"He's A Liar" – Why People Say It When It's Not True

#85 “He’s A Liar” – Why People Say It When It’s Not True

"He's A Liar" – Why People Say It When It's Not True

Reporting false information is not always a lie. It is frequently due to errors of perception and memory that are described in the previous blog. Therefore, the statement “He’s a liar” is often factually incorrect. As often as not, people unknowingly rather than knowingly report false information.

There is a rich irony here. To say “He’s a liar” implies that one has a concern for the truth, yet the statement itself is frequently untruthful.

Despite its high level of unreliability, “He’s a liar” remains an attractive statement to make. In fact, I have heard it, or a similar statement such as “He is lying,” many times in mediation. Why?

I think there are at least two quite different sets of reasons. The first set of reasons represents a genuine striving for truth. The second set of reasons represents an adversarial mindset. The two may coexist.


Striving for truth

I believe that most of us seek meaning and truth. Truth is the foundation of fair and just communication, which we rely on in working through conflict. If the other party appears to be lying, we are at a loss. The possibility of a fair and just interaction is pulled out from under our feet, and we experience an inner sense of obstruction or betrayal.

We may semi-consciously and silently implore, “I plead with you to tell me the truth.” But, to reveal such a wish represents vulnerability. It is safer, and conventional, to remove the personal tone and defensively express our plea as a negative accusation: “You’re a liar,” if speaking to the person, or, “He’s a liar,” if speaking with someone else.

Since calling someone a liar may be accompanied with a search for truth, you can try asking the following question suggested by Ken Cloke in The Crossroads of Conflict: When someone accuses another of lying or being a liar, try asking,

What does truth mean to you?

This question can open the doorway to a positively framed exchange. Note its difference from the following:

“What would be truthful?”

The latter question is less likely to alter the tone of the conversation.


An adversarial mindset

We live within an adversarial justice system, which contributes to an adversarial mindset. “He’s a liar” is consistent with an adversarial approach. It identifies the other party as unethical (bad) and more responsible for the breakdown in communication and inability for the two to move ahead. It explains why no reasonable person can make progress with the other party and therefore absolves the speaker of some of his or her responsibility. Unless we see through this facade, it can become a means of garnering undeserved sympathy or support.

Although someone may ultimately be seeking truth, adversarial motivations can overshadow deeper sentiments. Such adversarial motivations include intentions to discredit the other party, to gain social support for one’s view, and to bolster one’s sense of rightness in the situation.

In summary:

  • The statement “He’s a liar” is frequently not truthful
  • But, parties continue to use it because is serves a number of purposes
  • They may utter it when they are really seeking truth
  • They may use it when trying to garner sympathy or support
  • When you hear “He’s a liar” you can ask, “What does truth mean to you?”

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