Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between telling a lie and being mistaken. In the past I’ve accused people of lying, or even being a liar. I try to avoid doing this now even if only in my thoughts. In most cases it’s pretty hard to be sure that someone is lying and to make this claim accurately,it would often require mind reading. What’s more, it’s almost never helpful in resolving a conflict.
In order for someone to be accurately described as lying, two conditions need to be met. First, they have to be representing the facts of the situation incorrectly and second, they have to have intentionally misrepresented the truth. If you think about it it’s actually a very rare situation where you can know that both these conditions have been met.
To illustrate this let’s use an example. Imagine someone has told you something you know not to be true. In order to meet the first condition you need to be sure they know what they said is not true. Even in cases where you remember there being a time when they knew the truth, how can you be sure that they haven’t simply forgotten? Or that your own recollection of the events isn’t mistaken? Can you be sure that there wasn’t a miscommunication meaning that you only thought they knew the truth, but in fact there was some confusion? Maybe they were simply missing some information? In most cases you would need written, audio or video evidence to be truly sure they knew the truth.
Or be able to read their mind.
Now for the second condition, which deals with their intentions. Let’s say you have evidence they knew the truth at some point. You have a text message you sent them, or some other non-memory based piece of evidence. How do you know they haven’t simply forgotten? The unreliability of memory is well known and it’s why eyewitness testimony is not considered very reliable. On top of that it could be a miscommunication. Maybe they really believe they are telling the truth, but you are both speaking past each other. I don’t like to assign malice when a simple slip-of-the-mind, or a miscommunication could be to blame. It’s hard enough to prove somebody knew the truth, it’s harder even still to know they intended to deceive.
I’m not going to claim people don’t lie, that would be silly. What I’m saying is that claiming someone is lying is a pretty risky thing to do. On top of that if you tell someone they are lying, they will most likely hear: “you are a liar!”. Have you ever been called a liar and as a result the conflict was brought to a close faster? I would hazard a guess and say no you haven’t.
Instead, I’ve learnt a better approach is to ask questions. For example, let’s say I’m having a discussion with someone where they claim that I neglected to do something when I said I would. But I know that I did it, as I’d promised. Instead of saying “you’re lying I did do it”, I could say “I’m sorry you’re upset but what gives you the impression I didn’t do as I’d said I would?”
This gives them an opportunity to talk, express their feelings and to feel heard. Even if they are wrong about the facts, I can still be sorry they are feeling let down and frustrated, without taking responsibility for those feelings. It also gives me time to think before reacting in anger and escalating the disagreement to an argument or worse a fight. Most importantly they will express what happened from their perspective, and I can get closer to discovering the actual problem.
Using this method helps bring both our perspectives closer together and gives us an opportunity to discuss how the other person was potentially mistaken and no one has to be accused of lying. If one question doesn’t work, then I just try to think of another one. Each question buys me more time to think, and brings our views closer together through clarification. Unless the dispute is extremely serious and emotionally charged or the person really is lying this approach usually works.
People don’t generally like being mistaken. It feels uncomfortable and it can be embarrassing to realise you were wrong. But it’s still much better than being accused of lying. Especially when you know you are not.
The only caveat I would add is that you shouldn’t ask clarification questions, without being careful about your tone and phrasing. Sometimes if you ask the question in the wrong way, or with the wrong tone, it can come across as an accusation of lying. Take the following conversation as an example: Imagine one morning a friend of mine tells me that he has to end our phone call because he needs to go to work. I see him later in the day and we have the following conversation.
“You know what? I had a really good time catching up with my friend Sam this morning!” They tell me in excitement.
“Oh, I thought you had to work?” I reply, in a flat tone.
“I did.” He responds. He’s disgruntled and the conversation comes to an abrupt and awkward standstill.
Now this could make my friend feel like I was accusing him of lying to me on the phone, even though the words “lie” or “liar” were never uttered. This is mostly just a matter of tone, and phrasing, which I think is as important, if not more important, than the intentions behind the things you say. A much nicer way to get the clarification I needed would have been to say:
“Oh that’s cool! How did you run into him?”
This response doesn’t trounce his excitement and at the same time allows him to clarify what happened without a tacit accusations of misrepresenting the truth.
So all this to say, I’m going to try my best to not accuse people of lying anymore. I’m definitely not going to call people liars. Especially when they are not around, since that is the worst kind of accusation: gossip. Nobody’s perfect, and in the heat of the moment I might say or do the wrong thing, but at least I can go into every discussion or disagreement with questions and an open mind. Instead of suspicions and accusations.
Footnote: Although I don’t agree with everything that Sam Harris does, which I guess is normal for a public figure, his short book Lying was a big influence on me and reading it has had very positive effects on my life and my relationships. This article is in a way a reflection of his thesis that lying is never appropriate, except in the case of self defense or the defense of others. In this way lying is like a form if violence; If used for self-defense it can be justified in some cases but in most cases it cannot. If you enjoyed this article I highly recommend you read his book.