Honesty is supposed to be one of the key components of integrity (you know, doing the right thing when no one is looking, that thing that's so critical to building the relationships that help your business thrive). Yet, according to Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Virginia, lying is on the same par with brushing your teeth. Most people lie to someone else at least once or twice a day, and over a week, they lie to 30 percent of the individuals they interact with. And as with any bad habit, if you're going to stop people from lying to you, you have to understand what's motivating the behavior.

The function behind lying

Doctor and author Alex Lickerman asserts that, in general, lying serves a protective function. What we strive to protect through fibbing can vary considerably, though. We lie to protect ourselves, such as when we don't want to feel shame or experience some type of abuse. We do it to protect material and non-material interests, such as money or attention. We try to protect our image, covering up the flaws we think others will think less of us for. Sometimes we don't want to lose resources, including our energy. And lastly, we lie to give those same protections to the people we care about.

But it goes a little deeper than that. What are we really after, for example, in a bid for attention? Why is it so scary if others to have a lower opinion of us? What does all that protection get us?

Ultimately, when a person lies to you, they're holding onto something extremely basic--survival. They're afraid that, if they don't lie, they risk rejection and isolation, not having enough. Even though they know there's a risk of consequences if found out, because they frequently don't suffer consequences when lying, they see fibbing as a relatively safe way to keep those deep fears from coming to fruition. All this matters because, if you see the person who's lying to you as being vindictive rather than insecure, you'll likely lose out on a chance to respond with compassion and miss the mark on how to get them to stop their dishonest behavior for good.

Spotting liars

Understanding the above, part of the reason lies get to us is because we're actually pretty lousy at detecting them. A meta-analysis of some 253 studies of people distinguishing between truth and lies found that people are accurate barely over half (53 percent) of the time. We rebel when we catch someone in a lie because their behavior calls into question how accurate we've been in the past, making us feel foolish and incompetent. But if you know what to watch for, you're less likely to get duped. Former CIA officers Philip Houston, Michael Floyd and Susan Carnicero identify the following as tipoffs to dishonesty:

  • Behavioral pause or delay when an immediate response would be expected
  • Verbal/non-verbal disconnect (e.g., nodding while saying no in a narrative response)
  • Hiding the mouth or eyes (literally shielding themselves from the reaction that might come from the lie, covering up the falsehood)
  • Clearing the throat prior to response
  • Hand-to-face activity (the autonomic nervous system tries to address the spike in anxiety from the lying, draining blood from the face, ears and extremities and producing feelings of cold or itchiness)
  • Grooming or tidying behaviors (e.g., straightening a tie or skirt, suddenly repositioning paperwork on the desk; these distractions can alleviate the anxiety of lying)

So you've found a liar...now what do you do?

Once you're sure that someone's been stingy with the truth, you have four main options for how to handle it, as psychologist, emotional intelligence expert and author Dr. Travis Bradberry outlines:

1) Do nothing (sometimes the cons of calling the person out outweigh the pros).

2) Deflect with humor (acknowledges the lie but gives the liar a chance to admit the dishonesty without fearing you'll retaliate).

3) Play dumb (asking lots of questions to get details can force the liar into admitting the dishonesty without you calling them out).

4) Point out the lie (best done privately with directness).

Within these options, given the self-protective purpose of lying, seize opportunities to be reassuring and encouraging in ways that get to the root of the behavior. Empathy goes a long way. For instance, if you know that someone is strapped for cash but they lie and say it's no problem covering your bill at lunch, you can say something like, "Gosh, I appreciate that, but no--I can't contribute to an empty wallet when I remember what broke feels like myself!" The more you can convince a liar that the threats they're consciously or subconsciously perceiving aren't an issue, the more they'll probably relax, trust you and put their two-faced ways behind them.

Published on: Jan 16, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.