Someone you care about might be lying

Questions and strategies to help you have a supportive conversation when someone you care about might be lying.

This is one of a series of topics in the Supportive conversation library. Review the guidelines including what to do if you are concerned for another’s safety before engaging in the conversation.

What do you notice?

You notice someone you care about might be lying to you. While identifying deception is no easy task, you see them behaving differently than usual when you think they’re lying. Perhaps their physiology changes. They might have a heavier or increased breathing rate. Maybe their non-verbal cues are different than their norm, like a change in the way they make eye contact or touch their face. You might notice fidgeting or muscle tension, such as shoulder stiffness. Or perhaps you notice their speaking rate’s different than their norm and they’re speaking more than usual.

What do you need to understand?

Lying isn’t an easy task from a cognitive perspective. It requires parts of the brain to suppress communicating accurate memories and, when we suppress this ability, we feel anxious. This is why our physiological state, like breathing and muscle stiffness, changes. Lying’s typically an uncomfortable activity to engage in, but not uncommon. Even though we feel lying’s morally wrong, and we experience discomfort in the body when we lie, we do so to:

  • Avoid punishment
  • Conceal reward or benefit
  • Protect someone from harm
  • Protect oneself
  • Maintain privacy
  • Experience the thrill of it all
  • Avoid embarrassment
  • Be polite

What do you need to consider?

If you’re concerned about someone lying to you, consider if this person might be lying for one of the above reasons, like being polite, avoiding embarrassment or avoiding punishment. Address the conversation through this lens to clarify the reasons for lying. People also lie to preserve their sense of self and often don’ t notice the small lies they tell others. Consider how the person’s using the lie before asking them about it.

Engaging in a supportive conversation

Have the right mindset

Come into the conversation from a supportive place. Watch out for your hidden agenda, such as wanting to fix or influence the individual. Avoid “you” statements, such as “you always do…”. They often make the person feel judged or invalidated. Be curious and have the mindset that you don’t know anything about their experiences.

Questions to check your mindset:

  • What are my assumptions about this situation?
  • How will I keep my assumptions out of the conversation and be supportive?
  • What do I hope to achieve by having this conversation?
  • How can I keep my desires for an outcome from interfering with my ability to be supportive?

Notice 

Notice hanges in behaviour that aren’t typical for the person and inquire about them. Don’t add your assumptions or opinions about why those changes may be happening. If you’re wrong, the person may be discouraged from continuing the conversation.

Examples of “noticing” conversation starters:

  • “I noticed that you appear uncomfortable when I ask you about this specific topic. I want to clarify that I’m not here to criticize you. I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”

Preparing for the response

Not all supportive conversations lead to an understanding of how you can help. Remember, the goal of a supportive conversation is to understand the individual’s needs and wants and whether they’re open to assistance. The guidelines below can help prepare you to respond when the person is open or not to a discussion.

When the individual doesn’t appear open to discussion – a closed-door response:

Not everyone’s comfortable being asked how they feel or exploring reasons why they’re behaving differently. You might get avoidant responses, like “I’m fine” or “It’s none of your business.” If this is the case, you can reiterate your concern and leave an opening for them to walk into when they’re ready.

  • “I was concerned about you and wanted to ask. If you say you’re okay, I’ll trust you. If that changes, I’m here to support you if you need me.”

If the supportive conversation ends here, you should feel good that you noticed and asked about their well-being. Try not to take the response or tone personally despite the conversation not going anywhere. It takes courage to initiate these types of conversations, and it’s not your responsibility to force another to notice or change their behaviour.

When the individual appears to be open to discussion – an open-door response:

If the person confirms they feel differently or that life circumstances have changed for them, you’ve opened the door to having a supportive conversation.

The next statement might be:

  • “Tell me more. I want to better understand what you’re going through.”

Continue to follow the guidelines below for having a supportive conversation.

Continuing the conversation

Listen

Listen for where the individual feels unsupported or doesn’t have their needs met. When they’re finished speaking, confirm what you heard by rephrasing it and asking if you understand it correctly.

Here’s an examples of “listening” in the conversation:

  • “I’m hearing that you didn’t want to tell me something as you felt I would punish you in some way. Is that what I’m hearing?”

Highlight

Highlight strengths you see in the person. Some examples could be courage or persistence in dealing with the situation they just shared with you.

Here’s an examples of “calling out strengths” in the conversation:

  • “I respect your perspective and the courage it took to clarify with me that you felt I might punish or embarrass you if you shared this with me.”

Identify

Identify what support the individual wants and connect them with relevant resources. Don’t insist on support or resources they don’t want or aren’t ready to accept.

Here’s an example of “identifying support” in the conversation:

  • “You’ve identified the need to address [fearing of being judged or embarrassed]. How can I best support you at this time?”

*Note: If there’s a limit on how you can be supportive, be specific about how you can help. The offer of support needs to be realistic and in line with your abilities and  available time. Otherwise, talk about what’s realistic for both of you to do to create change in the other’s life.

Create

Create an action plan with the individual to leverage their strengths and follow up on a regular basis, adding additional resources when they’re ready. Give a clear timeline or understanding of how you’ll be supportive.

Here’s an examples of “creating an action plan” in the conversation:

  • “I’m so glad we had this conversation. You mentioned a few things you wanted to address as soon as possible. I’ll follow through with my offer of support in the next week.”

Thank you for being supportive! You’ve taken the time to learn to have a conversation that lets your loved one or friend know you notice and care about them. By showing concern, you can help them evaluate whether they should continue as is or address certain elements in their life. For some, this may be the beginning of a journey that will require the assistance of additional support services or professionals.

Additional resources

To be an effective supporter, it’s helpful to understand more of what your family member or friend’s experiencing. Check out these resources to provide more context about their experiences: