What I know about lying: Jonathan Choufany

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Lies fascinate us.

Children experiment with them, white lies are essential for smoothing the bumps of everyday life (your grandmother doesn’t need to know you hated those socks), and they’ve inspired literary and cinematic highs and lows from The Crucible to Lie to Me.

In business lying can have devastating consequences.

The 2008 financial crisis was as much due to incompetence as it was to businesses and banks lying about the assets underpinning mortgage debt sold to unsuspecting investors. And Enron’s collapse in 2001 is possibly one of the starkest examples of the damage that can be done when a giant company lies about its books.

This is where the lie detectors step in.

Research psychologist Paul Ekman began studying micro-expressions in the 1970s, having started his academic career by looking at body language. His investigations, and subsequent book Telling Lies in 1985, are at the foundation of an entire industry built around finding liars.

In Lebanon, “human lie detector” Jonathan Choufany works with micro-expressions, body language and by listening carefully to the very speech people use - which made our interview with him somewhat awkward to begin with.

The information “leaks” from these behaviours, he said, provided red flags by which a trained observation could tell with some degree of accuracy whether people were lying, or not.

Admittedly, it's not realistic to expect a lie detector to bring down an Enron or uncover a financial crisis - for that you'd need some brilliant forensic accountants and regulators who listen to whistleblowers - but on a person-to-person basis, it might be useful if you're dealing with a less than truthful business partner.

We are all liars. We hear and tell lies on a daily basis. Some are irrelevant but sometimes the stakes can be really high, especially when it comes to money or relationships. When we study how to detect liars there are some cues that our bodies leak. We lie with just words but don't think about how we lie with our body language.

Detecting a lie is in the small details. Your brain gives you a positive or a negative feeling about a person, but you do not know the details. You know there's something wrong but you cannot put your finger on it. The significance is in the details. We can know all these things if we just notice these fine expressions.

Don’t trust a shrugger. If the subject you are speaking with reflects back the question you asked or he stalls, he is buying time to build a lie or to think of what he should hide. A half shoulder shrug normally indicates uncertainty. If the person is saying something with confidence, a half shoulder shrug can be a more than 90 percent accurate sign of lying.

Bill Clinton was clearly guilty. In his famous press conference, he gave himself away through micro-expressions that indicated fear; he didn't use contractions - he didn't say "I didn't', he said 'I did not'; and directing his face towards one target and pointing elsewhere - it was not congruent. These things are red flags.

Smart people are the best liars. Good lying is related to IQ. It’s not an easy task, you need to first think of a plausible story, mimic the emotions involved, see if the person is buying it, and transform your body language accordingly.

It’s hard to hide the truth. There are some things that are automatic. The micro-expressions that come and go and disappear in half a second are the most reliable signs of lying because they indicate the real emotional state of an individual. When we lie, we sometimes tend to lean back to distance ourselves from pain.

Sociopathic liars aren’t that common. I’ve dealt with a few sociopaths - people who are smooth liars and have the charm to make you believe the lie. But I've dealt with narcissists more and their numbers are increasing. I don't know why, maybe because people are becoming more self-centered and society is encouraging that.

Business rewards sociopathic traits. When you notice a CEO or a person with high authority, she often wants results and is not very interested in the human aspect of her company. This kind of person achieves results. We need them. But if you want a sustainable company you should go to the influencer or the type of leader who will work with people.

Companies want influencers, not sociopaths. The leadership concept is going from dominant leaders to influencers. You have a broken company, you bring in a dominant (perhaps somewhat sociopathic) leader. He will make the changes, he will fire people as he is emotionally blind. But the influencer is the type you want to have in the long term.

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