Don’t Get Manipulated: How to Spot Deception, Lies, and Manipulators

Don’t Get Manipulated: How to Spot Deception, Lies, and Manipulators

What is the cost of falling for a manipulator? For some, it could be losing out on a job promotion, having your pension taken in a bad investment, finding out too late that your spouse has been having an affair, or being traumatized or killed. When we hear about the individuals who callously con, hurt, and destroy from friends or on the news, we’re usually left asking questions. “How did they get away with it?” “Could anyone have stopped them?” Yes, they could have been stopped. One of the best ways to catch manipulation before it wreaks havoc on our lives is to hone our behavioral analysis abilities.

Most human beings without training are able to detect deception with about fifty percent accuracy.  Reading and maneuvering manipulation is a skill, and it can be improved upon.  Whether you’re dealing with a coworker, a lover, a friend, or a stranger on the street, these tools are invaluable.  Beyond avoiding the loss of pride that comes with being manipulated, you could potentially avoid losing your money, your sanity, or your life if you can spot a manipulator in the act. There are three parts to detecting manipulation: norming, observing common non-verbal cues of deception, and spotting verbal signals.


Almost all human beings have a baseline, or a general way of being.  To “Norm” someone, you need to discover his or her baseline, or how he or she acts when they are at ease. It’s easier to read people that we know well because we’ve had significant time to Norm them and learn how they look when they are calm or triggered in some way. We do it without thinking and it’s one of the oldest survival mechanisms that humans have. Being able to recognize quick and drastic changes in others’ behavior that warn us of impending violence or active deception can be tremendously useful, if we learn to stop ignoring our gut instinct. Like a polygraph test, figuring out the truth has to do with spotting changes in a person’s demeanor.  Developing an accurate baseline of a person will make it easier to determine when a person is reacting, and what kind of reaction they are having.

When I norm someone I do a quick scan of their body and pay specific attention to certain behaviors:

  • Feet -Where are they pointed? Are they crossed?  How wide is their natural stance? Remember that feet placed about 12-18 inches apart is a confident stance.
  • Hands – Are they open or are they clenched? Carrying a visible weapon? Are they covering up a part of their body? Are they engaging in self-soothing (rubbing or picking at parts of one’s own body to regulate intense emotions. IE, picking at hangnails or playing with a ring.
  • Torso – Is it pointing towards or away from me? The torso or belly button direction is the biggest indicator of who has your full attention?
  • Head- What facial expression are they making? Is their gaze narrowed and lips pursed ready for an attack? Do they have a genuine smile or is it a fake?
  • Voice Tone– Is it normally high pitched? Are they trying to sound more confident right now? Is it strained in agitation?
  • Language and Verbal Cues– Why is this person seemingly unwilling to give me a straight answer? What was the purpose of what they said?

Getting in the habit of people watching in a public place can be a great way to build up your norming ability. Speech tone, body positioning, verbal cues, and even blinking or pupil dilation can play a role in norming someone.  Alcohol intensifies emotional displays and lowers inhibitions.  It can be easier to spot the exaggerated expressions of aggression, territorialism, competition, seduction, or sadness in a bar. Find a person’s “norm” and then pay close attention to when their behavior changes.







Now that you understand how norming works, it will be easier to apply this list of Common Cues for Deception to increase your behavioral awareness.  If you know what to look for, it will be easier to spot these cues when they happen and not ignore your gut instinct.  If you see someone exhibit some of these signals it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re lying or that they are purposely manipulating you.  However, these gestures may reveal that someone is nervous, uncomfortable, or trying to win your approval.  It’s up to you to decide how to use that information.

Practiced liars and manipulators tend to do the opposite of what we have all been taught about lies.  So how do we spot them? Look for the ones who seem too helpful or someone who is uncomfortably friendly.

 Killer, Serial Killer, manipulator,
Ted Bundy, a master manipulator. He was great at seeming friendly and helpful to those hurt.




  •  Violation of personal space to try to create false intimacy such as leaning in too close, stepping into your personal bubble even after you’ve stepped back to re-adjust, and repeatedly touching your arm or shoulder to try to create a rapport.
  •  Increased eye contact or a deep gaze
  • Constant Mirroring of your body language. (Sales people are often trained to do this.)
  •  False smile- the muscle around the eye contracts and creates “smile lines” when a real smile is being exhibited.
social smile, ducheinne
Social Smile left- Genuine smile right.  Image by Megan Mangum
  •      Voice inside of you says, “This feels wrong.”

Unpracticed liars may experience fear or discomfort around the act of lying or manipulation. The common signs of discomfort are:

police, interrogation, questioning, lie
Self touch, averting gaze, and creating a barrier with the arm.
  •      Self-touch or self-soothing (rubbing of the neck, playing with hair, fidgeting with jewelry, and hugging oneself).
  •  Avoiding eye contact.
  •  Bringing fingers and hands up to the mouth in a subconscious attempt to block the “uncomfortable thing” from coming out of their mouth.
  • Rubbing of the nose.
  • Limited, stiff, or unnatural body movement.
  •  Creating Barriers- Books, coffee, and even crossing of the arms can be used to create barriers when a person feels uncomfortable during a discussion. It’s the main reason we don’t believe in using a podium or desk when we train, run workshops, or lecture.  Keeping an open stance is paramount for gaining trust and building rapport.

Are you observing clusters of these cues?  That’s a sign to keep an eye on the person who is exhibiting them.


You have an understanding of how to norm, the common non-verbal signals of deception, and now we need to put the whole package together. Manipulators, even skilled ones, leave clues for us. If we are observant and vigilant, we can spot the many verbal cookie crumbs that are left behind in someone’s quest for power over you. Certain verbal indicators give away a person’s intent to manipulate. Have you recognized these before?

  •      Absolutes- frequently people who are lying will avoid an absolute answer such as “yes” or “no.” They may say things like “How could you think I would cheat on you?” “Why would you ask me that?” “Do you really believe I could be capable of that?” “I already gave you an answer.” “You clearly don’t understand this situation.” “It depends on what the definition of ‘is’, is.” You may have asked yourself, or them, “Why can’t you give me a straight answer?” It’s because they don’t have one.
  •    Trust Anchors- are statements offered by the potential manipulator to try to convince you that they are worthy of trust. They may even seem out of place or offered for no reason. It is typically because they don’t believe they have convinced you yet. “Trust me.” “I swear…” “I promise that…” “You have nothing to worry about.” “There is no reason to be afraid,” or “Believe me when I tell you…”
  • Too many details- over-use of descriptors to try to prove the reality of a story is a common technique.
  •  Voice pitch changes or mumbling –intense emotion can cause the vocal chords to constrict resulting in a higher pitch voice.  Liars or manipulators know that people with a deep voice are considered trustworthy. Speaking in a monotone voice or a sharp increase in vocal pitch may signal that someone is nervous or trying to control his or her true emotions.
  •  Unsolicited help that comes with a price- have you ever had someone offer you something for free without asking; you reluctantly take it, and then they demand something in return as if the whole thing was a huge sacrifice on their part?  Chances are you’ve experienced what Gavin De Becker has coined Loan Sharking.  People who want to gain control over you may offer you help or assistance to build rapport and then attempt to exploit this false connection by preying on your sense of reciprocal treatment. “Hey, I helped you out, now let me come in and get a drink.”  This is a huge red flag! Physically dangerous or not, these people do not respect boundaries.

sex, boundaries, trust, force

  •  Discrepancy- One of the best ways to detect manipulation is to discover when what someone is saying and doing doesn’t match up.  (A person says, “Yes, everything is fine!” but they are shaking their head No.) It is normal to forget or morph certain aspects of a story when it is retold, but obvious consistent changes are a red flag that the story may be fabricated.
  • Sociopathic Bragging- Sociopaths or master manipulators take tremendous pride in their abilities to gain power and control over others.  If you keep your ears open, people will often share information that can save you plenty of misery down the road if you keep your distance.   “I am great at getting people to do what I want.” “I always get my way.” “I can get anyone to do anything.” “I love having control over others.” “I can manipulate anyone.” Power and control are currency for manipulators.  Pay attention to the sharing that people do on dates, job interviews, or in casual conversation, it can reveal quite a bit.

Just having read this article, your behavioral awareness has increased.  This means that your chances of spotting these warning signs have improved.  Please use this information wisely and be vigilant for those who may seek to control you or do you harm.  Trusting your gut and remembering what to look for may be the difference between spotting a scam, an affair, or staying alive. Good luck out there.


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