How to Come Across as 100 Percent Credible to Everyone

My friend Helen is a highly respected headhunter. She makes terrific hires for her clients and I once asked her the secret of her success. Helen replied, "Probably because I can almost always tell when an applicant is lying."

"How can you tell?"

She said, "Well, just last week, I was interviewing a young woman for a position as marketing director for a small firm. Throughout the interview, the applicant had been sitting with her left leg crossed over her right. Her hands were comfortably resting in her lap and she was looking directly at me.

"I asked her salary. Without swerving her eyes from mine, she told me. I asked if she enjoyed her work. Still looking directly at me, she said, ‘yes.' Then I asked her why she left her previous job.

"At that point, her eyes fleetingly darted away before regaining eye contact with me." Helen continued. "Then, while answering my question, she shifted in her seat and crossed her right leg over her left. At one point, she put her hands up to her mouth."

Helen said, "That's all I needed. With her words she was telling me she felt her ‘growth opportunities were limited at her previous firm.' But her body told me she was not being entirely forthright."

Helen went on to explain the young woman's fidgeting alone wouldn't prove she was lying. Nevertheless, it was enough, she said, that she wanted to pursue the subject further.

"So I tested it." Helen explained. "I changed the subject and went back to more neutral territory. I asked her about her goals for the future. Again, the girl stopped fidgeting. She folded her hands in her lap as she told me how she'd always wanted to work in a small company in order to have hands-on experience with more than one project.

"Then I repeated my earlier question. I asked again if it was only the lack of growth opportunity that made her leave her previous position. Sure enough, once again, the woman shifted in her seat and momentarily broke eye contact. As she continued talking about her last job, she started rubbing her forearm."

Helen continued to probe until she finally uncovered the truth. The applicant had been fired because of a nasty disagreement with the marketing director for whom she worked. Human resources professionals who interview applicants and police officers who interrogate suspected criminals are trained to detect lies. They know specifically what signals to look for. The rest of us, although not knowledgeable about specific clues to deceit, have a sixth sense when someone is not telling us the truth. Just recently a colleague of mine was considering hiring an inhouse booking agent. After interviewing one fellow she said to me,

"I don't know. I don't really think he has the success he claims."

"You think he's lying to you?" I asked.

"Absolutely. And the funny thing is I can't tell why. He looked right at me. He answered all my questions directly. There was just something that didn't seem right."

Employers often feel this way. They have a gut feeling about someone but they can't put their finger on it. Because of that, many large companies turn to the polygraph, or lie detector, a mechanical apparatus designed to detect if someone is lying.

Banks, drugstores, and grocery stores rely heavily on it for preemployment screening. The FBI, Justice Department, and most police departments have used the polygraph on suspects. Interestingly, the polygraph is not a lie detector at all! All the machine can do is detect fluctuations in our autonomic nervous system—changes in breathing patterns, sweating, flushing, heart rate, blood pressure, and other signs of emotional arousal.

So is it accurate? Well, yes, often it is. Why? Because when the average person tells a lie, he or she is emotionally aroused and bodily changes do take place. When that happens, the individual might fidget. Experienced or trained liars, however, can fool the polygraph.

Beware of the Appearance of Lying—Even When You're Telling the Truth

Problems arise for us when we are not lying but are feeling emotional or intimidated by the person with whom we are talking. A young man telling an attractive woman about his business success might shift his weight. A woman talking about her company's track record to an important client could rub her neck. More problems arise out of the atmosphere. A businessman who doesn't feel nervous at all could loosen his collar because the room is hot. A politician giving a speech outdoors could blink excessively because the air is dusty. Even though erroneous, these fidgety movements give the listeners the sense something just isn't right or a gut feeling that the speaker is lying.

Professional communicators, alert to this hazard, consciously squelch any signs anyone could mistake for shiftiness. They fix a constant gaze on the listener. They never put their hands on their faces. They don't massage their arm when it tingles or rub their nose when it itches. They don't loosen their collar when it's hot or blink because it's sandy. They don't wipe away tiny perspiration beads in public or shield their eyes from the sun. They suffer because they know fidgeting undermines credibility. Consider the infamous September 25, 1960, televised presidential debate between Richard Milhous Nixon and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Political pundits speculate Nixon's lack of makeup, his fidgeting, and mopping his brow on camera lost him the election.

If you want to come across as an entirely credible Somebody, try to squelch all extraneous movement when your communication counts. I call the technique "Limit the Fidget."


Limit the Fidget

Whenever your conversation really counts, let your nose itch, your ear tingle, or your foot prickle. Do not fidget, twitch, wiggle, squirm, or scratch. And above all, keep your paws away from your puss. Hand motions near your face and all fidgeting can give your listener the gut feeling you're fibbing.

Now let's tackle intelligence. "What?" you ask. "Can people come across as more intelligent than they really are?" Well, did you ever hear of Hans, the counting horse? Hans was considered the most intelligent horse in history, and he used the technique I'm about to suggest.