The biggest frustration about delving into the world of non-verbal communication is the amount of rubbish one must wade through to find the good stuff. I’m not just talking about the trashy articles you find on online, even some of the best sellers on ‘body language’ and ‘non-verbal behaviour‘ are scary in how unsubstantiated they are.
Similar to what we have seen in NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming), as the popularity of a field grows, and more and more people ‘add’ to the field, the more the core content (usually the stuff based on solid research) is lost, and/or becomes watered down with an individual’s own theories and opinions.
In an attempt to weed out the bulls**t, here are just a few things to be wary of when exploring the more specific area of non-verbal communication and lie detection:
A liar will avoid eye contact
You have probably heard that a person’s eye contact can be a useful indicator of whether a person is telling a lie. It’s certainly one of the first things we hear when we ask the question ‘What does a lie look like?’ on our workshops.
Almost without exception ‘shifty eyes’ or ‘lack of eye contact’ is listed as an easy indicator that a person is lying. The problem is that for the most part, this claim is not supported by good research.
Interestingly, there is strong evidence (scientific research) that supports the opposite of what most people think. In fact, more eye contact (not less) is significantly more likely to be related to deception. The reason? Most liars will want to know if their lie is being believed, and what better way to test this than to stare into the eyes of the ‘victim’ to see if they are buying your message.
It also doesn’t help that most liars also believe the ‘shifty eye’ myth and often overcompensate by staring in an attempt to convey their ‘honesty’.
A liar will constantly change their story
While in some cases this is true, the opposite is more likely. It’s in a liar’s best interest to sound credible, and stumbling over the details of a story may not sound very credible. Liars know this, and will, therefore, put on their best performance to avoid raising any suspicions with the listener. This regularly results in a very disciplined way of conveying a story, and an avoidance of correcting oneself. The liar wants to keep things simple, so the fewer the details, and more simplistic the story, the less likely they are to trip themselves up later.
Truthful people do not have to monitor themselves like this. They can just let the story be told as it comes to them. This usually results in the story jumping back and forth between the beginning, middle and end, but they don’t care. They are telling the truth.
Baseline is so important
Okay, this one is true. A person’s baseline (‘normal behaviour’) is soooo important. What grinds my gears though is that too often people forget to mention that a person’s baseline is constantly changing. Taking someone’s baseline while they are travelling to a job interview, for example, is not going to help you much if you are comparing it to their behaviour within the interview. This change in context will produce significant physiological changes in the body that will impact on their behaviour massively. Many falsely interpret a change in behaviour over an extended period such as this as a good indication of deception. This is dangerous.
You must give yourself enough time to assess the baseline within the same context that you plan on conducting your interview/communication. A good method for this is to engage in a conversation where little thinking is required – their commute, hometown, school, etc.. If you follow this up by gradually introducing the critical questions, and the person’s behaviour changes, you are in a much better position to evaluate this change and, if necessary, delve deeper with further probing questions.
As with all things in life, it’s healthy to remain critical. Trust your gut and make use of the beautiful thing called Google to check out anything you feel unsure about. There are a whole bunch of great articles, and books written by folks who really care, and really spend the time to provide good, quality information. To get started, here are two of my favourites and well worth your time: