How to Baseline Someone’s Behavior in 3 Simple Steps

What does someone look like when they’re lying? If only there was an easy, one-size-fits-all answer to this question. The truth is, every liar is different. Fortunately, there are numerous facial expressions, body language and verbal habits that researchers and investigators have linked to deception. Definitive patterns exist.

As liespotters, the key to using these nonverbal and verbal cues is to compare them with someone’s normal behavior—their baseline. This word may be new to you, but the concept won’t be. We do it subconsciously all the time. Learn to baseline so if the time comes to evaluate someone’s truthfulness, you have something to compare against.

Baselining Basics: Three Simple Steps

  1. Begin baselining with the very first handshake.

    We don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, and we don’t get a second chance to observe a first impression either. The first moments when we meet someone new present the best opportunity for forming a baseline of their behavior.

    A skilled interviewer or salesperson will instantly begin sizing up potential hires or customers, beginning with—or even before—the first handshake. Sally in HR or Steve the sales guy have already begun evaluating whether a hire or a deal is going to happen, by observing posture, gaze and vocal quality from the first handshake. We all can and should be doing this, both in business and social situations, making mental notes of people’s gestures and reactions and listening more carefully all the time.

    There is nothing invasive about carefully observing the people with whom we’re talking. We collect this information subconsciously already; the leap here is to make it a more conscious effort so we don’t forget it all once we leave the room.

    Baselining is nothing more than collecting useful details about how a person normally reacts under normal conditions to small talk, personal questions, jokes. It should be part of every meet-and-greet we do—with business associates, clients, neighbors, friends.

  2. Ask a series of questions to elicit different reactions.

    Baselining is most useful when we can gather a person’s reactions to a few different situations. But not every setting will expose the full range of behaviors for us to baseline. Meeting someone at a funeral, for example, means we probably won’t be gauging how they react to jokes. Yet in many cases we can steer a conversation to elicit the sort of reactions we want to note.

    We can offer a genuine compliment, say something surprising, or politely challenge a person’s opinion to trigger a reaction that we can observe and file away. Did Emma blush and look down to the left after the compliment? Did Damon visibly bristle and clench his fist when he was challenged? The reactions we observe in nonthreatening circumstances will inform our future liespotting efforts.

    When baselining, you’re looking to capture their normal vocal tone and speed, standing and seated posture, nervous tics, style of laugh, use of hand gestures, and how they express emotions of surprise and excitement.


  3. Keep a record of the baseline behavior in your mental Rolodex.

    Writing down the details of a person’s baseline may sound a tad excessive — and it is. Who do you think you are, anyway? … Colombo? The lady on Murder, She Wrote?

    Remembering someone’s baseline details, however, is crucial to any future liespotting you may need to do. So you do want to file away the baseline information you observe at every meeting. Short of building a behavior dossier on all your coworkers, neighbors and friends, what can you do?

    The answer is simple: When you meet someone for the first time, mentally file their baseline behavior with the record you make of their name and other vital stats: job title, hometown, spouse, number of kids, and so on. Even if you’re not good with names—and most of us are not without practicing at it—the conscious effort to gather and store the extra baseline info will give you additional vivid details by which to remember a person.

    Want to know what your own baseline looks like? Ask your spouse or a trusted friend to tell you what your default expressions and body language look like. The information may help you become a more effective communicator.

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