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Q: I want to learn how to read the people around me better. How can I tell if those around me are lying?

A: No one likes to be duped. Yet, every day there are endless opportunities for people to mislead you. Usually, you rely on your "gut reactions" to tell you whether someone is being sincere and honest. Your vague feelings of discomfort make you assess that "something was wrong" about that encounter. And even though you may not be able to explain exactly how you just knew that the person was not being forthright, many times your instincts will be correct.

Yet, it's also amazing how many times you override your reactions. Why do you discount your feelings? Perhaps you want to like the person--regardless how they are acting. Or, because that person is someone in authority such as a boss, the candidate you voted for--or the man or woman you think could be the love of your life, you minimize or accept the insincerities, half-truths and warning signs. In other words, humans tend to adjust our thoughts to maintain the status quo.  Being wrong or unhappy is so unpleasant that we are willing to live with the ambiguities--and even emotional pain.

When the consequences of accepting too much creates serious problems such as intimate partner violence, investing with a corrupt person or falling in love with someone who--oops!--forgot to mention there was a spouse still in the picture, then you really need to boost your people reading skills.

There are many good books about reading people such as Tonya Reiman's The Power of Body Language, and I would strongly suggest that you read at least one of these kinds of books. The list of signals that people give out, in spite of themselves, is almost endless. And every situation is different. Sometimes, just a tilt of the head can be enough to reveal the real person. Other times, a seemingly innocent slip of the tongue can speak true volumes about the person.

Here, some key behaviors to observe. We'll concentrate on the face and upper body movements since these are the ones that are easier to focus on. The goal is to be able to trust in your educated gut reactions that override your emotional agenda.

1.  Smiling.  It's easy to think that if someone is smiling a lot that they are then being sincere, interested, kind, and approachable. The truth is, however, you could be dead wrong. Babies smile around two months of age, and they continue to smile because your cooing and caressing reward the baby. Almost all babies love to be touched, and soon the baby learns how to elicit affection. All they have to do is give a grin, and you are cuddling and kissing them. 

Adults have not forgotten the power of smiling.  They smile to show approval and interest.  And they smile to fake approval, interest, the truth--and to dismiss and minimize you and your words.. How can you tell the difference?  Here is a tip sheet.  The person is most likely not interested or honest if you observe:

  • A "plastered" smile on his or her face
  • A smile when you are saying negative or hard-to-receive "gotcha" information
  • Frequent, nervous smiling as the person listens or speaks

2. Head-nodding and tilting. Just like smiling can mislead you, so can nods and tilts of the head. Some nods mean "yes, I agree, understand--and I'm telling the truth." Other nods can mean something else entirely. Of course, the context of your encounter with the person will greatly influence your assessment, but here is a general guide about what these head movements might be telling you.

  • An up and down nod of the head when you make a point usually signals agreement with you
  • Too many nods of the head when you are speaking could, however, signal "I hear you, you're boring me, I know that, get to the point" or "I'm right or hiding the truth anyway--no matter what you say."
  • A tilt of the head often means " I don't like what you are saying," "I'm not telling the truth" or "I'm putting you down."

3. Eye blinking, wandering and staring.  We've been taught that eye contact means connection and that wandering eyes means disinterest.  Often, these lessons are accurate--but they aren't always.  Here are some things to consider:

  • Frequent blinks of the eyes usually signals discomfort and dishonesty
  • Wandering eyes can mean disinterest and avoidance
  • However, a brief wandering eye can mean that the person is trying to retrieve thoughts, feelings and memories about a particular situation.  If the person seems to be "thinking," it's possible that he or she is recalling and analyzing
  • Locked stares tend to signal "tuning out," anxiety or lying.  When we are relaxed, interested and have nothing to hide, we really don't "lock" onto the person's eyes.  We might look down at our food, a passerby or the person's hair. 

4.  Too many or too few words.  Don't just listen to the words, listen to how many words there are. Here are key tips to bumping up your awareness.

  • Too many words and lengthy explanations and "stories" usually signal lying.  Be wary of people who spin a too detailed tale.  They're often trying too hard.  In the witness box, liars often speak too long and use a variety of words.
  • Too few words can also signal lying.  Reluctant talkers often fear of revealing too much. Grunts and other noises are not substitutes for words. 
  • Truthful people usually fall back on their unique selection of words and phrases.  Think of the wording that you associate with your friends.  Do you know someone, for example, who always says, "So here's the thing," or "What I mean is" or "Having said that..."  These are just the more common examples.  In general, we rely on a verbal style that we repeat.  We don't add many new words. 

5.  Leaning forward or back.  In movies, we sense who the villain could be.  You say to yourself, "I don't trust that person."  Often, the upper body gives away the true intentions.  On television when accused politicians, Ponzi schemers and alleged murderers are interviewed, their body language often utilizes the tricks of the trade of body language--consciously and unconsciously.  It's easy, for example, to think a person is being sincere when he or she leans forward, as if to gain our trust.  But watch out.  Here are some overall tips about how to read body movements that involve changes in how much space there is between you and the other.

  • When a person tilts toward you with the upper body or when the person "moves into your space," it 's a good bet that they are throwing around their power or minimizing and bullying you--and possibly covering up.
  • When a person leans too far back in a chair--especially if they cross their arms over their chest, then they are also broadcasting "I'm in charge here," "you're not getting in to me."  In addition, when a man leans back, crosses his arms and then sits with his legs far apart, they have ramped up the threat, defiance and lies. 
  • When a person is boosting their "sincerity" by moving toward you, the action could be false.

Usually, all these questionable behaviors happen in an instant.  We are caught off guard--and that's when our emotional investment in believing and trusting the person clouds our ability to read someone accurately.

In the next few weeks, practice "stepping back in your mind" and observing people in your life and on television.  See what you can learn, trust--or question. 


Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, ED.D., MSS is a noted psychologist and licensed clinical social worker, specializing in relationships.  For her book about women and love, she welcomes women to take her 17-20 minute online research survey at www.lovevictory.com. Also on her website, if you donate $5 to Habitat for Humanity-Sarasota, Florida, you can receive a download of her relationship advice cartoon book for women, "The Love Adventures of Almost Smart Cookie."