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in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 8, 2022

Podcast #830: How to Read Minds and Detect Deception

Being adept at discerning people’s true thoughts and intentions is a valuable skill to have. Knowing when someone is deceiving you can protect your finances, your professional interests, and your loved ones.

Here to teach us some of the elements of this skill is Dr. David Lieberman, who’s a psychotherapist, a consultant to the military and other intelligence and defense agencies, and the author of Mindreader: The New Science of Deciphering What People Really Think, What They Really Want, and Who They Really Are. Today on the show, David explains why verbal cues offer a better window into people’s minds than body language, and the clues to look for in both spoken and written speech that can indicate whether someone is honest or deceptive. We also get into how to detect whether someone is mentally healthy or not, including the signs that you’re dealing with a psychopath.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay, here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Being adept at discerning people’s true thoughts and intentions is a valuable skill to have. Knowing when someone is deceiving you can protect your finances, your professional interest and your loved ones. Here to teach us some of the elements of this skill is Dr. David Lieberman. Who’s a psychotherapist, a consultant to military and other intelligence and defense agencies, and the author of Mindreader: The New Science of Deciphering What People Really Think, What They Really Want, and Who They Really Are.

Today on the show David explains why verbal cues offer a better window into people’s minds than body language and the clues to look for in both spoken and written speech that can indicate whether someone is honest or deceptive. We also get into how to detect whether someone is mentally healthy or not, including the signs you’re dealing with a psychopath. After the show’s over check out our show notes at

David Lieberman, welcome to the show.

David Lieberman: Thank you Brett.

Brett McKay: So we’ve had you on the podcast before to discuss your book, Never Get Angry Again. That was back in 2019. So it’s been a while. You got a new book out called Mindreader: The New Science of Deciphering What People Really Think, What They Really Want, and Who They Really Are. Well, talks about… Talk about your background. You’re a psychologist and you specialize in sussing out human deception. How’d that happen and who do you work with?

David Lieberman: Alright. So I’ve always had a fascination with human nature and human behavior, and I suppose that’s why I went into psychology in the first place. But then I wrote a book called Never Be Lied to Again. And it was a book written for the lay person about how to detect deception. And I got a phone call from the Director of the Behavioral Science unit at the FBI, they… That houses… Yeah, profilers. And he asked me if I’d come down and do a training. And that was about 25 years ago. And then so began a long career working with the FBI, CIA, NSA, pretty much every branch of the US military, law enforcement agencies around the world, corporate arena. You’ve got fraud investigators, human resources, private investigators. I’m just very grateful for the opportunities to be able to work with a great number of very, very talented people.

Brett McKay: Alright, so you’ve been doing this for a long time. And in your book, you highlight, this is for a lay audience, some of the signals that you look for when you’re doing an investigation on whether someone’s being deceptive or not. And one thing I noted throughout the book, you go out of your way to point out that these linguistic or behavioral signals that can reveal what people are thinking, they’re not definitive. So how do you use these signals in your work to discern someone’s true thoughts and intentions?

David Lieberman: That’s right. And it’s a great point. And there is no technique that is going to work 100% of the time. And anyone that claims that it will is… Well, they’re not being so honest. And one of the reasons why my work is used so widely by law enforcement is because they use a layered approach. Meaning that you’re not going to have just one trick pony… You know, watch out the person always says this or never says this. In any conversation it’s gonna be a number of different markers… Five, six, seven, eight, to pay attention to.

So then you can recognize if the person… They sort of flag seven or eight markers out of seven or eight or nine, then you can likely put this person in a specific category. So a single casual reference doesn’t mean anything, but a consistent pattern of syntax can be very revealing.

Brett McKay: So it sounds like it’s about putting together a big picture of a person so you can possibly investigate further if needed.

David Lieberman: That’s right. And particularly when it comes to gauging someone’s emotional health… As you say, I make a number of disclaimers in the book because one of the things that I don’t want happening is somebody just opening up to a random chapter on emotional health. How to gauge whether someone’s emotionally solvent. And then decide that they’re in a relationship with somebody who’s not well without looking at the larger picture. Or having a conversation with a babysitter or someone in an elevator and maybe thinking somebody is emotionally well, when really they’re not. So you wanna look for the full context, you want to get a larger picture, and in doing so you can get a much clearer snapshot.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and I can imagine seeing someone reading a tip and like, “Oh, if someone does this, they’re lying.” And then you see your wife do that thing, like, “Oh, you’re lying to me.” And like, “No, I’m not. I’m just… ” That’s… It wasn’t a lie at all. It’s just like that one instance that they did that signal that suggests that they might be lying, but it’s not definitive.

David Lieberman: That’s right. That’s right. And the very last thing I want is a relationship to be injured because somebody erroneously used these techniques. It’s one thing to use them to protect yourself emotionally, physically, financially. It’s quite another to mis-categorize somebody. And when the stakes get high on negotiation, arbitration and and certainly in our personal relationships, I encourage people spend… It’s not a lot of time you’re talking about an extra five minutes rather than 30 seconds to build a profile.

Brett McKay: So in and of itself, we’re not talking about days, but you do have to spend the five minutes. And in the generation where everything is quick, fast now, 280 characters, sometimes people don’t wanna invest those extra few minutes. But it really could make a very big difference.

Alright, so not definitive. This is just another tool in your arsenal of figuring out other humans. And what’s interesting about your book is, I think, a lot of people when they imagine deciphering deception or trying to figure out what someone’s thinking, they typically think about body language. One, if the arms are closed, it means they were closed off. I think we’ve all heard that. But in Mindreader you pay very little attention to body language. Why is that?

David Lieberman: That’s right. Because it really doesn’t work. Here’s what happened. Go back about 25 years ago… And I developed some of the very techniques that are used in body language. But what we found was over time, first, that the people became so familiar with them… If your arms are crossed, if your eyes are darting away, you’re scratching your nose. We know to avoid doing those very same things that will give us away.

So when you’re dealing with somebody, unless they’re a very unsophisticated liar, you need more intelligent techniques. Secondly, where a lot of conversation and interaction takes place over Zoom, you lose even those body language signs that were reliable. You lose the ability to activate them because you simply don’t have access to those visual cues. So what Mindreader does is it uses a field called psycholinguistics, which looks at how people use language. And using it to glean what they’re really thinking and feeling.

So for example, when somebody’s arms are crossed, technically speaking, it could be defensive, but they could also be cold. But when it comes to language, it’s much more difficult for us to cover up what it is we wanna say when we look at not what the person’s saying, but how they’re saying it.

Brett McKay: Well, yeah. And this is also applies… What’s was nice about the language… Focusing on language is that it applies to text as well. I mean, that’s… You highlight… A lot of the research on this is just analyzing emails, text, etcetera. And there’s a correlation to someone’s state of mind based on the text.

David Lieberman: That’s right. That’s right. One of the reasons why, again, the book has gotten so much attention is because the techniques work without the need for interacting with your subject. Oftentimes just from listening to a conversation, a speech, a recording, a voicemail or a message. As you said, from reading a text or even an email. Certainly in live interaction, you’ve got even that much more to glean. But there’s no way body language would ever even enter into the equation if you’re looking at a text or you’re listening to a voicemail.

Brett McKay: So let’s talk about some of these language signals that can… May suggest what someone’s thinking or if they’re being deceptive. And you highlight research from a social psychologist and linguistic professor named James Pennebaker. And he’s done a lot of research about how our personal pronoun use can indicate what’s going on in our mind. So, generally, how does our pronoun use change depending on whether we feel confident or not confident, etcetera?

David Lieberman: He’s unearthed a wealth of information. And he’s got a great book called The Secret Life of Pronouns, which I encourage people to take a look at. But so he basically explains that people who have power tend to use “I,” “me” and “my” fewer times than those of lower status. And it’s counter-intuitive. We assume that the person who’s in position of power would be using the words or the pronouns “I, “me,” “my” more. But what happens is, is that when you feel comfortable, when you are confident, then you’re able to focus in on the rest of the world, on other people and pay attention to them.

When we become self-conscious, literally aware of the self, that linguistic “I” comes into play, in much the same way that the physical “I” comes into play, when a person gets up to give a speech and they’re nervous. They become very self-conscious and they don’t really know physically sometimes where their arms go or where to look. So much the same way that when a person is confident in who they are in that social setting, you’re going to see that linguistically, the personal pronouns are more likely to be absent and the person is more focused outward on other people, and their language is going to reflect that pattern.

Brett McKay: That’s really… And yeah, that is counter-intuitive, ’cause you think someone who’s egocentric would be saying, “I,” “me”… Who’s confident, they’d be saying those words. But that’s not the case. What about if someone’s trying to conceal something? Does pronoun usage change?

David Lieberman: Right. So what’s interesting is that the research shows is that generally speaking… And again, we’re painting with a broad brush here. There are, as we know, many nuances that you’ve gotta sort of filter everything through, but you… When a person is honest in what they’re saying, they’re willing to take ownership. And that usually means they’re going to bring that linguistic “I” into the equation. So for example, I could say, “Brett, I liked your presentation. I really like your podcast.” Or I could say, “It’s a good presentation. Nice podcast.”

Now, I’m essentially saying the same thing, but the subtext is quite different. When I use the word “I,” I’m taking ownership of what it is I’m saying, and there’s a greater likelihood that I actually believe in what it is that I’m saying.

Brett McKay: Oh, yeah. I’ve gotten that compliment. Where it’s just like, “Oh, great talk.” It’s like, “Okay. Well.”

David Lieberman: Right. [chuckle]

Brett McKay: They’re just being… Maybe they’re just being nice. Or maybe they… Maybe they did think it was a great talk, but it might just be they’re just being nice and saying that.

David Lieberman: True. But you know what… I’m sorry. It’s important to remember, though, that… For example, that introverts are more likely to say something such as, “Nice talk,” rather than, “I liked your talk.” While extroverts, conversely, of course, are more likely to include the “I” because they are more interested in that connection, that attachment. So it’s important, just because somebody says, “Great talk,” or, “Great podcast,” it doesn’t mean that they don’t believe what they’re saying.

Brett McKay: Okay. So if someone’s concealing something, they’re gonna not take ownership of it, they’re not gonna use “I”… The “I” pronoun. What about… There’s another way you highlight that we use language to maybe conceal or at least distance ourselves from an idea or others. And this is… It’s putting spatial distance. What’s going on there?

David Lieberman: Right. So there’s so much. And also, with pronouns and language, when the active voice versus the passive voice is also statistically more likely to be true. The person says, “I took the pen,” versus, “The pen was given to me.” When I say, “I took the pen,” again, it’s an active voice and a personal pronoun, and more likely to be true. And you just see how you begin to build those layers. But regarding, interesting, the words “here” and “there.”

Sometimes we have something like adverbs, such as “this” and “that,” “these” and “those” and “here” and “there”. And they show where a person is in relation to an object or the speaker. So for example, a person says, “This is an interesting idea.” Or, “Here’s an interesting idea.” Now, when that person says, “Here is an interesting idea,” rather than, there, once again, it’s more likely that they are truthful in what it is they’re saying.

Now, it’s important to note, just because someone says, again, “This is an interesting idea,” it doesn’t mean that they’re not interested. But when we say “here,” that is what we call spatial immediacy. They’re looking for a greater attachment, a greater connection to what it is that they’re saying. And so you begin to see how putting these things together in a single sentence can be very, very revealing.

Brett McKay: And can you give us another example of that?

David Lieberman:Sure. Let’s say… We say… A person says something such as, “There’s your drink,” versus, “Here we are.” Right. Now, so a person says, “There’s your drink.” “There” is not immediate. It signals distance. Oppositional, which is something else we didn’t discuss about “you” versus “us.” Here’s your drink. And a concrete noun, “drink.” The person says, “Here we are,” again you’ve got “here,” signaling closeness. “We,” united. A bond. And then, finally, “are,” sort of a function word relying on shared knowledge.

Is just, again, something else that we go, obviously, into more detail. But for here, for example, take the word “we.” When a person says “we”… Let me give you an example. Let’s say Jack and Jill walk out of a restaurant on the first date. And Jack innocently says… Or Jill says to Jack, “Where did we park our car?” Or, “Where did we park the car?” Now, when she says, “Where did we park the car,” or even more so, our car, she’s already begun to identify themselves as a unit. If it was not a good date, you can rest assure that she would say something such as, “Where did you park the car?”

She would not want to associate herself linguistically with Jack. Once again, we wanna be clear. Just because Jill says, “Where did you park the car,” or your car, if it is, in fact, Jack’s car, it doesn’t mean she’s not interested. But when we use words like “we” and “us” and “our,” they indicate a bond, a connection. And as soon as she says, “Where did we park the car,” or even more so, our car, we know that she’s communicating a subtext of interest.

And we do this all of the time. Again, sometimes we pay attention to the language, but often not. And that’s why it’s so difficult for somebody… The question people always ask is, “If somebody reads a book, can’t they now avoid doing the very things that will give themselves away?” And the answer is no. But body language you can. But this is human nature. And you’re going to have to think about every single thing you say all the time in order to avoid giving yourself away.

Brett McKay: Okay. So this idea of language, the modifiers or even passive reactive voice, are there things to be on the lookout for if someone’s trying to distance themselves from an accusation ’cause they… Maybe they did it and so they’re just trying to make it look like they didn’t. You know what I’m saying?

David Lieberman: Yeah. No, for sure. There are many ways to tell whether somebody is being honest or not. And what you wanna do is take a look at the situation. If it’s an accusation you wanna make we’ll take a look at how to go ahead and solve that. But it’s gonna be a different technique than if you’re looking at a story, if you’re looking at an alibi. But let’s take your question in terms of you think that somebody may be up to something.

So one of the biggest mistakes we make in trying to get the truth is we actually accuse the other person of doing something wrong. Now, that immediately is gonna put them on the defensive. If they are guilty of the behavior, they’re going to say no, and if they’re not guilty, of course, they’re gonna say no. And if they say yes, then any technique would have worked. So rather than accuse the other person, what you wanna do is you allude to a similar scenario. And it works like this.

Let’s say that a hospital administrator thinks that one of her doctors may be drinking on duty. What she would say is, “You know, Dr. Marcus, maybe you can help me out with something. We think that there’s another doctor over at Mercy Hospital that may be drinking on duty. Any idea on how the hospital administrator there can best approach him?” Now, all she has to do is gauge his reaction. If he’s not guilty of the same behavior, he’s gonna become very interested, want to engage, offer his advice, be happy that it was sought out. But if he is guilty of a similar scenario, he’s going to become very uncomfortable, look to change the subject and offer some sort of quick assurance that he would never do something like this. So again, if you think somebody may be up to something, rather than accuse them outright, bring up a similar situation, and then just simply watch how they handle it.

Brett McKay: Well, you give this other great tip if you’re trying to figure out if someone is lying or not, is… It’s similar to what you just said. It’s injecting an emotional stressor into the situation. And so you do this. You have a neat little trick. What’s that little trick you talk about in the book?

David Lieberman: I’m trying to remember.

Brett McKay: I think it’s the… Okay. It’s the one where you say, “Oh, I heard there was lots of traffic.”

David Lieberman: Ah… Ah… Ah… Ah.

Brett McKay: You know what I’m talking about?

David Lieberman: Right, right, right, right. Right. So there… Right. So when you’re talking to somebody face-to-face, one of the ways that we have to get somebody to be more honest or to gauge their emotional integrity is by taking a step closer. Because when you increase that physical proximity, it adds to their emotional stress. But when you’re speaking to somebody and you’re trying to get the truth, and maybe you’re 1000 miles away, you don’t have the luxury of stepping closer, you can introduce an emotional stressor.

And it works like this. If you think that you have… Let’s use the example of an alibi. Once again, if you simply say, “Oh, you were really at the movies with your friend?” The person says, “Yeah.” “Really?” “Yeah, really.” Where does that go? So rather, what you do is you want to confirm the facts, and then you introduce a plausible but not true fact. “Fact.” And it works like this.

So taking the example of a person who says that they were at movies with their friends. You’d say, “What movie did you see?” “Well, I saw.” I don’t know… Planet of the Apes. I’m dating myself here. I just happen to like the movie. [chuckle] But Planet of the Apes. “And what showing did you see?” “The 8:30.” “On Main Street?” “Yeah, Main Street.” And now, once you’ve got the facts, you introduce a false bit of information. You say something such as, “Oh, 8:00 o’clock at Main Street? At about 9:30, I heard that there was a big water main break and traffic was backed up for hours. It must have taken you forever to get out of there.”

Now he’s got a problem. But he’s going to do the one thing that every single liar does while making up a story, and that, Brett, is hesitate. He’s not sure how to answer. He’s trying to figure out whether you’re tricking him or not. But if the person was in fact there, you’re going to get a very quick, “What are you talking about? There was no water main break.” But he’s going to hesitate… Again, this is highly reliable, but once again, I encourage people to look at four, five, six, seven markers and use language in determining… To gauge their response and how they answer, and as how they express themselves, but that could be one very powerful technique.

Brett McKay: One other similar to that technique I’ve heard is… Let’s say you’re a bouncer at a bar and you’re checking someone’s ID and you think, “This is probably fake.” And you ask them, “Well, are you 21?” They’ll say, “Yes, of course.” But then you ask them, “What’s your birthday?”

And if they’re lying, usually they’ll be like, Oh geez, I gotta do the math. What would make me 21 or 22? And it’ll cause some flustering, some flustering to go on.

David Lieberman: That’s right, that’s right. People who lie generally have their pat answers ready to go, which is why whenever you’re dealing with somebody who you want to find out whether or not they’re being honest, you wanna ask them a question that they’re probably not expecting, but obviously one that’s relevant to what is you’re discussing. So in that case, you can also say something such as, what’s your horoscope sign? Now, they may have chosen August down for the license, even though their birthday is in June, and they’re not gonna be able to figure out too quickly, unless they’re into astrology, what their actual horoscope is.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. So you also talk about our language can reveal whether we’re anxious or fearful or angry. And that can come in handy if you can… If someone sounds like they’re anxious, it could be they’re just anxious about the thing, or it could be that they’re deceptive, they don’t want someone to know the truth, so they’re getting anxious. So how does our language change when we start to feel worried or anxious?

David Lieberman: Right. So once again, people use physical markers, which may or may not be practical, if… And if you can’t see the person, clearly not. But even very small things, go back to pronouns again. And the pronoun “me,” for example, indicates inward orientation, as does the pronoun “I.” But because “me” is almost always used in a passive tense, meaning that something acts on the person, rather the person taking action, “me” is indicative of feelings of helplessness and vulnerability. And when it’s used superfluously, when it’s used unnecessarily, the anxiety is even more true. So, for example, this comes in with small children a lot. A person can say, or a child, whoever it is, My stomach hurts, or, my stomach hurts me.

Why are you yelling, or, why are yelling at me? Now, you don’t need… It’s superfluous to say the “me” at the end of, My stomach hurts me. It’s obvious whose stomach is going to hurt. Why are you yelling? You’re obviously yelling at me. But when we use the word “me” because it’s passive, it is inextricably linked with a degree of anxiety. So that’s something to pay attention to. There’s also something called linguistic qualifiers and retractors, where a linguistic qualifier is, “I think” and “maybe” or “I believe,” and a linguistic retractor is “although” and “but,” “nevertheless” and so on. So a person who’s very anxious is likely to pepper their language with a lot of qualifiers and retractors. And if you think about is, that’s just how they sound.

I think this could be okay, but I don’t know. I guess it might make sense, but… So I could try it, although… And they’re going to sort of have that halting linguistic speech where they qualify what they’re saying and then they use retractors to sort of take it back. And that is indicative of an anxious state. And if you see a pattern of this behavior, then you can assume it’s an anxious trait, meaning that just because the person is acting anxious or using that language pattern in the moment, it’s very telling. That doesn’t tell us if he has a anxious personality. But when you see a consistent pattern of that syntax, then you can presume that it is a matter of trait, rather than simply states.

Brett McKay: Well, how does the language change once you get angry? So this is interesting because a lot of our communication is over text. And someone might… It might sound polite or like the text sounds polite, but there’s signifiers that, well, this person might be actually angry with you.

David Lieberman: That’s right, that’s right. Right. You can use a bunch of emoticons, and you have a question there is a smiley face, but are they angry or not? And sometimes it’s obvious in-person, but if it’s not in-person, it can be difficult to tell. So, first, grammatically speaking, an angry state is distinguished by the use of more second and third person pronouns, meaning that the person is going to shift away from themself. And it makes sense, because I am not focused on me, there’s not gonna be a big “I” or me, it’s gonna be about you and your. We’re certainly not going to see a lot of language that shows cooperation and… Such as “us” and “our” and “we.” Those things are going to be quite absent. You’re not going to see a lot of language that connotes sort of anything that qualifies what we’re saying. There’s not gonna be a lot of retractors. The language is very clear and pure, in much the same way that the anxious person may say things such as, I think this may be a good idea or maybe not, qualifiers and retractors, the angry person eliminates both qualifiers and retractors, and their language is very direct, it’s, How dare you do this? What is going on? You’re not going to notice a lot of qualification in what they’re saying, and they’re not taking it back. They’re not gonna say something as… Such as, How could you do this to me? Although, I can kinda see, and so on.

Now, again, as we’re using these examples, it seems quite intuitive. But if you’re simply reading a text from somebody and you’re not sure whether they’re angry or not, looking for the absence of qualifiers and retractors and for the… Whether or not they’re focused on you or themselves is just very, very telling.

Brett McKay: So talking about some more signals of possible deception, I thought this was really interesting. People who are deceiving typically do a lot of pontificating and philosophizing. What do you mean by that?

David Lieberman: Yeah. The person who’s deceptive, and again, one of the reasons why you’ve got so many approaches here because it depends on whether you want to get a confession or there are… You want to see whether they are lying about an alibi or whether just making something up in general, but pontificating is something that they do often, because a person who’s lying, they can’t obviously tell you the truth, so they come up with a lot of ways of filling the space. So they’ll tell you things such as, In the old days, something like this would never happen. They’ll speak very metaphorically. They will use words that try to convey emotion, but because they’re not really feeling the emotion, it’s gonna seem very stale. A person who’s lying, also, they’re gonna be filling their statement, whether it’s written or oral, with superfluous, unnecessarily… Unnecessary details. The reason is because a person who is lying recognizes that they need to include details because that’s what’s going to make what they say more believable. The problem, of course, is they don’t have a lot of real details because they’re making up the story, so you’re going to notice a lot of unnecessary details, so you’ll ask the person, Tell me about your morning, and they’ll let’s say now, here’s where they can tell you about what really happened and you’re going to get the most…

If you pay attention to it, I gotta tell you, Brett it’s so obvious, they’re gonna… They’re gonna fill what they’re saying with the most unnecessary superfluous details, so I got up at 7:00 AM, I had eggs for breakfast, you gotta start your day with a good breakfast and I like protein because you know who needs those empty carbs? So I had that, obviously not necessary to what is they’re talking about? But they feel that the more detailed they are, the more believable they are, the problem, of course, is that when details are superfluous, when they’re unnecessary, it is indicative of somebody who’s making up a story. There are a number of other things to pay attention to in terms of the story. You’ll notice that a person who is lying when they get to the main event, they’re going to stop talking, and that’s when the person shot him and so on, the person who’s telling a truthful story is gonna talk about what happened afterwards, how they felt, the conversations, the mood, interactions, and so on. The person who’s lying, they think their job is just to get to the main event, and then they’re just happy for the conversation to be over, and you notice that what follows afterwards is truncated or completely absent while the truthful person is going to talk more about after the actual event, than the person who’s lying about it.

Brett McKay: Yeah, the other example of an unnecessary details is when someone’s like, Well, I’m woke up at 7:00, Well, no, it was actually 7:55, ’cause I was up late last night with the blah, blah, blah, blah, it’s like, No, that’s not… I don’t even know that.

David Lieberman: That’s right, yeah. What they’re doing there is they’re showing, you know, you’ve gotta know how honest I am, Brett, because I’m even correcting myself right. Now, only an honest person would take the time to make sure that he got even these unnecessary details correct. Now, once again, to the unlearned observer, we might be thinking this is a really honest person. Wow, he’s taking the time to correct these details on what he had for breakfast, but obviously, we already know that if he is trying to correct details about something that’s already unnecessary in the first place, this is somebody who’s trying to convey, to give the impression that they’re being honest, when obviously they’re not.

Brett McKay: And then you said when you get to the actual moment of truth, the thing that’s really important, they’re gonna do… Start doing stuff, they’re just going to go, glance over it and they’re gonna do things to distance themselves from, so they’ll maybe use passive voice, so it’s like if someone… If like the the safe at work got robbed or whatever, when you say, well then that’s when the safe was robbed, was robbed.

David Lieberman: That’s right, that’s right. The active voice is indicative of something that’s more truthful, and there are a lot of… I know I stayed away from in the book bringing in real life examples only because I do a lot of work with the government and I had to avoid anything that was sort of politically charged or any sort of affiliation. But if you look at some of the transcripts from different scenarios in the real world, you’ll notice that when a person is telling the truth, whatever point they are, they’re using the active voice, and then when it comes to the part that they’re lying about they switch to a passive voice. And if you pay attention to it, it can be glaringly obvious.

Brett McKay: Well, I learned this when I was in law school, you have to take a legal writing class. So one of the things you have to do is write a brief or a memo, and that’s one of the tips you learn, so say if, you’re… You’re on the defense side. You have to state the facts. Here’s the statement of facts, but you can state them in a way to make your client look less or more guilty, so if someone was killed, alright you can’t deny that someone was killed, that’s… It’s the fact that there’s a dead body, but you can do things like… Well, the person died or the person was hit, you don’t have to say who did it, ’cause you’re just trying to distance your client from it.

David Lieberman: Right, that’s right. Politicians have a pension for doing this, it’s… Mistakes were made. That’s quite different from I messed up. When they switch to the passive, they take themselves out of the equation. It’s obviously that they’re looking to distance themselves from it, and what’s interesting is that we’re talking about this, we know this, and some people might be thinking, well, of course, that’s obvious what they mean to say, but language is very powerful and just as you noted, skilled attorneys know to avoid language that’s going to create that stark, visceral response in the jury, and to use language that paints their client in a greater light.

Brett McKay: You know if you’re on the prosecution side, you’d use the active voice, like so and so did, he took the hammer and blodge in like you would… That’s how you would do it… And it would paint the picture and the person, the judge’s head of the jury had that the guy did it. So we’ve talked about some different ways to detect deception, is there one signal or confluence signals that you think if someone starts paying attention to more, that it’ll provide some like, oh, that’s something I didn’t know I need to investigate that more like some of the most bang for your buck.

David Lieberman: Yeah, I see this all the time, and every time I read it in the paper again, I wanna clip it out, but I know that I can’t really do much with it. It’s amazing, people who are accused of doing something in the public eye, if you look for it again, it’s glaring, obviously, no matter how much they want to… They have a hard time saying, I didn’t do it. They’ll say things such as the facts will bear out exactly what we’re saying, or you know what, I’m not that kind of person, or this is something that I would… I don’t stand for. A person who is innocent is going to give a very clear definitive, I didn’t do it now, of course, that’s not enough to hang our head on, but you’re going to notice that a person who is denying something that they did, has a hard time because unless they’re an outright sociopath, they do a feel a degree of guilt and they’re trying to distance themselves and they don’t want to lie, at least part of them, so they’re gonna say things such as, everyone loves me, my reputation is spotless, I’m not a bad person.

I don’t know how they could say such things, but you’re not gonna hear, I didn’t do it. And if you do, it’s gonna be after some long convoluted statement that has nothing to do with whether or not they did it or not do it, they’re going to offer some sort of supporting evidence or information, but one of the mistakes I continuously see even from people who are well represented is they don’t offer a very clear, definitive upfront denial.

Brett McKay: Yeah. The other one you hear when people don’t give an upfront denial is just like, “Well, how could you think that of me.” They turn it back on the other person without just saying, I didn’t do it.

David Lieberman: That’s right. Rather like who do you think you are? How could you accuse me of that? And the centerpiece of a person’s response should be, again, a consistent clear denial of the act and not proof that he’s not the kind of person who would never commit such an act. I could never do that. I’ve got daughters myself, what’s does that have to do with anything? Or, you know what, I’ve got too much respect for these people to go ahead and do something like that. Again, irrelevant, irrelevant, you wanna hear a very clear, definitive denial. Once again, not enough to say that the person is being honest, but the absence of a denial is very striking.

Brett McKay: So a section of the book I found particularly useful are, it detailed signals to help you figure out if you’re dealing with someone who’s emotionally and mentally healthy or not. You start off by distinguishing between two types of mental health and wellness. There’s egodystonic and egosyntonic, what’s the difference between the two?

David Lieberman: Right. The psychological disorders, they’re commonly classified as either egodystonic or egosyntonic. Any behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that upset a person that make them uncomfortable are what’s called egodystonic. This person doesn’t like them and they don’t want them, and they are going to generally be mood disorders, also called effective disorders, they include depression, bipolar, anxiety, things like that.

Sufferers of egodystonic are also more likely to have negative thoughts, rumination, they’re hyper-sensitive to everyday stressors, they can become easily frustrated, overwhelmed, they are pretty much anxious folks and it’s obviously there’s a spectrum, it’s not an all or non proposition, but then you have personality disorders which are egosyntonic and those include borderline personality disorder, antisocial, narcissistic, histrionic and so on, the classification changes every time the DSM comes out. But personality disorders from their standpoint, this person’s behaviors, their thoughts, their feelings, there’s nothing wrong with them, they’re all part of their identity.

You know that personality disorder people… And we all know people who have personalities orders, they’re very, very difficult, they blame everyone else for their problems, they don’t believe they’re suffering with anything, they refuse to look inward and will assume that everyone else has a problem and not them. So those are the two general categories of emotional un-wellness, it’s either going to produce an effective disorder, mood disorder, or in the other classification, a personality disorder, again, painting with the broad brush.

Brett McKay: Yeah, so the effective disorders, this is like anxiety and depression, and the languages that people use that have these disorders, it’s typically passive, there’s a lot of me language, I’ve heard it called me always everything language. So it’s like, why does bad stuff happen to me and everything is going wrong and always everything goes wrong, so it’s a lot of negative orientation. So the use of that kind of language can point to someone having an effective disorder. I’m curious, we’ve been talking about recognizing signals in other people, but to take a short detour here, I’m wondering, if we’re depressed or anxious ourselves and we notice that we use that sort of language, that sort of passive me always everything language, can the way we… Can we change our language so it’s more active, less ruminative, if we change the way we talk, can it change your own mood?

David Lieberman: That’s such a great question, and the most recent research says absolutely positively. When we use language, and when I do work with kids this comes up a lot or even adults, anyone feeling anxious, I encourage them to pay attention to the words that they’re using. When they say things like, I’m feeling overwhelmed, this is too much for me, all they’re doing is reinforcing that state, that’s certainly using more positive language is not going to be enough in and of itself. But when we use language that’s more empowering, we use language that is more definitive, more bold and less vulnerable, it does change how we feel about ourselves and certainly can change how we feel about the situation.

So yes, language can be… And much the same way that there’s a field called embody cognition which looks at our body language and how it can sometimes reflect our mood and state, meaning that if a person moves their body physically, they are more animated, they’re more open, they’re more expressive, it can help them to feel less anxious, it can help them to feel less withdrawn and timid. But when we close in our body language again, because of embody cognition, the thoughts don’t just originate from the mind, but rather they can sometimes reflect the physicality, we’re able to really change our state simply by changing our physiology and certainly by changing the language that we use, can make a very big difference to how we see ourselves and how we see the problem with the challenge in front of us.

Brett McKay: Well, I imagine that’s the whole impetus behind cognitive behavioral therapy is to shift the way you think from thinking it’s not all about you, not everything in your life is terrible, and not everything always goes wrong, ’cause that’s what a lot of times depressive people do, so it’s like, no, it’s not that. You gotta challenge that thinking.

David Lieberman: That’s right. And I also encourage people to use the word choice. A person says, I am stuck in this job, say, so you’re choosing to stay in this job. See, if they’re stuck in the job or everyone’s out to get them, it’s very passive, and if someone else is responsible and someone else can fix it, but if I say, remind them to look at it as if they are choosing to respond this way and they can choose to respond a different way, it’s very, very empowering.

Brett McKay: All right, so be an agent, use agency language.

David Lieberman: Yes.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about the personality disorder stuff. Are there signs or the way someone speaks or interact when you’re interacting with them to know if they have a personality disorder or if they’re narcissist?

David Lieberman: Yes, so there’s a wide spectrum, but here are some sort of red flags to pay attention to, and again, everything is on a range, it’s not an all or none, but the less emotionally healthy people are, the worst their boundaries are going to be because…

People often assume that boundaries are meant to key people out, they’re not… They’re meant to define our personal sense of space, responsibility, and obligation, every relationship needs boundaries, and when a person comes into our space in an unhealthy way, or really Brett, don’t let people into their space in a healthy way, it is indicative of, again, of poor emotional health and it tells us whether or not it’s more egodystonic or egosyntonic because a person who is egosyntonic is going to come into our space, they’re going to breach boundaries, because at the end of the day, all human beings are wired for connection, but the surrogate to connection is control, which is why that’s something that every single personality disorder has in common, they all see control, so they’re gonna come into your space in an unhealthy way, they’re going to take everything personally because the ego-centricity makes a very big capital ‘I’.

Conversely, they’re gonna have a very narrow perspective because it’s that ‘I’ that blocks perspective, they are going to be the perpetual victim, they’re not gonna take responsibility, there’s certainly obvious that they’re gonna blow things out of proportion because they don’t have a clearer perspective. And if you see any clear warning signs of lying, cheating, stealing, advancing their own agenda, then obviously you’re dealing with somebody who can be quite injurious.

Brett McKay: Well, how do you, in your practice, how do you counsel people to deal with someone who’s maybe a narcissist or a sociopath, or Borderline Personality Disorder, whatever.

David Lieberman: Right. So of the personality disorders, the one that really is in a class by itself is the anti-social personality disorder, that’s a sociopath or psychopath, and the reason they’re in a class by themselves, ’cause every other personality disorder, as we mentioned before, they seek connection. Even the narcissists, they want to connect, they just can’t or they have a very difficult time depending on where they are on the spectrum, because in order for me to connect with you, I need a me, I need a sense of me, but a narcissist counterintuitively suffers with perverse low self-esteem, there is no real I. They’re entirely egocentric, so there’s no real ability to connect because they have no sense of self, with whom are they connecting? There’s no ability for them to authentically bond what they do is they’ve got this mask, they’ve got this facade, and that’s what really connects them to other people, and when that fails, they’re going to use coercion and control. The person suffering with anti-social personality disorder, sadly, they do not require connection, other people are not people, they are tools.

So the most important powerful lesson to understand about people who suffer with sociopathy or psychopathy is that people without a conscience exist. It makes us feel better to believe that they’re just misguided, misunderstood, they’re really good deep down inside, a person who legitimately suffers with a personality disorder, such as again, psychopathy or sociopathy, have no conscience. You are a tool, you will be used, manipulated, cast aside. There is no appealing to their higher self, their conscience, their soul, there is no one home to talk to, everything is going to be about them. And they are the most dangerous.

Brett McKay: You just avoid them, is that the best way to deal with it?

David Lieberman: Yes. There’s no outsmarting them. They live, they feed off of power and control, and they are generally certainly sociopaths intelligent, they’re highly practiced, but just so your listeners are aware, there are a couple of things, no matter how good they are sociopaths, they can’t help but give themselves away because they are wearing really a mask of a mask, they’re a caricature, they can feign empathy and feign connection, but they don’t really care about you, but they practice at it, but a couple of things to pay attention to, they’re actually… There’s eight or ten that you wanna look at, but just two to give over now, one is that they will always promise the world but deliver nothing. Now if they’re playing the long game and they’re looking to invest in trying to get something from you. They may temporarily do something that seems like they’re really bending over backwards to accommodate and they’ll make sure that you find out about it, of course, but they generally, when push comes to shove, will promise the world, words are cheap, but they will deliver nothing. Also very important to look at. They do not have any real relationships, they are friends with the world and close to no one. They do not speak fondly about their parents, their siblings, their children, their ex… Former spouse, there is nobody close to them.

Certainly there are people, unfortunately, who have personality disorders that are not anti-social, that have fractured relationships, but that’s something to pay attention to when it comes to sociopaths or psychopaths.

Brett McKay: Well, David, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

David Lieberman: They can connect with me on social media, feel free to reach out to follow or connect on LinkedIn, on Instagram. They can also visit the publisher’s website, which is

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, David Lieberman, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

David Lieberman: Brett, thank you so much, appreciate the time.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Dr. David Lieberman, he’s the author of the book, Mindreader, it’s available on and book stores everywhere. Make sure to check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast, make sure to check out our website at, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousand of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate you take one minute to give us review on Apple Podcast or Spotify, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member you think would get something out of it. As always thank you for the continued support. Until next time it’s Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.


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