Playground politics were so simple.
If someone got caught out in a lie, everyone danced around, pointing, and chanting, “Liar! Liar! Pants on fire!” The offending party would slink off, justly shamed, and all would be forgiven by the time the school bell rang.
As with most things in life, it’s just not that easy as an adult.
Being lied to brings a lot of negative emotions to the surface:
The closer our relationship to the person lying to us, the worse we are likely to feel.
But before you call someone on their lie, it’s important to remember one thing:
There is always more to a lie than meets the eye.
Lies don’t come out of nowhere.
Remembering this when someone tries to pull the proverbial wool over your eyes can actually serve as a grounding mantra. A lie is very, very rarely about you—and almost always about the person telling it.
Here, we’re covering everything you need to know about how to deal with the people who lie to you.
We unpack the different lies people tell, the reasons behind the lies, and how to confront someone who lies to you—if you’re really, really, really sure that’s what you want to do.
Phase 1: Know When to Hold ‘Em. Know When to Fold ‘Em
There are three questions to keep in mind when you’re deciding whether to confront someone on their lie, or to let it go.
The answers to these questions help us clarify how to approach the situation in a healthy way, maintain our relationships, and protect ourselves.
1. Who Lied to You?
What we’re doing here is establishing how invested we are in helping a liar to change their behavior. Maybe an acquaintance is lying to you.
Sure, it’s annoying, but it likely has less of an impact on your life than if the lie comes from a close friend.
Realistically, we are more likely to accept lies from an acquaintance. Most of us will just avoid these kinds of acquaintances and shrug off their lies as a character flaw.
We can’t do this if the lies are told by a good friend, partner, or family member. If the lie comes from somebody we care about, we are more likely to invest time in working through the betrayal.
Which leads us to the next question…
2. What Kind of Lies Are They Telling?
According to some experts, most lies fall into one of three categories.
The little white lie:
These are the lies we tell to protect others, or to protect our own egos.
- “I was invited to that huge event, too, but I had something else on that night.”
- “No, your butt does not look big in those jeans.”
- “This chicken is delicious!”
- “Yes, you’re a great boss!”
When someone tells a Little White Lie, they are attempting to strengthen their bond with you, and to be socially accepted.
The compulsive lie:
Have you ever wondered why someone even bothered to tell a lie, when the truth was harmless?
These types of lies come from people who will habitually lie about anything. Compulsive Liars generally develop the habit early on in life, and are likely to feel guilty about it after the fact.
The sociopathic lie:
A sociopath will go to any means necessary to further their own agenda—which is, essentially, to get what they want.
For sociopaths, lying to you will not even register on their radar as “the wrong thing to do.” If what you are unraveling is a complicated web of lies—as opposed to an isolated lie—it may be more serious than you can fix on your own.
So the burning question remains:
3. Is Confrontation the Best Move?
Different types of lies—and the liars who tell them—can need different approaches. In one case in particular, the best approach might actually be not confronting them at all.
The little white lie:
Experts suggest that these types of lies come from a good place: an eagerness to be accepted or liked by you. While lying is a poor way to go about winning friends and influencing people, these people aren’t acting maliciously.
Often, building confidence and providing reassurance can be all the troubleshooting you need to do.
If the lies are starting to impact your relationship and you need to take action, confront the issue carefully, and with compassion.
The compulsive lie:
Psychologists believe this type of lying starts in early childhood, and stems from deep, unaddressed behavioral issues.
Confronting this type of lie is likely to be frustrating and unrewarding, as the liar is likely to feel victimized, defensive, and lie more to escape your criticism.
The best way to support a loved one with this kind of behavior is to encourage professional counselling or therapy.
If you still feel the need to take matters into your own hands, focus on asking questions and trying to understand what drives their behavior.
The sociopathic lie:
In relationship terms, this kind of lie is the ultimate red flag.
Confrontation isn’t likely to be effective in the long term. Sociopaths are very good at manipulating a situation, and are already aware of what they’re doing.
The thing is: they don’t care that they’re doing it.
The best way for someone to address sociopathic lies is to avoid—or minimize—spending time around the people who tell them.
Phase 2: Develop a Solid Strategy
So you’ve determined what kind of lie you’re dealing with. You’ve analyzed the pros and cons of confronting the situation. Now you’re ready to wade into the awkward and murky waters of confrontation.
Here’s how to come out of those waters without getting dirty.
1. Have a Game Plan
Leadership thought-leader, Sheri Staak, says we need to feel confident going into the conversation. Know your facts, practice your wording, and be prepared for any outcome.
Another factor in having a game plan is timing. Choose a time when the two of you can be alone, without distraction.
Very little can be resolved if you are constantly interrupted whilst trying to share your feelings. And it should go without saying, but don’t initiate a confrontation in front of an audience if you want a chance at a positive resolution.
2. Have Some Compassion
It’s likely you’ve got this one down already, because you’ve read this far.
Life coach, Kimberly Giles, says to enter into the discussion with love for the person you’re speaking with.
Your aim, according to Giles, is to strengthen your relationship through an open and honest conversation about something that is hurting you.
3. Make Good (Word) Choices
Avoid “blame script.”
If you talk about how something made you feel, and what you would like to achieve, you are less threatening.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, talking about what they have done, and how they are affecting your relationship, instantly puts the other person on the defensive.
Choose “I felt hurt that you didn’t feel able to tell me the truth,” instead of “Why didn’t you just tell the truth?”
Choose “I would love to have a more honest relationship with you,” instead of “If you don’t stop lying to me all the time, I’m not talking to you anymore.”
If you’re deeper into the conversation and starting to flounder—maybe they aren’t acknowledging that they lied—you could try something more advanced.
“I don’t feel that you’re telling me the truth about this, and that’s disappointing for me. I’ve always valued you, and I hope that you would value me enough to help me work our way through this.”
4. Tell Them Your Boundaries
This is something that very few of us do in our relationships, but it is absolutely necessary, according to experts.
Author and clinical psychologist, Dr. George Simon, says that when you know someone has lied to you: that is enough. You don’t need to convince them or prove yourself, because deep down, they know it, too.
If the conversation goes downhill, the best thing you can do—according to Simon—is state your boundaries clearly.
This might look like defeat, but you’ve still achieved a lot. Your friend, lover, or family member knows that you spotted their lie. They know you are willing to confront them over it. They know you care (because you’ve told them, right?).
Finally, you can reiterate one more point: that you will not tolerate being lied to. No equivocation needed, and no explainers necessary.
A strong example of this could be, “I’m glad we’ve had this talk, so thank you. I really needed you to know that I will not tolerate being lied to.”
Calling Out a Liar Isn’t Easy
The sad truth is that we need to be prepared for a less-than-stellar outcome when we confront a liar.
Ideally, you will hug it out and the lies will stop. The tips we’ve unpacked here are designed to increase the odds of this being the outcome.
More realistically, though, your relationship may feel awkward as you both adjust to the new dynamic. This is normal. With care and time, that awkwardness can lead to a stronger, healthier normal.