White lies keep social dignity intact and are far more prevalent than most people realize. Several studies have found that an average person is lied to from 10 to 200 times a day—mostly just to keep a conversation going, to avoid conflict, or to establish a connection with someone. They help smooth out the potholes inevitable on the course of daily interaction.
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Little white lies aren't the problem, though. The "problem lies" are the half-dozen or so falsehoods we hear every day that can lead us down the wrong path in our careers, change how we do business, or dramatically influence our personal lives. Lies like:
Pay no attention to the naysayers, next quarter's numbers are going to knock your socks off. They have a big announcement in the pipeline.
The other buyer's agent told me they already submitted a bid, so I would consider offering 10 percent over the asking price.
I'm going to have to stay here another night, darling. The client insisted on a celebratory dinner.
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People who make a living detecting deception analyze all manner of signals in their quest to get to the truth. Facial expressions, body language and verbal cues all offer tell-tale signs of the stress that comes with dishonesty. Most use some form of the following three techniques to quickly establish someone's bona fides in a conversational or interview setting:
1. Be on your toes. Good interviewers or interrogators do their homework and learn to ask unexpected questions; then watch the subject's initial response very closely. When a hard question is asked, the first few seconds of someone's response is critical. Does he pause for an extended period or punctuate his response with "ums," and "ahs," and "likes?" A subject's spontaneous reaction to a difficult question will trip him up nearly every time if he is not being forthright. Repeating the interviewer's question or stalling for time is a sure-fire sign that the cognitive load from making up a story on the fly or keeping track of a fabricated one is just too high for the subject. If your subject stalls for time and answers in a lowered voice while looking down, almost like he'd like to disappear, take note. This isn't proof of deception but it can suggest you only have been told part of the story.
2. Ask the subject to tell the story backwards. Or jump around in the timeline to throw them off-guard. "So when you left St. Louis, were you still studying for your CPA exam or had you already passed it? I can't remember." Psychologists say most people don't remember true stories or real events, or retell them, in chronological order. It's not the way our brains are wired. Our memories are guided by emotions, so the more dramatic a story the less chronological it is likely to be remembered. Liars often will expend a great deal of energy making sure their story follows what would seem to be a logical timeline of the events as they occurred. Honest people will be able to recall a timeline backwards and forwards or at least remember the most salient details in correct sequence.
3. Do an attitude probe. Honest folks tend to cooperate, provide details, show they are on your side while dishonest people will become petulant or withdrawn. Ask your subject to give you some choice details related to the event in question.
Can you help me out here? I am trying to think: Who else might have had access to the computer on the third floor at 9pm on a Friday?
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An honest person will brainstorm with you, and help you get to the truth. A dishonest person is likely to protest the question : "That's a ridiculous question, you know I have no idea who has access cards" or he will simply look down and repeatedly say " I don't know."
Commentary by Pamela Meyer, the author of "Liespotting, Proven Techniques to Prevent Deception." Her TED Talk, "How to Spot a Liar" is one of the top 20 talks worldwide, and she speaks frequently on inside threats, deception detection and getting to the truth. Follow her on Twitter @Pamela_Meyer.
For more on why we lie — from harmless fibs to extraordinary acts of criminal deceit, watch the CNBC premiere of, "Dishonesty: The Truth About Lies," Thursday May 28 at 10pm ET / PT. Here's a clip: