Reacting to a Lie

Everyone lies. It’s a part of human society. Most of these lies pass unnoticed. In fact, research shows that even the best-trained investigators and detectives fail to recognize nearly half the lies people tell them.

Among the lies that are recognized, many are harmless, and many of the others do not require a rebuttal.

That leaves the operative question as follows: “When you do recognize a lie, how should you react to it?

My best take on the productive and successful answer? “It depends.”

There are usually a wide range of possible reactions to any particular lie, ranging from letting it slide to altering or terminating your relationship to the liar. You can react to a lie by offering the truth, and in some cases by warning others who might be on the receiving end of the same lie. In certain situations, you may decide to take specific steps you hope will bring down punishment or other consequences on the liar.

But one thing is clear: when choosing your reaction to a lie, whether in your work or your life, it’s important to keep what you do proportional.

However, the best, most appropriate reaction is not just proportional. It’s reflective of various factors that are central to the substance and the context of the lie. These include:

  • The importance of the lie.
  • The severity of the lie.
  • The intention of the lie.
  • Your relationship to the liar.
  • Your goals in the situation and in the relationship.

Let’s look a little deeper into each of these:

Importance

We’ve all heard of “white lies,” and most of us have probably told one or two in our lifetimes. They’re normally harmless, and sometimes even beneficial.

“How do I look in this outfit?” is just one of many common invitations to come up with  a white lie. These sorts of lies are generally easy to give, and also easy to swallow. They provide a kind of “social lubrication” that makes day-to-day relationships more enjoyable, as well as easier and simpler to maintain. That’s why, when you recognize a white lie, you may not need to react at all.

Other lies, however – such as those regarding marital fidelity, personal honesty, factual reporting, and other substantial matters – can be extremely important. Recognizing one of these lies almost always requires a response.

The more important the lie, the greater the need for you to contemplate your alternatives and react appropriately.

Severity

If you consider a lie to be a “bending” of the truth, then the severity of the lie reflects how far it bends or distorts the actual facts of the situation.

For example, if a person claims to have received an “A” grade on a test, but actually got a “B,” that’s a lie, but not a terrible one. If the same person got an “F,” however, then the lie is more severe and requires a much stronger reaction.

By the same token, omitting a traffic ticket from your personal history doesn’t bend the truth very far. Omitting a felony conviction would be much more severe.

Again, the more severe the lie, the stronger the need for you to react.

Intention

The “why” behind a lie is another critically important factor in selecting the most appropriate reaction. There are many reasons for people to lie, including such motivations as selflessness or selfishness, kind-heartedness or mean-spiritedness, manipulation, self-protection, and even boredom.

It’s often hard to be sure of the exact reason a person is lying. But when the intention seems clear, it’s right and proper to consider it when calculating your reaction.

A lie to ease another’s feelings, for example, may prompt a far different reaction from a lie intended to obtain a personal gain.

Relationship

Your relationship to the liar is a major factor in determining how you will react. If you feel very close to the liar, and wish to remain so, your reaction will probably emphasize more forgiveness and sympathy than if you feel no meaningful relationship or even unfriendly toward the liar.

Depending on your relationship, you may primarily be concerned with rehabilitating the liar, or inflicting retribution. Alternatively, you may be most concerned not with the liar, but with helping someone else who was hurt by the lie.

Your relationships within the situation will also influence how much of your reaction involves talking directly with the liar, and how much involves dealing with other people, instead.

Goals

Finally, your goals within the situation will help determine how you react to a lie. If all you want to do is move on, you will likely select a different reaction than if you hope to further your career or contribute to a desirable outcome.

In many situations, you may hope to steer the conversation to more truthful, productive ground – a goal that is decidedly difficult to accomplish.

This discussion only scrapes the surface of the topic. For example, situations become far more complex when you’re not certain you’re hearing an actual lie. Sure, most of us have “lie detectors” that trigger our suspicions when a story doesn’t ring true or seems too pat. But inner “lie detectors” can give lots of false readings, both positive and negative.

That’s why it’s important you be cautious in your reaction to what you perceive as a lie until you can be sure of the truth.

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