Have you ever thought someone might be lying but just couldn’t quite prove it? Leslie John, of the Harvard Business School, reveals some very practical tips on how to navigate through an interaction with a liar during her interview on the Harvard Ideacast entitled How to Negotiate with a Liar.
In my experience, people that are usually honest become ‘liars’ when the stakes are high. This is especially true when two people are trying to resolve a conflict. Each person is negotiating the facts with the other to arrive at a resolution that suits their interests. Think back to the last real conflict you had with someone important to you. Be honest, did you fib just a little to get your way? We all lie. Lies of omission, white lies, boldface lies. You’re lying to yourself if you think you don’t lie.
To begin, John says to stop trying to catch the liars. We are not as skilled at catching a liar as we think we are and when we guess right, catching someone in a lie, we have actually moved further from our desired resolution.
So do I deny myself the rush I get when I triumphantly right the scales of injustice by pointing out the liar in the room? John would say catching the other person in the lie will only exacerbate the conflict rather than move towards solving it.
So if I can’t point out that their pants are on fire, what can I do?
Start by creating a safe space. If people feel they are safe, they are less likely to lie. Within that safe space you may get things started by disclosing something about yourself, prompting the other person to reciprocate. Reciprocal self-disclosure fosters trust and therefore you are less likely to lie to them and they are less likely to lie to you. It eases both participants into a conversation that has the potential to move them towards a resolution.
However, there are times in which the other person refuses to participate in disclosures. If this occurs, John says to try giving the other person a choice between two options of which you are personally impartial. The option they choose will be a disclosure in itself. Understanding what they need will signal what you can trade with them to arrive at a resolution.
John also tackles the obvious, persistent, recidivist liar. When confronted with the person addicted to lying, she says to use contingencies. Allow the lie to pass undetected and instead tie contingencies to a resolution based on their falsehood. (If you turn out to be wrong, then you will have to work overtime to meet the deadline.) Usually, the person lying will step back from their lie to avoid the repercussions of a contingency. It neatly sidesteps the need to be right by placing the emphasis on what happens if the other person is wrong.
John has a few other tips in the podcast so I encourage you to give it a listen.
In the interim, for those readers following my Liminal Thinking series, are you able reconcile John’s ideas about lying with Gray’s ideas on beliefs?