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Are People Lying to You?

To understand why people lie, let's start with some thoughts on emojis.

Like it or not, emojis have become part of our life. They may seem like silly little additions that pre-teen girls obsessively use, but this is no longer true. Over 10 billion emojis are sent each day. Keep in mind that this wonderful planet of ours has only 7 billion people on it. And despite the fact that 39% of senior leaders believe using emojis is unprofessional (source), 76% of people still use them in their professional communications (source).


Why? Because words alone can't be trusted. The studies vary, but the most cited one states that words express only 7% of communication. This is a problem as we've moved more and more to online communication - emails, texting, IM, etc. over the last several decades. This means that whenever we are reading an email, we are missing out on perhaps as high as 93% of what is trying to be communicated. So, we've reverted to emojis because people believe that emojis can express their feelings better than words (source). Are you guilty of this?

Most likely yes and you shouldn't feel guilty. When you include emojis, all you are trying to do is to add non-verbal communication to the written word. This makes sense because non-verbal communication makes up so much of what we are trying to say…or not to say.

Early in my career, I worked as a dean at a high school where one of my responsibilities was to hold staff accountable for setting yearly goals. It was a few weeks into the school year and I had noticed that Nancy, an art teacher, had not submitted her goals into the computer system.

I called her to my office and asked her, "Have you set your goals for this year?"

"Yes," she replied.

"Great. Are they in the computer system?"

Again, she replied, "Of course."

I then said, "Hum, interesting, because I didn't see them in there."

To which she replied, "Oh, I just put them in this morning."

What I didn't notice at the time is that with every response her shoulders rose slightly. They were rising because she was lying to me and although her words were what I wanted to hear, she could not stop her body language from telling me the truth. I later learned that this was her "tell," or her observable sign that occurred whenever she was lying to me.

But why would she lie to me? That's simple. I’m her leader.


Like it or not, simply having the title of leader causes people to be nervous. You could have a best friend at work and then get promoted into a leadership role and it's like a switch flips in their mind. They now are much more cautious around you. They are careful with what they say. They tend to only talk about the good things that are happening and might not be as free with all of the things that are not going right. I wish it were different, but it's not. Over time and with greater trust, this feeling of nervousness in your employees can go down, but I don't think it ever leaves. They will always be protective when interacting with you and this means that sometimes they will even lie to you.

Most likely they won't be lying because they are a bad person. They lie because they are afraid to admit failure, or they don't want to look bad in front of you, or maybe they are not sure how you will handle negative news, or they are not sure if it's safe to be vulnerable with you. There are many reasons why they may lie to you, but the truth is they do. So, what can we do?

The average leader may get upset at this. They may want to learn how to become the ultimate lie detector so that they can catch people in their lies and punish them accordingly. They may want to make an example out of the liar for others, hoping to set an expectation that you shouldn't lie to your boss. Unfortunately, this is not true. If you set up others as an example, if you get upset and punish the liars, people will start to lie even more because you've shown them that it is not safe.

On the other hand, uncommon leaders approach this conundrum very differently. They master the ability to spot when someone is uncomfortable and strive to correct the situation so that it is safe. That is, they become really good at paying attention to the non-verbals and then they ask questions to explore any signs of discomfort.

You see, the wonderful thing about non-verbals is that they are unconscious movements of our body. We don't readily acknowledge them and even the very best find it almost impossible to change them. Quite simply…our body language won't lie because it can't lie. What is also nice about the non-verbals is that they cross all lines of nations, cultures, and ethnicities. For example, eye blocking, a movement of trying to cover our face/eyes with something, is universal. You can find it in America, in Egypt, in Australia, in India, and even in blind people. It's a natural human response when we feel like we want to hide because we are uncomfortable.


The purpose of this blog post is not to help you become an expert in body language, so I'm not going to spend a lot of time here. However, I would like you to become more observant and to be able to recognize when people are uncomfortable, even if their words are not saying it. To that end, here are 10 common non-verbals that are expressed when someone is lying or feeling uncomfortable.


This is the act of covering some portion of your face and/or eyes with another object, such as your hand or paper. The reason we do this is we want to "hide" from the situation and so we use our hand to partially cover our eyes thinking that if we can't see them they can't see us.


Like Nancy in the story above, shrugging is a slight upward movement of the shoulders. Imagine someone saying "I don't know." Most often this phrase is accompanied by a shoulder shrug. When someone is not telling the full truth, they may say something like "I'm fine" and include with the phrase a slight shoulder shrug, suggesting that they are actually not fine.

Head Nodding

Often when we say "yes" or "no" our head moves in a direction that is consistent with our words. However, if we are feeling uncomfortable, we may be pressured to say "no" when we really mean "yes." Our words will come out fine, but there may be a slight up and down nod of the head, even though we are saying "no."

Lip Pursing

This is the act of rolling the lips back to the point where they almost disappear. This is not really a sign of lying, but it is a sign of being uncomfortable. We purse the lips, sometimes tightly, in an effort to stop our mouths from talking. That is, this is a sign that we are trying to hold back information or that we don't want to speak.


When we were babies our mothers would use a pacifier to calm us down. Unfortunately, sucking on a binky when we are uncomfortable is not accepted adult behavior, so we pacify in other ways. This includes rubbing our neck, arms, or the tops of our thighs. When you notice someone trying to calm down by stroking their neck, they are using a pacifying non-verbal.


This is a non-verbal that used to irritate me tremendously as a school administrator. In the heat of me trying to discipline an unruly student, occasionally the said student would start yawning. I would get so upset at what I thought was a disrespectful behavior. Only later did I learn that it is a default behavior some people use when they are nervous. Recently I've noticed that I yawn before major speaking engagements…not because I’m tired, but because I'm nervous.


This act is one of the easiest to spot. When we are uncomfortable our bodies get a shot of adrenaline and we need to find some sort of outlet for this surge of energy. Getting up and running around would be inappropriate, so some people fidget - they click a pen, play with their hair, spin the ring on their finger, fondle their necklace or otherwise mess with anything they can get their hands on. Be careful because this could be a sign of nerves or a sign of boredom. Either way, it's an important one to notice.

Hand Clasping

Similar to pacifying, this is a movement that calms the nerves. When a young child gets scared, they grab their mother's hand for comfort. Later in life, we may reach for a spouse's hand. However, when we are in a one-on-one work situation, it would be really strange to reach out and grab your boss's hand. So, we grab our own hand in the absence of other hands that would make us feel comfortable. This could be done by interlacing our fingers or by placing palm to palm.

Body Turning

Think for a moment exactly how you'd stand if you were to fight someone with your fists. Most likely you'd turn the core of your body away from the other person (protecting your vitals), resulting in your shoulder and leg extending towards the other person. This is body turning and we do it for one of two reasons: to actually fight or to prepare to run. Either way, if you see this movement, know that the other person is quite uncomfortable.

Again, my intent here is not to make you an expert in body language (if you do want to learn more study the works of Joe Navarro and Vanessa Van Edwards). I hope to inspire is more focus on how other people are communicating. That is, when you are observing both the words others are using and their body language, you are becoming a better listener and that makes you a better leader.

I also want to be crystal clear as to what you do after you notice a sign or two of discomfort. Please, do not come out and say, "I just noticed you rubbing the top of your legs…that is a sign that you are lying! Why are you lying to me?" The important thing is not that they are lying, it is why are they lying. In other words, something has occurred or your relationship is not deep enough for the other person to feel safe talking with you in general or about a certain subject. Average leaders will either ignore the signs or call the person's behavior out. Uncommon leaders like you will recognize this as an opportunity to deepen trust.

If you notice a sign, please know, just because you saw one does not mean that they are lying. Consider context, how many signs they are showing, and your relationship before your go and make any sort of conclusions.


If you believe that they are uncomfortable or that they are possibly lying to you, try to use phrases or questions that will encourage them to open up to you. Here's a couple of examples of how you could do this.

Example 1:

"Stacy, I know you said that moving you to a different position on the line is OK, but I want to make sure it is."

"You see, sometimes when I ask others to change they have certain reactions. Some just do it and don't complain because they believe that this is what a good team member does. Others might be looking forward to it, but they have a concern or two about the change, and still, others might not want to change at all and are just too scared to tell their manager.

"By chance, would any of these describe what you're thinking right now?"

Example 2:

"John, I want to believe you when you say that you didn't take a 2-hour lunch, but I've got some reservations.

"I've worked with enough people to know that sometimes they will lie or hide the truth in order to not be punished. They fear the consequence, so they'd rather cover it up. Please know that I'm not here to make an example out of you. What I care most about is our relationship and since relationships are based upon trust, I'm asking you to be honest with me. We all screw up, we all make mistakes, and yes, we've got to pay for our mistakes, but what is most important is that we own up to those mistakes, that we are honest even when it is tough.

"So, John, can you be honest with me? Can you really let me know what happened because I care about you and I care about this relationship?"

I'd like to say that creating comfort will instantly cause people to be completely honest with you. Unfortunately, that is not true. Some will still lie no matter what. However, if taking this approach causes even one person to open up that otherwise would not have, I'd call that a win. Either way, taking a hard-line approach is guaranteed to create more lies while striving to make it comfortable will create an uncommon environment where trust and deep relationships can be built.

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