Have you ever had a feeling that someone is lying but hadn’t had a quick way to prove it? It can be uncomfortable to try to spot liars. And directly accusing someone of lying, especially without evidence. If you’re right, you have no way to back it up, and it’s your word against theirs. And if you’re wrong, that’s just awful and unfair on the person in question!
Worse still, even when you know someone is lying, certain people can be very good at deception. This makes it easy for them to cover their tracks and say the right thing, removing suspicion from themselves and leaving you feeling conflicted or caught in a corner.
If you’ve been in a situation like this, worry not! Get your positive thinking going, and you’ll see that there are plenty of non-confrontational ways to check someone’s truthfulness. Here’s how experts reveal 4 questions you can ask to spot liars, or, more specifically, 4 types of questions that are useful in lie detection.
1. Ask Questions Focused On Them
Liars often do their best to separate themselves from what they say to add distance between themselves and the stories they tell. This allows them to slightly avert accountability, pushing that onto the people around them. Renowned social psychologist James W. Pennebaker has found that many liars do this by referring to themselves in the third person.
- “It wasn’t finished,” instead of “I didn’t finish it.”
- “You don’t give people things just like that,” instead of “I didn’t want to give them that.”
- “The plate was dropped,” instead of “I dropped the plate.”
But that’s not all you can to spot liars.
Liars, especially when part of a group, team, or community, will often use “us,” “we,” “our,” and other similar terms to avoid accountability for their actions. It doesn’t just lump their behavior in with many others, but it also makes them sound like they’re reasonable. For example:
- “We found this acceptable,” instead of “I found this acceptable.”
- “No one really saw an issue there,” instead of “I didn’t see an issue there.”
- “We made a mistake, and we’re working on it,” instead of “I made a mistake, and my team is now working on it.”
- “Our team really dropped the ball on that,” instead of “I really dropped the ball on that.”
- “All of us agreed that this would be best,” instead of, “I thought it would be best, and I made everyone else think so too.”
Finally, liars may switch pronouns to avoid responsibility. Instead of referring to something as theirs, they may use generic pronouns to detach themselves. For example:
- “I was driving the car,” instead of “I was driving my car.”
- “The decision was…”, instead of “I decided to…” or “My decision was…”
- “That action was unavoidable,” instead of “I felt that my actions were unavoidable.”
So, how do you avoid this?
What you have to do is directly confront them personally. When they try to hedge, ask follow-up questions that put the onus on them. For example:
- When they say “It wasn’t finished,” instead of “I didn’t finish it,” ask, “Who didn’t finish it? Was it you?”
- When they say, “Our team really dropped the ball on that,” instead of “I really dropped the ball on that,” ask, “Who was directly responsible? What part did you play in it?”
- If they say “I was driving the car,” instead of “I was driving my car,” they, ask “And this car belongs to you?”
- When they say, “No one really saw an issue there,” instead of “I didn’t see an issue there,” ask, “What did you personally think?”
- If they say, “We found this acceptable,” instead of “I found this acceptable,” ask, “So you found this acceptable?”
2. Ask Things You Know The Answer To
You may not know everything about a situation, but you’re likely aware of one or two objective facts about it. When you question someone you think is lying, ask about the things you know and the things you don’t know. If they mess up and lie, don’t reveal it right away. Wait for them to continue building their falsified story on this lie. That way, you’ll have a good idea of what is truthful and what isn’t.
Consultant Forensic Psychologist, Chartered Psychologist, and Chartered Scientist Coral Dando, Ph.D., goes a step further. In her decade serving the London police force, her expertise and observation have led her to use these kinds of questions to understand a person’s behavior better when they lie. If you’re especially observant, you may be able to pick up on specific tells that someone performs when they lie, as you’ll know when they’re contradicting the facts you already know.
An important aspect of this is knowing when and how to withhold information from a liar so you can use it to check their honesty. Research has indicated that furnishing people with too many details too early can give them sufficient time to plan their elaborate lies, making it difficult for someone to be positive if they’re lying or not.
Strategic approaches are likely to be taken by liars who know too much too quickly. However, having to make up things on the spot, liars quickly will always lead to discernable mistakes.
3. Ask Something Unexpected
Lying is a delicate business, and liars have to make sure they’re on top of their deception. It’s not uncommon for those who often lie to try their best to avoid cliches, especially if they’re one of many people being questioned. Phrases like “I’m not sure” and “I don’t remember” will quickly single them out. So they tend to try and build narratives that let them seem reasonable, sometimes with as many details as they deem relevant as possible.
According to a trained federal agent and deception detection expert, J. J. Newberry, approximately 4% of all people are excellent and accomplished liars, often to the point that they give off no clear signs of lying. That means there’s only one way to call them out, and that’s to catch them in their lies.
With all this information, we reach a simple conclusion. Good liars know to prepare in advance, but the problem with well-rehearsed stories is that they lack real-life details. Asking them something unexpected can throw them off, and research has found that this is a quick way to leave liars floundering.
Lies can often be tangled, so asking them something unexpected can get a liar stuck in their own web. Here are some examples of good unexpected questions:
- Lie: “I wasn’t free because of a work dinner.” Unexpected questions: “Who was sitting on your right?” “What did you eat?”, “What kind of wine did they serve?”
- Lie: “I was actually with my friend at the time.” Unexpected questions: “What color was their shirt?”, “What was the weather at their place like?”, “How was their wife?”
- Lie: “I have plenty of experience in this field, as my last job involved this work.” Unexpected questions: “Where did you work last?” “What was your biggest failure as you learned?” “What kind of computer was at your old office?”
4. Ask For A Story
Asking someone questions one by one has its uses. But asking for a story of the events they can tell is a useful way to sniff out a liar. Even those with the most positive demeanors and deceptive tricks tend to reveal certain tells when they have to tell a whole story, and studies have found that particular ones are almost always going to be found in a liar’s tale.
University of Massachusetts’ Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences and American Board of Professional Psychology-certified author in this field, Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., outlines the following ways someone may reveal that they are lying in a story:
· Talking Very Slowly
Someone who has to make up their lies on the spot will likely try to buy time by slowing down their speech. This is because lying is a mentally taxing exercise – you need to put effort into being consistent, sounding realistic, and self-editing if necessary.
· Being Too Vague
People lying will often be extremely brief or vague when telling stories. That’s because they don’t want to implicate themselves with unnecessary details accidentally. If they do spend time on unnecessary details, it will usually be because they’re trying to distract you by over-describing something that they do know.
· Mentioning Bad Memory
Anyone can have a bad memory, but liars will often talk a little too much about their memory-related troubles in an attempt at downplaying their inaccuracies. Though not definitive, it’s a good idea to make sure you don’t allow a liar to excuse every single weird contradiction with “bad memory.”
· Being Extremely Positive
This one is a little strange but think about using this tactic to spot liars. Most innocent people aren’t fond of being questioned, especially if they retain feelings of guilt over being unable to prevent what happened or are struggling with the emotional backlash of the event. Liars will often do their very best to put on positive thinking, allowing them to appear completely calm and reasonable. They may downplay any negative feelings they have. And they make no complaints about being questioned at all (though some liars also go the opposite route, which can make this tell hard to judge).
· Making Spontaneous Corrections
Liars often need to backtrack, leading to the need for quickly making sudden corrections that they try to brush off. For example, someone might say, “It happened at 12, no wait, maybe it was at 2”. A few of these in an account aren’t inherently signs of lying, but multiple spontaneous corrections should raise some eyebrows.
However, it is a good idea to use knowledge about someone before jumping on any of these “tells.”
Neurodivergent individuals may have many different “tells” that suggest lying, even when they’re truthful. So if you’re dealing with someone with a mental or learning disability, make sure you take that into account!
Asking the right questions is often all you need to spot liars quickly. Be calm, direct, and casual, staying away from obvious aggression or accusations, and you’ll soon notice inconsistencies that blow someone’s lies wide open.