How People Know You’re Lying

Word Count:  703

Reading Time:  2 minutes

If you think authenticity is saying one thing and thinking another, you might be interested in what the research says.

Remember that study about communication that says only 7% of communication comes from the words you use, 38% comes from tone of voice, and 55% comes from facial expression?

It’s an urban legend.  Sure, Dr. Mehrabian conducted communication research and published those percentages, but: they don’t apply to all kinds of communication.  Those percentages only apply when a speaker’s words did not match their tone or facial expression.

 When someone is being insincere, or lying outright, we discount their words in favor of the expression on their face or the tone of their voice.

You can prove this:  Go stand in front of the mirror and say “no” while shaking your head.  Then, say “no” while nodding your head yes.

When my actions match my words, I believe my words   When my actions and words contradict each other, I believe my actions.  In the battle for credibility, tone, and facial expression win every time.  Bluegrass music illustrates this well:  The words to so many bluegrass songs are about death, tragedy or love lost, so why is everybody grinning and tapping their toes to the tinkling banjo riff?

Because when the words and the music don’t match, the music wins.

Some work examples:

  1. In an all-hands meeting, the CEO says he wants to hear from all of you, to address your concerns.  As he responds to questions, you hear his voice tighten, watch his face stay closed and tight, and his sentences get more clipped.  You’re disappointed at best, cynical at worst.   Score: Words: 0, Vocal Misbehavior: 100.  Result:  Future town all-hands meetings have more presentation time and less time for questions.
  1. You say a firm no to a project, and the doubts flood your mind, your voice and your face:  Will I be supported?  Will my boss override me?  Your client chooses to “listen” to the hesitation in your voice rather than your “no.”  Words: 0, the look on your face: 100.  Result:  You feel victimized and blame your boss or client for your workload, which keeps increasing.
  1. You encourage your direct report to come to you for help with their issues and problems, and as she’s laying out a situation, irritation flickers across your face and steals into your voice. A moment later, you interrupt her to paint a more positive picture of her situation.  Words:  0, Your kneejerk cheerleading:  100.  Result:  Your direct reports come to you less often and you become disconnected from them and their work.


Authenticity is when your words, tone and facial expression all line up. It’s more rare than mittens on a fish.

Take heart.  The first step is to break your denial:  You are a radio station broadcasting music 24/7, even when you are not saying a word.  Believing you are managing your face well enough or keeping your emotions out of your tone is a fantasy.

So you may as well speak up, and put your music into words, like this:

  1. “I meant that I want to hear from all of you, and I find myself wanting to defend myself against what feels like negativity and complaints.  I don’t want to do that.

Then get yourself back on track:

“I’d like to change the process.   For every complaint or concern, please offer a suggestion – or two or three – that would address it.”

  1. “I just said a firm ‘no’ and was flooded with doubts about whether my ‘no’ would be respected.  I guess I’m really worried that you’ll go around me on this one.  I want to reiterate that I think this project is a mistake.”
  1. “I’m so sorry _____.  I’m having hard time listening.  I want to jump in and contradict the picture you’re painting with the more upbeat way I see it.  How about we each take a minute to summarize how we see this client, then compare notes.  I think we’ll do better if we get that out on the table.”

Putting your music into words is the authentic way to strengthen your voice.

Let me know what you think in the comments below.




  1. Gabriella Ruiz says

    I have really enjoyed reading your posts, Liz. This topic, especially is something that is often thought about, but seeing it in words while more carefully thought out really made me think. I actually went to the mirror and tried the nodding exercise. The suggestions were great, because it’s hard to think on your toes sometimes when you feel put on the spot after having spoken your opinion and the body language of your superiors clearly explains that it wasn’t taken well. This will definitely help me to be more conscious of how well my words and body language align.

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