I have a problem with lying. Yes. I am a liar.
But I’m not a compulsive liar by any means. What I mean is for a long while I’ve been thinking about little lies that most everyone I know so easily uses—and it bugs me a lot. I’ve analyzed how these “little white lies” suck energy out of the people who use them, meaning the actual liars.
Now I’ve developed a kind of comfort in telling little white lies. Then sometimes, a little bigger lie slips in out of fear of hurting a coworker or family member, or losing a client (new fees or increase in prices).
It is bothering me. What do you think? Should I just roll with it, or is it a problem?
Dear Liar Liar,
First, can I say how much I appreciate your self-awareness and being willing to tell yourself the truth. That might be half the battle. I think a lot of people who lie are lying to themselves first.
It really is not for me to say. I am not the judge or jury, or in the position to take some kind of moral stance. I do want to point out the language you use: “I have a problem with lying,” and “it is bothering me.” Language is revealing. If you think you have a problem, you have a problem. If it is bugging you, it is bugging you.
Lying just becomes a habit for some people. The original reflex is rooted in the mistaken thought that lying makes life easier, smooths the way, keeps the peace. And that might be true, short term. There are some white lies that just grease the wheels of life. But if you lie once to your Aunt Mildred about loving her meatloaf, you can count on seeing that meatloaf for the rest of Aunt Mildred’s life. If I were your Aunt Mildred, I would much prefer to serve you something that actually gives you pleasure.
So in terms of your white lies, you need to think of the long-term consequences and how important it is that the people you care about trust that what you say is true.
Trust is the bigger issue. I had a dear lifelong friend who I realized early on was a compulsive liar. I just knew to never believe a word he said. So I loved him, but I didn’t trust him. I never depended on him for anything. In some ways, I could see how it served him: he designed his life so that he never had to think about anyone but himself. I get that. It is one way to go. But if your own lies are bugging you, it is probably not the right way for you.
You have to decide for yourself if it is important, in terms of your self-concept, that family, friends, and business partners really trust you. Do you want to be a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) person? It could mean a short-term hit, but may be better in the long run.
When my kids were little, I learned about the concept of under promise/ overdeliver in my coaching program. Essentially, it leads to situations in which you will never disappointment someone. My kids would wheedle me to promise stuff, and I would always say “Look, I can’t make that promise. I’ll do my best to ensure it will actually happen, but a lot of details are out of my hands. When I do make a promise, you can be sure I’ll keep it unless I am in the ER or dead.” I think it gave them a sense of security because they knew with certainty what they could and could not expect.
The other thing to think about is your memory. I always thought I would never be a good spy because my memory is so weirdly selective and I am much more likely to remember the truth and lose track of my lies. So I just decided at a certain point in my life not to lie, because it was the only way I could be 100% certain that I would never be caught out and embarrassed.
There are ways to tell the truth that will minimize hurt feelings. You don’t have to say “I hate meatloaf,” you can just say, “I prefer your lemon chicken.” My husband is a genius—he figured out early on never to answer the “do I look fat in these pants” question. Some questions just have no winning answer. He came up with “those pants aren’t doing you any favors.”
In terms of clients, and pricing, you might want to think about always telling the truth but making special deals for long-term customers. Something along the lines of “We are raising the rates for all new customers but will be offering you your same rate for the next six months because you are such a great customer.”
From a coaching point of view, it is ultimately about choice and cost. Who do you choose to be? What do you want to be responsible for remembering? Do you want to go short-term easy or long-term trusted relationship? What does it cost you to lie? What would it cost you to tell the truth? Is the cost worth the payoff? Right now it seems like the cost may not be worth it to you because it is taking some kind of toll.
In the end, I am a fan of decisions that will decrease the noise in my head even if they inconvenience someone else. Take all of this into consideration and make some decisions.
I think you already know what you want to do.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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