Would I lie to you?

One of the most common questions I get from both groups and individuals is how to deal with people being evasive or simply lying.  When you think someone is not being straight with you, it is rarely clear cut, and often has the added complexity of an audience.

Of course, the most congruent (being real) thing to say might well be “I don’t believe you”.  But the outcome is likely to be defensiveness and therefore destructive, rather than productive.  The reason for this is that it is usually too confrontational, especially in public.  Also, more subtly the responsibility is on the non-believer to justify and even prove the validity of their statement, which is in its effect, an accusation.

The TV detective Columbo (played by the late Peter Falk) can help us here.  His method of getting information has actually become one of the Motivational Interviewing techniques, known as the Columbo technique.   When having a conversation with someone, he would always be listening actively, in a relaxed or even nonchalant manner.  His style of interaction was to question, seemingly curious, even naïve.  This put the prime suspect off guard and they talked more, giving Columbo more information, a part of which was incriminating.

We are not of course trying to incriminate anyone, nor be devious in any way.  But the approach is very effective for two important reasons.  Firstly, it is non-threatening, even though it is challenging.  Secondly, it puts the responsibility back to the individual who has been evasive or whose information is inaccurate/misleading.

So how to do this?  Let’s imagine you are in a meeting and a colleague implies that a particularly unpopular decision was fully consulted about, yet you’re pretty sure it was not.  The initial statement will usually be said quickly, because the individual will want to gloss over it (the expression ‘skating on thin ice’ applies here.

  1. Slow the conversation down, by asking them to go over what they have just said because you haven’t understood/heard properly
  2. Seem puzzled/confused in body language, but genuine in that you’re trying to understand more fully

This has the effect of making the colleague repeat the statement.  If it is a lie or an evasion they are likely to feel some discomfort.

  1. Then follow up with an open question to get more clarification, such as “What does ‘fully consulted’ mean?” This is assertive questioning, so ensure your tone and body language is neither apologetic nor aggressive.

What happens next is revealing.  Either there is a plausible explanation with more facts given, which is helpful, and may lead to further discussion.  But if they have indeed been lying or evasive they are likely to: become apologetic and try to distance themselves from the decision- making and consultation or become aggressive/defensive, maybe saying you have no right to ask such questions.  This is their conscience speaking. Keep calm and open in body language.  Thank them for their clarification.   Do not apologise or get defensive, but stay neutral.

If anyone is not being up front with you about something, you can ask them directly.  But another option is to let their conscience speak, and this is more powerful in terms of behaviour change.

Remember:

  1. Slow the conversation down, because when people lie, they usually talk quicker
  2. Look puzzled and appeal to them for help in understanding the issue. Use expressions such as “Hang on, go over that again, I’m getting lost…”  This is non-threatening
  3. Ask them to repeat the key information/issue back to you or use an open question to explore.

Monthly Articles


Fantastic course [Motivational Interviewing]! Totally relevant, understandable, practical and interesting. I look forward to using the skills and tools I learned. I was particularly impressed with Alasdair Cant. He is a brilliant trainer, knowledgeable, patient, engaging and clearly skilled at facilitating groups ensuring fun and learning.

Youth Justice Worker