How to Tell If Someone Is Lying From a Psychologist Who Trains the FBI

David J. Lieberman, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist who teaches law-enforcement agents to be human lie detectors. These are some of his science-backed techniques.

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By Jonathan Small • Nov 17, 2022

You confront a co-worker who you suspect may be drinking on the job, or you sit down to speak with an employee who adamantly denies sexual harassment accusations.

How do you decipher if you're dealing with a liar or someone who is telling the truth?

"By paying close attention not only to what people say but also how they say it, you can figure out what's really going on inside their head," writes David J. Lieberman, Ph.D, author of the new book Mindreader: The New Science of Deciphering What People Really Think, What They Really Want, and Who They Really Are.

He's not lying. Dr. Lieberman is a seasoned psychotherapist who uses science-based techniques to read people's words and actions. For the past 25 years, he's trained the FBI, CIA, and other security agencies to be human lie detectors.

Related: This Body-Language Expert's 'Triangle' Method Will Help You Catch a Liar in the Act

In an exclusive interview with the Write About Now Podcast, Dr. Lieberman shared some tell-tale signs of deceit and manipulation.

Here are seven things to look out for.

1. Liars talk too much

Listen to someone's immediate response after you ask them if they've done something.

"As a general guideline, a truthful response is short and direct," said Dr. Lieberman. Liars, on the other hand, often engage in a long soliloquy with lots of "pontification" and "moralizing."

Liars qualify their answers with all sorts of excuses like "I'm not that kind of person" or "As I told you previously." Basically, they talk about a hundred things except a direct answer to your question.

2. Liars try to sell you the truth

When someone is telling you the truth, they're not interested in convincing you of anything. They only want to tell you the truth.

"A liar is interested in selling you something," Dr. Lieberman says. "They need you to believe them, which means that they typically oversell well past the point when a truthful person would have stopped. There is a tendency to overexplain."

Related: 10 Telltale Phrases That Indicate Somebody Isn't Telling the Truth

3. Liars are relieved when the conversation is over

Lying takes a lot more energy than telling the truth—it can be exhausting. For this reason, liars are often relieved once they're done spinning their web of deceit.

But Dr. Lieberman says this sense of relief can also be a red flag. "Put yourself in the minset of an honest person that was wrongfully accused of something. When that conversation ends, you're like, 'Hold on a second. You've just accused me of something. You are upset and bothered, maybe resentful—but you're not relieved."

4. Liars smile with their mouths, not their face

Watch for the "say cheese" smile on a liar's face. "When somebody's feigning an emotion, it doesn't encompass the entire face," Dr. Lieberman says. "The smile doesn't include the upper part of the face, but the bottom of the face only.

Liars smile with their mouth closed, lips tight, with no movement in the forehead. A genuine smile lights up the whole face.

5. Liars pretend to be calm

"When somebody is pretending to be innocent of something, like an accusation, they try to portray the image of somebody who is calm and confident," Dr. Lieberman said.

They tend to do very self-conscious things, such as pick imaginary lint off their pants or stretch out and yawn.

Why? Because common sense tells them that an innocent person acts this way and that guilty people act nervous.

This couldn't be further from the truth. "A person who is wrongly accused of something is not going to be calm and confident—they're going to be upset." Dr. Lieberman explains. "A person who wants to convince you that they're not nervous is going to appear much less nervous that.the person who is genuinely not nervous because, again, liars often oversell an emotion that they don't really have."

6. Liars' stories are too perfect

When a person is telling the truth, particularly about something that is dramatic, the story is probably not going to have a logical flow to it. Dr. Lieberman says they often start with the most dramatic part and then sort of fill in the blanks as they go.

"A person who is making up a story, after they get to the main event, they're gonna be done. They're not going to continue because, in their mind, that's what they have to sell you," Dr. Lieberman said. "But an honest recounting of what happened is going to include an emotional aftermath, how the person felt."

A liar will also fill in a story with lots of superfluous details. Why? Because they don't have real details, they overcompensate and "put in lots of details that are irrelevant."

7. Liars use impersonal pronouns

Dr. Lieberman trains law enforcement to pay attention to the personal pronouns suspects use.

"Pronouns can reveal whether someone is trying to distance or altogether separate himself from his words," he writes in Mindreader.

Just like a liar might look away from you or have trouble making eye contact, they will distance themselves from their own words, avoiding personal pronouns like I, me, mine, or my.

Instead, the liar will often talk more in the second person with lots of "you" statements, or they'll keep referring to "they" or "that" person. The subconscious tell here is that they're too guilty about lying to refer directly to themselves.

No one-trick ponies

Dr. Lieberman stressed that each of these tells in and of themselves may not prove someone is lying. His techniques are "not one-trick ponies," he said. "But if you've got 7, 8, 9 markers in a single sentence, then you can very clearly tell whether or not somebody's being truthful."

Jonathan Small

Entrepreneur Staff

Editor in Chief of Green Entrepreneur

Jonathan Small is editor-in-chief of Green Entrepreneur, a vertical from Entrepreneur Media focused on the intersection of sustainability and business. He is also an award-winning journalist, producer, and podcast host of the upcoming True Crime series, Dirty Money, and Write About Now podcasts. Jonathan is the founder of Strike Fire Productions, a premium podcast production company. He had held editing positions at Glamour, Stuff, Fitness, and Twist Magazines. His stories have appeared in The New York Times, TV Guide, Cosmo, Details, and Good Housekeeping. Previously, Jonathan served as VP of Content for the GSN (the Game Show Network), where he produced original digital video series.

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