Crucial Conversations QA

How to Confront a Liar

Dear Joseph,

Do you have advice on how to confront a liar? Normal confrontation does not work as they just spin more lies.

Signed,
Being Spun

Dear Being Spun,

Do I know how to confront lying? Hey, I raised five teenagers. You’ve come to the right place!

You wrote only two sentences, so please forgive me for parsing your words in an attempt to be helpful.

1. Master your story. You asked, “Do you have advice on how to confront a liar?” First, stop seeing them as a “liar.” You have reduced their identity to a label. You have zero possibility of creating an atmosphere that will invite them to acknowledge their dishonesty if you see them as nothing more than a sum of their worst behaviors. You’ll have made progress if you can come to see them as “a person who lies” rather than a “liar.” You’ll have made even more progress toward the possibility of dialogue if you can come to see them as “a person like me.” Negative labels are carriers of disgust. Nothing provokes defensiveness more than the sense that others view you with disgust. Disgust communicates that the other person is different, less than, worthless. Ask yourself, “When did I tell my most recent lie?” Perhaps yours are less stark than this person’s, but if you’re like me, you lie. You dress up the truth. You withhold your true feelings. You fail to correct misunderstandings that are favorable to you. Look for ways you are similar to this person and you’ll find a place from which you can feel understanding and even compassion rather than judgment and disgust.

2. Give them a reason to come clean. Acknowledging terrible mistakes is hard for anyone. Lying is one of the hardest of all. Since deceit is often connected to a deep sense of shame or fear, you’re asking someone to shine a light on a terrifying part of their character. They’re unlikely to do it unless there is an upside. For example, the possibility of redemption, forgiveness, a better way of working together, etc. If you are unwilling to offer any of these, don’t hold your breath for an admission of fault. Perhaps they will do it purely out of a desire to feel morally clean again. But I wouldn’t count on it if this is a long-standing and intentional pattern, as you suggest.

3. Master the facts. I recently watched an argument between two people in which one was accusing the other of lying. It went the way they usually do. The accuser cycled over and over through the same vague evidence. “You did it. I know it!” The other person denied having been deceptive. “No, I didn’t!” The accuser repeated the same vague evidence even louder, followed by louder denials. One of the reasons we fail to persuade others during crucial conversations is that we’ve spent too much time thinking about our conclusions and too little time laying out the data. If you want to help someone come clean, it’s best to lay out the strongest case you can absent judgments, accusations, and other hot words. Don’t start with, “You’re lying.” Start with, “I was sitting outside the laundry room the whole time my laundry was in the drier. You are the only one person who went into the room while I was there . . . ”

If you’re confronting repeated behavior, be as prepared to describe the pattern as you are any specific instance. As you lay out examples, refer again and again to the pattern you are trying to draw attention to.

4. Control yourself, not the other person. Prior to engaging in the conversation ask yourself, “What new boundaries will I draw between us if the lying continues?” Even if you share your suspicions as effectively as possible, and even if you are correct about the allegations, the other person may persist in denial. If this happens, your job is to protect yourself by drawing new boundaries. If you don’t do this, you’ll consign yourself to the misery of trying to control the other person. You can’t. And attempting to do so punishes yourself as much as the other person. If you’ve settled it in your mind that the other person can’t be trusted, you need to take responsibility to take care of yourself in this reality. For example, you may decide to distance yourself from the person at work, avoid working on shared projects, or involving them in risky tasks for which you are responsible. The most honest way of moving to this new reality is to do so openly. Tell them you are still unconvinced by their response. Let them know you don’t like carrying this conclusion but that until you can be persuaded otherwise, you will be operating differently toward them. Then specify how. But conclude with a sincere willingness to continue the conversation.

I hope something I’ve said above is of use to you as you navigate this troubling relationship.

Sincerely,
Joseph

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Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

14 thoughts on “How to Confront a Liar”

  1. Beautifully said! It can be difficult to remind ourselves in these moments that we are fallible as are others, that all are wounded and in need of understanding and compassion (to suffer with those who are suffering, not to excuse their behavior). It is usually the genuine desire to understand others, and the sincere effort to meet them in their suffering, that opens the door to any meaningful change of behavior.

  2. Thank you for posting about lying. I have a client whose manager lies and goes around my client to get what he wants. The thoughts you shared were very helpful. Can you comment on how to handle this behavior when the other person is your manager?

    1. It happens that I was just thinking about a situation I was in, working for a boss who was … let’s say “careless with the facts.” He’d often say things and give orders and make assumptions … that would turn out to be at variance with reality. And he was not very receptive to negative feedback.

      So, over time, I looked for opportunities where I could find easily presentable undeniable evidence that the information he had given me was “not reliable.” And then I’d go to him with the “I’m confused” story of “You told me this. But I tried this and this happened.” or “I found this in the vendor’s documentation.”, “And I’m confused. Could you help me understand where I went wrong?”

      Now that usually (in my experience) provokes a lot more blustering and making stuff up and such. (… what some people might call “lies.”) But when I check that information and come back later with more confusion and questions, … Well, eventually most semi-sensible people will realize that I’m not going be fooled by even more “puffing.”

      So I can usually at least get to the point where they’ll admit that they don’t know. And if they’re sensible, they’ll back off on trying to impose their fiction on me.

      This can lead to a situation of mutual respect. Or it can lead to a situation where one or both of you leave. Unfortunately, I’ve seen the latter more often than the former. I’m not sure that better technique would change that. Sometimes they don’t want to change.

      (In the situation above, I left. And a few months later his superiors fired him.)

  3. How do you handle the conversation as the accused? Whether you lied or not, you’re bound to get defensive and angry. How do you answer someone who is accusing you of lying without the hysterics. How would you “come clean” if you were lying? And, how would you react if you were innocent?

    1. Learn to be humble. With many, many years of experience, I know with quite painful assurance that no matter how confident I am that I have all the facts, and know them correctly, I can still be wrong. No matter how much I know, I still have a lot to learn.

      So if someone accuses me of lying, I strive to control my emotions and hear them out. They clearly have some reason to think that I’m wrong — that I have said something that is factually incorrect. And if they’re serious about the use of the word “lie,” then they seem to believe that I did so with bad intent. Now they could be right. I’m not perfect; I often make factual mistakes. And I’m not going to deny the possibility that I may have done something with bad intent. I’m no saint; nor am I an angel.

      Now it is more likely that if I did wrong, it was through ignorance, carelessness, or maybe I was just “having a really bad day” at the time, and did not behave with my standards for maturity and respect for others that I do try to live up to. When I accept and work with well-intended negative feedback, I might find ways to improve myself.

      Now people who have mutual respect for each other need to understand that there are limits to how much negative feedback a person can take at one time. And it can require some time to “digest” feedback and make changes, if needed. And we need to recognized that heavily emotion-laces accusations can be abusive. And we have to recognize that even though I may feel hurt and abused, this might have more to do with myself than anything that the other person may have done wrong.

      So both sides need to find ways to approach these emotionally-charged situations with more human empathy, and understanding that none of us is perfect, we all make mistakes, and we need to find ways to better understand each other so that we can work out our differences.

  4. Yes. In addition, it is probably a good idea to avoid the word “lie” because it’s highly unlikely that you could know if the person was lying or just mistaken. They might believe the “lie” that you accuse them of telling. And in that case it would not actually be a lie.

    Consider this definition of the word “lie”:
    “a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.”
    http://www.dictionary.com/browse/lie

    For something to be a real “lie,” two things must be true:
    1. The statement must be wrong
    and
    2. The person must have the *deliberate intent to deceive*

    It’s almost impossible to know another person’s true intent, unless they tell you, and you have good reason to believe them.

    .

    That is a technical and linguistic argument. And also, from a personal level, I find it much better to approach the situation with something like, “I am confused. I have seen , but you said . They seem to conflict. Can you help me understand it?” I strive to remember that at any time, I might be wrong.

  5. Joseph…you touched on a lot of important points to remember!

    #1 – Don’t attack the person. Attack the behavior. I liked what you wrote about the difference between “calling someone a ‘liar'” VS “a person who lies”.

    #2 – Unless that person is a sociopath or psychopath, most people lie typically to hide something they did wrong or to cover something that is shameful or fear-based.

    #3 – Just bring out the facts even though you may never get that person to admit they were wrong (AKA lying). The best results you gain are the person KNOWS you will NOT tolerate lies and that you WILL confront lies.

    #4 – You can only control yourself; not the other person. Don’t be accusatory but don’t let the person bulldoze you either. Be direct but compassionate. And don’t allow the “person who lies” to pull you into an argument.

    Thank you.

  6. This is really good advice. Thanks for sharing. I use your information (Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations) in my life daily. I am so grateful for these tools. They have transformed how I communicate.

  7. Thank you for your fabulous advice. It read like to children fighting in a playground until you step away and see the logic in looking at the bigger picture. It is more so difficult if people are dealing with family

  8. Great advice for relationships, in particular at work. When it comes to dealing with this behavior with my children, I do not ask them “are you telling the truth” when I know they are lying. Doing so risks encouraging more lies. Instead, we talk about how dishonesty adversely affects our relationships as well as the importance of building trust and character. When an adult is being dishonest with me I ask myself is there something I have done or said that might make them feel unsafe with me. If I decide to have a discussion with them about it, I focus on myself and my behavior asking if I have fallen short in some way that they may feel like they cannot be truthful with me. I’d like for people to be honest with me. I ask for permission to be human too (if I don’t handle the truth as well as I’d like to will you give me a Mulligan?). Honesty delivered with grace is the foundation of any successful relationship IME. I have learned to accept that there will be people in my life with whom I cannot have that type of relationship because they are not able to offer it at this time in their lives with me. The trick for me is not to judge them for it. 😉

    1. Thanks for the post. I have found that if someone has a real mental disorder, compulsive lying, that the rational approach you suggest does not work. They will continue to dance around the issue or make up some excuse or just shrug shoulders and say “I don’t know.” to separate themselves from accountability even if the facts are presented to them. And as you suggested, eventually, one just needs to protect themselves and get out of the relationship.

      1. I appreciate Louise’s comment. I understand the negative impacts of calling someone a liar, but when it is chronic, and likely tied to a personality disorder, there is no capacity to rebuild trust—the foundation for crucial conversations. I wish there was an effective adaptation of CC methods for dealing with that, but there are only so many times one can get burned by trusting before you avoid the stove altogether.

  9. Thanks Joseph – all good and helpful thoughts. I was personally struck with the idea of coming to see “liars” as people like me – and then your details on how we all lie at times in one way or another. That was humbling but helpful. I see more fully how we all are afraid of being hurt or shamed when we share the complete truth on a matter. And that will help me be more patient with others when I think they are lying!

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