Body Language Part 1 - How to Spot a Liar

Posted by: Jo Banks

Date: 01-01-0001

One of the most useful things I’ve learned over the years is how to read body language.  Knowing how to spot if someone is lying is a key skill.  Learn how to do it here...

I’ve studied it avidly over the years and it’s helped me immeasurably in my professional life.

From the beginning of my career I have observed others’ body language. Not only have I found it fascinating, but it has allowed me to perform my job better. As I’ve always worked in people centric roles, understanding what others are really thinking rather than just taking what they say on face value, has been invaluable to me. Particular examples of this are:

  • When trying to ascertain the truth when conducting investigations in to disciplinary issues with staff
  • Gaining an understanding of what Union Representatives were really thinking rather than what they are telling me during complex union negotiations
  • Being able to immediately see whether my clients are ‘bought’ into what we are discussing
  • Being able to see where my clients are storing their memories and whether they are emotionally attached to them or not (honestly!) so that I can help them change negative ones to positive ones (these are some of the skills you learn through Neuro Linguistic Programming – NLP)

Spotting deception

There are number of ways of spotting deception and it’s a combination of these which makes identification more accurate. However, I have to say that the study of body language is not an exact science. Sometimes we may think someone is lying, but signs exhibited by deceit are virtually the same as those we exhibit when we’re stressed. Therefore, I’m going to put a huge warning on the what follows in this post – THIS IS A GUIDE ONLY and should not be used to make any life changing decisions!

Spotting deception through eye cues

In NLP, we learn eye cues (which direction a person’s eyes are looking when we ask them certain questions) in order to get a good idea of what someone is thinking. Here’s a quick diagram that illustrates it perfectly (the illustrations assume that you are facing the other person (so that their left is your right):

 Eye Accessing Cues

Eye Cue Summary

Try this out on your friends – after each description, I’ve added questions you can use to test the theories out. When you’re facing the person...

  • Up and to the right usually means that a person is remembering something visually – ‘Do you remember the last time we went to the pub/cinema ... What did we do/see?’
  • Up and to the left usually means that a person is imagining (constructing ie making something up - lying) something visually – ‘What does a dog look like with a cats head?’
  • Right side (horizontal) usually means a remembered sound – ‘What does your phone ring tone sound like?’
  • Left side (horizontal) usually means an imagined (constructed) sound – ‘What do you think you’d sound like if you were a man/woman?’
  • Down left usually means that a person is accessing a bodily feeling – ‘How did you feel about....?’
  • Down right usually means that a person is accessing internal dialogue – ‘What do you think about...?’

A word of caution here, these eye cues cannot be relied upon 100%. Experienced NLP professionals use them in conjunction with observing what the person is saying together with their general body language. Also the eye cues may be reversed in some people for a number of reasons, including if the person is left handed.

Spotting deception through body language

We also need to be aware of other body language traits, which together with the eye movements, will give you a better idea of whether someone is being truthful or not. When we lie, no matter how accomplished we are, we usually can’t control our automatic or reflex body reactions. Our blood pressure and pulse tends to rise, our breathing patterns change and the blood drains from our faces (causing our noses to itch!).

Deception traits to look out for:

  1. Touching the nose – very few people can resist touching their nose when they lie (during Bill Clinton’s interrogation over his relationship with his former ‘Aid’, he was seen to touch his nose more than 25 times).
  2. Blushing and sweating – this often occurs in less experienced liars.
  3. Posture – we like to put some space between ourselves and the person we’re lying to, so people tend to lean back in their chair or back away if they’re standing. People will avoid body contact if at all possible.
  4. Head positions – we don’t like to look a person in the eye if we’re lying to them, so a person may move their heads to the side and will avoid your gaze.
  5. Facial expressions – we often grimace involuntarily.
  6. Mouth expressions – Children often cover their mouths when they’re lying and we take that trait (albeit not always as overtly) into adult life. We’ll often take our hand toward the mouth but touch the chin, cheek or side of the mouth.
  7. Hand gestures – a common gesture is the palms turned out and a sharp shrug of the shoulders. This can indicate a feeling of helplessness and is almost an apology for lying.


As I said with a HUGE caveat – this information is for guidance only and shouldn’t be relied up for making big decisions. What I will say is that your ‘gut’ feeling is usually the most reliable indicator of who’s telling you the truth. That ‘gut’ feeling is there for a reason and usually right, however, we do tend to override it quite frequently. Start tuning into that feeling more often and act on what it’s telling you – nature created that feeling for a reason, to keep us out of danger. You decisions will turn out to be much better for it.

In the next post, I’ll talk a bit more about general body language in the workplace, including how to tell who is and who wants to be ‘top dog’.


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