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How to Spot a Liar: A New Year’s Resolution for Business

Let's face it, we've been lied to a LOT in the past few years — from the old “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” to the epic “Oh, sure, the housing market will keep going up forever!”

How often are we lied to? Over a one-week period, researchers detected lies in 37 percent of phone calls, 27 percent of face-to-face meetings, 21 percent of IM chats and 14 percent of emails. So, take a good look at your inbox — chances are, there’s a lie in there before you even reach for the mouse to scroll down.

Let’s you and me, right here, right now make a pledge to be better at spotting the lies. To step on fewer rakes in the new year.

So, how are we going to learn to spot a liar better — get in our PJs and watch all 20 seasons of “Law & Order” back to back until we learn exactly the right way to pound our fists on a table and demand an honest answer?

Yeah — no.

“That’s one of the biggest misconceptions. People think intimidation is best. Saying something like, ‘Admit it, you were there!’” explained Pamela Meyer, author of the book “Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception.”

“Pummeling an answer out of someone never works. You cannot intimidate someone with aggressive language and think they’ll be more forthcoming … that’s a caricature of interrogation, part of the TV culture of what it looks like.”

In other words, don’t try this at home. Not because it’s dangerous and someone might poke an eye out — because it doesn’t work.

Meyer, who is also an executive trainer who helps bring techniques for detecting deception used by law enforcement into the business world, said there are a variety of cues you can get from a person who is being deceptive, from their facial expressions and body language to the actual language they choose.

The average person is about 54 percent accurate in reading people, but with the right training you can get up to 90 percent accuracy, Meyer said.

“Learning how to read people — having that extra antenna, that extra filter — can help you in negotiations, hiring and building a team,” Meyer said. “Business is a battlefield. You need to be able to go to battle with your team members. Like the military. Know them, trust them and know who you’re working with.”

It can be helpful when making hiring decisions, staffing decisions, mergers, business deals and even investing in a company. Because you're not just investing in the company, you're investing in the people who run the company.

The first step to spotting a liar, Meyer said, is to do what’s called “baselining” in law enforcement. Analyze the person’s normal behavior patterns — everything from their blink rate, to their fidgeting patterns, how fast they talk, their vocal tone, their laugh, their posture, what they do with their hands and feet during meetings, etc.

“You need to understand someone’s normal behavior so you have a reference point,” Meyer said. “If they normally tap their foot in a meeting, you don’t want to be jumping up and shouting, ‘Liar! Liar!’”

Some of the tip-off behaviors of someone being deceptive are: fiddling with what are called “barrier objects” between them and the person they’re talking to, slumping or shifting their anchor points, looking down, biting their lip or doing a grooming gesture like brushing lint off their shoulder.

However, one of these behaviors alone doesn’t signal deception — so, seriously, no jumping up and yelling, “Liar! Liar! Pants on fire!”

What’s telling is when you see the person doing more than one of these typical deceptive behaviors, breaking with their normal patterns.

The truth is, we all do some of these behaviors every day, whether it’s nervously tapping our foot during a meeting or looking down.

“They don’t mean anything unless you see them in clusters,” Meyer explained.

Of course, you’ve already watched a few episodes of “Law and Order,” so let’s debunk a few myths.

Myth No. 1: Liars fidget. In fact, Meyer said, many will actually freeze their upper body — they’re concentrating.

Myth No. 2: A liar won’t look you in the eye. In fact, Meyer said, a liar will often look you in the eye TOO much — they’re overcompensating for the lie. The average person telling the truth only looks you in the eye about 60 percent of the time.

Myth No. 3: A liar is evasive. In fact, many liars provide way too many details — again, overcompensating.

Still, it's important to baseline a person — find out what their normal patterns are before you say, "Ah ha! I gotcha! You looked me in the eye for 30 seconds straight."

Lie-detecting skills are not only helpful when it comes to business meetings but in investing as well.

Researchers have found there is a specific language of lying that people use that you can tell by listening to an earnings conference call — or just reading the transcript.

Researchers at Stanford University analyzed 30,000 earnings call transcripts and found language patterns were often better predictors of negative earnings surprises than traditional accounting methods!

When being deceptive on an earnings call, the person typically uses a lot of what they call “qualifying language,” things like — “Well, to the best of my knowledge,” “As far as I know” or “Everyone agrees…” Or they use distancing language — not “I” or “we” but “The company” and “the team.”

Again, it’s not just a one-off reference — it’s four or five clusters of these deceptive indicators. Another indicator is when the person uses inflated language consistently. It was a “great” quarter not a “good” one, or it was an “incredible” quarter not just a “solid” one.

The Stanford researchers analyzed that famous Lehman Brothers earnings callfrom 2008 just months before the firm’s spectacular collapse.

Then-CFO Erin Callan used the word “strong” 24 times, “great” 14 times, “challenging” six times, “incredibly” eight times and “tough” just one time.

No one is saying Callan lied but what researchers suggest is the "strong" language that preceded the firm's collapse was a better indicator of what was to come than the firm's actual accounting. So it never hurts to listen to the language.

“These calls are supposed to be predictive — you need to learn how to sift through them and understand the language,” Meyer explained. “There is a science to deception.”

Meyer asked a few lie-detection experts who are trained in reading facial micro expressions and law-enforcement techniques of interrogation to take a look at a Herman Cain video clip where the former Republican presidential candidate accuses five women of lying about having sexual relations with him.

The experts said there were behavioral patterns they might consider deceptive, including what they call "duping delight," which is smiling while denying — an indication the person is pleased with “having gotten away with it.”

Here, too, no one is accusing Cain of lying, but Meyer said if she were interrogating him and he exhibited these traits, it would be a reason to ask more questions.

Oh, 9-9-9!

And, it’s not just waiting to trip the person up with one of these behaviors, Meyer said. When asking questions you can also ask them in a way that might trigger one of these behaviors.

You never ask “Why?”

“It automatically puts them on the defensive,” Meyer said.

Instead, be more specific, something like, “What’s the pettiest thing that bothers you about this situation?”

“They always give you something that isn’t petty,” she said. “You might have asked, ‘What’s the pettiest thing that bothered you about the plant closure?’ And they tell you something pretty informative like, ‘The second in command was never around.’”

“That’s pretty informative,” she said.

And, the best visual clues that someone is lying come in the three to five seconds after you ask a hard question.

Meyer said people being deceptive often sigh deeply or you'll see a slump in their posture when a really hard interview is over. So, one trick an interviewer might do is to falsely signal an interview is over. Wait a few minutes. If you see the person slump in relief, then tense when you start the interview again, that’s an indication he or she might be deceptive.

There’s a term called “leakage” — where the person being interviewed starts to “leak” some of these visual clues that they’re being deceptive. That’s your cue, Meyer said, to hit them with the hard question.

Think you’re ready to spot a liar? Take Meyer’s “Lie-Q” test and see!

And seriously, ease up on the “Law & Order,” OK?

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Contact Pony Blog

  • Cindy Perman is a writer at CNBC.com, covering jobs, real estate, retirement and personal finance.

  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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