Smoking out liars

By — on / Daily, Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “How Body Language Affects Negotiation,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

In a real-life example of the power of image, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a German, successfully passed himself off as a member of the Rockefeller family for many years while living in the United States. Armed with little more than an aloof personality and a preppy wardrobe, Gerhartsreiter conned his way into marriages and high-level jobs in investment firms, writes the Boston Globe, despite an obvious lack of experience and credentials, before being convicted in 2009 for kidnapping his daughter.

Research shows that most of us tend to automatically trust those we meet—and adjust our perceptions only in the face of overwhelming evidence. The story of Gerhartsreiter is just one vivid example of the power of visual cues in guiding our behavior.

When you’re evaluating a negotiator’s trustworthiness, it pays to remember that some nonverbal signs are more important than others. Professor Maurice E. Schweitzer of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania notes that liars sometimes have trouble matching their facial expressions to the emotion they’re communicating. A liar might have difficulty coordinating her behavior—saying no while nodding yes, for example. Liars also sometimes forget to add the gestures, pitch variations, raised eyebrows, and widened eyes that we make naturally when telling the truth.

But don’t count on nonverbal signs exclusively when assessing someone’s trustworthiness. To smoke out a lie, ask lots of specific, clear questions about his claims, recommends Harvard Business School professor Max H. Bazerman. In particular, try asking different versions of the same question at several points in your conversation and compare the consistency of the responses.

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