Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Work with a Chronic Liar

Dear Crucial Skills,

How do you deal with someone that you KNOW is lying to you? I have numerous examples and clear evidence of the lies, and I have confronted each lie, but they continue to do it. I don’t have the option of walking away. What next?

Fibbed Out

Dear Fibbed Out,

I’m going to assume your assertion is correct—that the pattern of lying is well established as a fact. As you say, what next?

In the third edition of Crucial Conversations, we suggest that there are three kinds of Crucial Conversations, and it’s important to hold the right conversation to address the issue. We refer to these three types of conversations with the acronym CPR—Content, Pattern, Relationship.

The first type of conversation is Content. The content is the immediate pain or problem. When you believe someone has lied, that’s the content. You should share your facts, share the conclusion, and seek remediation.

The second time it happens, you should move to the “P” in CPR. You must now address the Pattern. The issue is not just about the most recent lie they’ve told, it’s that this has now happened twice. It is becoming a pattern. This calls for a deeper discussion about what is going on and why. The solution you come up with must be a reasonable fix to the pattern, not just the latest fib.

For example, if the person acknowledges that they have lied on two occasions because they were scared to give you bad news publicly, you might agree to let them give you updates in one-on-one meetings rather in larger group discussions—provided this doesn’t compromise group integrity.

I’m going to assume you have already held conversations to address the content and pattern of lying. The focus for my advice to you will be on the “R” level—this is the Relationship conversation. This is the conversation you need to have when the issue is no longer about a couple of lies, but about deeply damaged trust. Your conclusions about the other person have reached a point where they will color every interaction you have with them.

This conversation is about resetting expectations in the relationship. Frequently, violated trust leads to termination of the relationship. For example, you might announce that you will leave their team, fire them, divorce them, or separate yourself in other ways.

In your case, you state, “I don’t have the option of walking away.” I would challenge that statement. You always have that option. But I will accept that you have weighed the pros and cons and have chosen not to walk away. I respect that.

But in making that decision, you must also accept that you have chosen to work with someone who occasionally lies. That is your choice. In making that decision, you have surrendered the right to complain or badmouth and punish the other person. You have no right to impose expectations of impeccable integrity on them when they have already shown you who they are.

This is an important psychological adjustment for you to make. The best way to tell if you have not made this mature decision is if new lies lead to feelings of blame, resentment, and disgust. Those are indications that you are refusing to accept your responsibility for being part of this relationship. When the new lies happen, remind yourself of your choice and of the advantages you prioritized that caused you to remain in your situation.

My final piece of advice is to set clear boundaries with the other person. This shouldn’t be hard if you’ve already had the content and pattern conversations. If they already know that you are convinced that they have been dishonest with you, the next step is to honestly tell them the measures you will be taking to cope with their dishonesty. For example, “Until I have greater confidence that you will be impeccably honest with me, I want you to know that I will be auditing your numbers and confirming your statements with colleagues.”

Be sure you aren’t doing this with a motive to punish or belittle. Reassure them that this is not the reality you want. Your motive is to simply be transparent so they can understand the natural consequences of their past choices and potentially feel motivated to make other choices in the future. For example, “I don’t want it to be this way. My preference is to take everything you say as fact. If you’re willing to work on restoring my trust, I will do my part to be open to new evidence as well.”

It is our universal lot in life to learn to work with imperfect people—people just like you and me. I hope my thoughts help you do so in a way that demonstrates your own integrity, and that invites others to grow with you.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

12 thoughts on “How to Work with a Chronic Liar”

  1. georgewilhelmsen

    I was in that situation.
    My Director was making material false statements to me. This wasn’t opinion – it was validated with others.
    I wasn’t able to change my Director, even after requesting help from his Manager and HR, so I evaluated my position, and left the company.

    In terms of the lies, some were apparently him trying to save face or make me feel better about decisions, but they kept happening.

    I did ask why he said what he said. He got up and walked out of the room. More than once.

  2. Wesley Jones

    insightful article, Joe! Great illustration of CPR in practice!

  3. Dr. Dennis O'Grady

    Grateful for Joseph addressing this this common challenge in communication. In my work with couples and companies, honesty solves problems. Not so easy to practice but true! I appreciate the clarity of Joseph’s rational CPR approach to emotional issues of mistrust in relationships. Thank you!

  4. Renee Hamilton

    There are times when you do not have the option to walk away, such as when it’s a minor child. When my stepdaughter was 12 years old, I overheard her telling lies to a new friend. I then noticed her telling lies to her father and me and to other family and friends. I confronted her about them, and she would deny them, say I misunderstood, or that they were just meaningless fibs and no one was harmed. This was before I heard about crucial conversations. Her mother wouldn’t agree to send her to counseling, so I made up my mind to not believe anything she said but to continue love her for the person I knew she was inside. I felt sad about not being able to help her, but I knew it was beyond my control. I chose to look at it as a mental disability and just loved her for who she was.

  5. David R

    Once worked with a director who was well known for his lying ways. When called out, “Oh no – it’s hyperbole…” when it was very clearly not just exaggeration for effect. It got to the point that other people in the institution would come to me for information and when I suggested that they speak with the director, they said, “no, I want a real answer.” We actually had a cartoon posted of an ancient stringed instrument, labelled “Compulsive lyre” and the instrument saying, “no, really, I’m a banjo!” I had to leave to escape because of the toxic relationship of our team in the institution. We never knew what someone had been told and they never knew what the full story was. Leaving turned out to be a great choice.

  6. TG

    Thank you Joseph! I had this problem with a close family relationship and had to go through all 3 phases of crucial conversations. Sadly this ultimately resulted in me leaving the relationship. One of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make in my life and in many ways caused other types of pain and grieving. It was the right decision to protect myself and my family but a difficult decision, none the less.Articles like this help me understand better about myself and my decision.

    I know we are all imperfect people and I pray my family member can ultimately reach out with a sincere effort to restore trust – in the meantime I have the tools necessary to be sure I can work toward healthy relationships and a healthy mental / emotional life.

  7. Matt Clabaugh

    Assuming I have made the choice not to walk away, and have gone through the content, patten, and he knows I don’t trust what he says (relationship), but the lies continue, how do I manage those lies’ impact on others in the group? What difference does it make if I have some belief that they are perhaps not lies, but memory lapses or incorrect recollection of events?

  8. JC Swierczek

    This article resonated with me. You provide respectful but real guidelines to deal with lying in any relationship – business or personal. The insight you provided should an individual decide to remain in this flawed relationship was honest. The compassion for both parties was real. Tbanks.

  9. pl

    What about when there definitely is no walking away, e.g. Vladimir Putin, China about environmental issues? We are all stuck on the planet together, the only ones leaving are Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos…

  10. Andrew Knight

    Except for being in the mob or living in a dictatorship, there are no situations where you cannot walk away. Walking away might cause loss of well paying job or divorce but look at the other possibilities: If your boss blamed you for their actions that caused horrendous company losses or serious injuries, or if you lying wife accused you of domestic violence, you could wind up in jail or bankrupt

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    […] Existen muchas maneras de abordar este problema. Una de las que me parecen más interesantes se describe en este artículo. […]

  12. zidane

    thank you for the information

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