person is trying to cover something up.
  • Foot movements. When lying, people will often display nervousness and anxiety through increased foot movements. Feet will fidget, shuffle and wind around each other or around the furniture. Feet will stretch and curl to relieve tension, or even kick out in a miniaturized attempt to run away.
  • Pupil dilation. One nonverbal signal that is almost impossible to fake is pupil dilation. The larger pupil size that most people experience when telling a lie can be attributed to an increased amount of tension and concentration. 
  • Face touching. A person's nose may not grow when he tells a lie, but watch closely and you'll notice that when someone is about to lie or make an outrageous statement, he'll often unconsciously rub his nose. (This is most likely because a rush of adrenaline opens the capillaries and makes his nose itch.) Mouth covering is another common gesture of people who are being untruthful.
  • Incongruence. When a person believes what she is saying her gestures and expressions are in alignment with her words. When you see a mismatch -- where gestures contradict words - such as a side-to-side headshake while saying "yes" or a person frowning and staring at the ground while telling you they are happy, it's a sign of deceit or at least an inner conflict between what that person is thinking and saying.

Understanding these signs can be a big help to succeeding in the workplace. It takes practice of course - but what better day to start than April 1, when "liar, liar" deception has become an honored tradition?


 

Carol Kinsey Goman Ph.D. is a leadership communications coach and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She offers informative, interactive, entertaining and custom-tailored programs.


• Expert contributor for The Washington Post's "On Leadership" column.
• Leadership blogger on Forbes.com
• Author of "The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work (Bk Business)" and "The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help--or Hurt--How You Lead."

To contact Carol about speaking or coaching, call +1 510 526 1727 or email CGoman@CKG.com. For more information or to view videos, visit Carol’s websites: www.SilentLanguageOfLeaders.com and www.CKG.com.

You can also follow Carol on Twitter: http://twitter.com/CGoman, on FORBES http://blogs.forbes.com/people/carolgoman/, or “Like” her Facebook Fan Page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Carol-Kinsey-Goman-PhD/105398069543578

Reports I have written:

Measuring the impact and ROI of social media
Measuring the impact and ROI of social media - for Ark Group
Making social media work for your business
Making Social Media work for your business - for Ark Group
Social Media: the new business communication landscape
Social Media: The New Business Communication Landscape - for Ark Group
How to get started with podcasting in your organisation
How to get started with podcasting in your organisation - for Melcrum Publishing
How to use social media to solve critical internal communication issues
Contributing author to How to use social media to solve critical internal communication issues - for Melcrum Publishing

How to use social media to engage employees
Contributing author to How to use social media to engage employees - for Melcrum Publishing

Contributing author to How to communicate with hard-to-reach employees - for Melcrum Publishing

 

 

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