How to decode other people’s body language
We are all unconscious experts in reading other people’s intentions toward us. We evolved these skills in the woolly mammoth era because our lives depended on them, and the unconscious mind works must faster than the conscious mind.
But we are not very good at making this unconscious awareness conscious.
We can react with blinding speed, literally before we can think about it consciously, to duck a punch that some drunken lout throws in our direction, or to hop out of the way of an oncoming object. Remember former President Bush and the Iraqi shoe?
That’s a good thing; it’s unconscious, and it works. But we are far less adept in general at noting consciously what everyone else in a meeting is really thinking, say, or evaluating who the chief ringleaders are in the party that’s against your plan for expansion, for example.
Yet those intentions are there to see, in the body language. The problem is that, far from too little information about what others are intending, we actually get too much. People are constantly shifting, twitching, looking up, down, and sideways, raising their eyebrows, narrowing their eyes, scratching their noses. What does it all mean? How can you possibly monitor all of it in a room of ten people, or many more, and do so in time to react appropriately?
You can’t. It is too much information, coming at us too fast, and there is too much chaff intermixed with the wheat. Is Jane stroking her chin because she’s pondering your proposal? Or is she merely scratching an itchy chin as surreptitiously as she can? Is Jack folding his arms because he’s resisting your best attempts to talk the whole group into changing direction, or is he merely cold?
You can make yourself crazy trying to consciously monitor the constantly changing body signals of a roomful of people to little avail, because by the time you sort it all out, the conversation has moved on. Meanwhile, you haven’t been attending to the content of the conversation as closely as you probably need to.
Is there a way around this dilemma of needing to monitor gigabytes of streaming data about people’s intentions consciously and rapidly, while at the same paying close attention to the content of the conversations?
There is. If, rather than monitoring the data generally, you look for confirmation of your own hypotheses about intention, then you can speed up and narrow the stream of information you need to take in.
So the real question is this: If you want to become a conscious expert in reading other people’s unconscious expression of their intent, how do you form hypotheses about that expression and confirm or reject them? The answer is to restrict your possible hypotheses to a few that you’ve identified before your meeting, conversation, or presentation. Then you can pose the single question to your subconscious mind and use that unconscious expertise we all have to give you a clear, reliable answer.
So let’s get started. Here are five, common, useful ways to think about what other people intend:
- Open — Closed
- Sincere — Insincere
- Allied — Opposed
- Powerful — Subservient
- Committed — Uncommitted
You can, of course, add your own for specific situations that these don’t cover, but you’ll find that these work with a great percentage of human interactions where you need to monitor body language in detail.
I’ll examine each continuum in turn. The idea is to spend some time thinking about the nonverbal conversation in an upcoming interaction — an important one — and choose the continuum that most closely fits what you’re worried about or interested in, or represents the crux of the issue between you and the others involved.
Then, as I’ll discuss, you let the power of your unconscious mind go to work and — as if by magic — you’ll get a quick, accurate reading of what others are intending. It takes a little practice, but it will change the way you ‘read’ others and it will improve your communications ability.
Open vs Closed
The first possibility to check about others’ intentions is the most basic one — their degree of openness (or its opposite). It’s the most basic, because if people are open to each other, communication can begin. If they are not, nothing good can happen.
With a little practice, you should be able to size people up very quickly along these lines on an almost automatic basis. Don’t look for an instant read, however — what people call ‘thin slicing’ these days. In practice, it takes some time to establish a baseline of behavior with each new person you meet. The point is not to be able to perform this task instantly, but to be able to size someone up within a few minutes, with high reliability, in terms of whether this person is open to you.
Let’s begin with the face. First, notice the forehead. Is it wrinkled or smooth? For most of us, our habitual attitude is expressed in our foreheads, especially after about age 30. The more wrinkles and the deeper they are, the more habitually open a person is likely to be.
That’s because a characteristic gesture of the open person is to raise the eyebrows, wrinkling the forehead, when looking for a response. Over the years, if you spend a good deal of time openly inviting response, you’ll get forehead wrinkles. There are fakers, and there’s Botox, but on the whole the forehead is a reliable sign of overall orientation. That does not mean that a person will be open or closed in any particular instance, but it does give you a sense of his or her general receptivity.
Beyond the forehead, notice the mobility of the eyebrows. How often and far do they move? People tend to raise their eyebrows when they’re interacting with others: looking for a response, asking a question, taking you in, and so on. So the amount and distance of motion are indicators of a general level of openness, and in the specific instance, when the eyebrows are up, openness to your input in the moment. Again, the movement may be in response to a question that the person has asked you, but it’s openness nonetheless.
Now go down to the eyes themselves. Are they narrowed or wide open? You need to establish a baseline of how the person behaves in fairly neutral situations. That will give you an idea of whether the particular case is one of openness. Generally people open their eyes wider when they are interested in something or someone and close them when they are not, or are actively suspicious or wary of events, people, or actions.
Because people are so active with their eyes, you need to be careful to rule out environmental reasons. Is a bright light shining in the person’s face? That may account for narrowed eyes. It may not be because you’ve just offered the person a used car at an unbeatable price. If you can, look at the pupils. How open or shut are they? Openness indicates interest, attraction, and arousal; the opposite indicates the reverse. Of course, the general level of lighting in the environment also affects the pupils, so you need to establish a norm.
Flaring nostrils are the stuff of romance novels and books about horses. Nevertheless, there may be truth to the descriptions connecting sexual attraction to this part of the face, especially if research about pheromones and attraction turns out to be true.
It is certainly the case that a wrinkled nose can indicate disgust, or at the very least disgust at a bad smell. Extreme facial gestures like these are hard to miss and easily brought to the conscious. It is the subtler ones you should be more concerned about. By the time someone gets to the point of wrinkling his nose, he’s probably already told you how he feels or is just about to do so.
The mouth is capable of a thousand variations on the basic retinue of smile, frown, surprise, fear, and so on. In simple terms, look for the smile. That’s the universally understood sign of approval from others, and thus people who are smiling are more likely to be open to you than people who are neutral or frowning. But of course people can smile for other reasons; once again context is important to be able to distinguish a rigid, unhappy, or false smile from a relaxed, natural one that is welcoming and open.
For the torso, nearness and direction signal degrees of openness. Fundamentally, the closer and more directly oriented the other’s torso is toward you, the more open that person is, and the farther away and more turned away from you, the more closed.
What can hand gestures tell us about openness? Not those obvious one like the peace signal, or the middle finger. Those are known as ‘emblems’. No, the ones we all make when we talk — the apparently meaningless accompaniment to speech, as we wave our hands to think of a word, or emphasize a point.
These gestures signal intent all the time. When people reach toward us with open gestures, for example, they’re usually signaling openness. Only rarely is it something else, like a left hook to the jaw. An embrace, the ultimate open gesture, is a combination of open hand gestures and open torso.
Openness can be read in the hand itself as well. What is it doing? Is it clenched or nervously kneading the other hand? Is it twitchy or attempting to conceal itself in a pocket? Hands speak an endless and fascinating language; they are marvelous little weathervanes to the state of the soul within and its intents. If you make a practice of watching other people’s hands, you’ll learn about the state of their nerves, their defensiveness, their confidence, their anger, their happiness, their sorrow, their interest or boredom, in addition to their openness or lack thereof.
Many books on body language purport to give specific meanings of specific gestures, but this is a fool’s game. Each gesture can have a multitude of meanings. We cross our arms, to pick a simple example, because we’re defensive, to be sure, but also because we’re tired, we’re cold, or we want to hide an expanding belly.
But if you’re looking for the answer to a specific question, then you can put your unconscious expertise to work for you. Ask yourself, is this person open or closed toward me? Then start looking for the clues that you need to make a determination.
The best way to do this is to pose the question to your subconscious mind first. Ask yourself at the beginning of the conversation, open or closed? and wait for your intuition about the matter to become clear. Once you have a sense of the situation, you can start looking consciously for clues to confirm or negate your initial reading.
Suppose you’re at a job interview, for example, and you want to know what your chances of success are. The first question you might want to consider is whether you are even in the running. In other words, is this a real interview or a courtesy interview? So begin the interview asking yourself, is this person open or closed to me? If the answer comes back closed, then you can be reasonably sure that someone else already has the job.
If the person seems open, you can turn on your energy and charm. You may want to be on the lookout for a change in that reading. What if the interviewer has been open for, say, the first forty-five minutes of the interview and then suddenly starts to send out closed signals? It might be time to change tactics or cut the interview short.
Has the interviewer made up her mind in the negative, or is she simply signaling that the time is up? You may want to ask some specific process questions (out loud) to see, such as, “What’s the next step? How will you go about making a decision?” Then the question to ask your unconscious mind is, open or closed? If the answer is given in a closed way, you probably won’t get the job. If the body language at that point is open, you are still in the running. A bolder question in that same situation might be to ask, “How do I stack up against the other applicants?’ Be prepared for both an answer you like and one you may not like!
Because adults become more or less adept in controlling their faces and upper bodies, it’s worth looking at the legs and feet for interesting counter signals. Often someone has composed his or her face in a friendly greeting, but the legs and feet (and the torso too) may tell a different story. The legs may be crossed away from you, signaling a closed orientation, or the torso may be twisted away, or the other person may simply increase the distance, even slightly, between the two of you.
What about lying? — Sincere vs Insincere
The best way to get a handle on the difficult question of spotting a lie is with your unconscious mind. Look at the whole face and torso, and ask yourself, sincere or insincere? Then let your subconscious go to work. It’s very good at picking up whether the whole picture adds up to a consistent expression. For example, is the mouth set in a smile but the eyes are cold? Insincere. Are the eyes fixed on you with beguiling stillness but the hands are nervously intertwining? Insincere.
The next most important place to look after the face is the orientation of the head. Most of us, when we lie, turn our head away or tip it up or down so as to move it away from the other person. That’s why you don’t want to focus too much on specific gestures, but rather let your unconscious mind pick up on the general situation. If you look too much at the eyes, for example, you may miss the fact that the head is turned down and to one side. So again, ask yourself, is this person sincere or insincere? And then take in the whole person. You’ll be able to tell most of the time.
For those of you who are detail-oriented, you’ll want to know some of the specific ‘tells’ anyway. Beyond the eyes and face, look for the torso to be turned away (lying) or toward you (truth). See if there are defensive gestures from the hands and arms and signs of agitation from the hands and fingers. And look for contradictory behavior from the legs and feet. If your spouse says, “No, everything’s fine,” but his feet are oriented strangely or his legs are awkwardly crossed away from you, those are signs to check into his story further.
Also listen for signs of strain in the voice. If the voice is carefully controlled or a little higher pitched than usual, the person may be attempting to conceal something. The world’s best expert on lying, Paul Ekman, has found that people who are lying slow down (in an effort to control) their voice and even their facial gestures and other mannerisms. But ordinary people can also rush to get through an awkward-feeling moment. So the main thing to look for is variation from the norm, which you should know well.
Spotting a liar in a group of strangers is a completely different exercise. Ekman has made a career out of detecting micro-expressions that signal concealed underlying emotions. But it’s an imprecise science (unlike on the fun but inaccurate TV show, ‘Lie to Me’) because without much more detail, you don’t know why the person is concealing the emotion. Is it fear? Rage? Excitement? To understand that, you have to get to know the person better, and that takes time.
Allied vs Opposed
How do you tell whether someone is on your side or not? The basic body language to look for to determine whether people are allied to you or opposed is overall physical stance — their orientation. This makes for entertaining people watching. Once you’re on to this aspect of behavior, you’ll find it’s easy to pick up.
Quite simply, people who are in agreement tend to mirror one another’s behavior. One will lead, and the other will follow. This is especially easy to tell when there are three people present, and you want to figure out who’s on your side and who isn’t. Look for the one who has the same basic body orientation as you. For a test, move and see if the other person follows suit in the next thirty seconds.
Spouses, partners, and lovers usually mirror one another’s physical orientation when they’re together or with others and they’re in basic agreement. It’s interesting to watch couples for signs of mirroring — and its opposite. You can often detect trouble in the relationship before the couple is aware of it.
What happens in mirroring is more profound than just agreement or even connection, however. Because persuasion is an emotional as well as an intellectual activity, it comes from deep within the brain. When we agree with someone, we do so with our whole bodies. You can use this to drive agreement and create persuasion. Adopt a posture, and watch for others to adopt it. Once they have, change it slightly. If the others go along, you’re well on your way to persuading the room.
Your control of the body language in the room will both create and test the strength of your persuasion (or lack thereof). The reason is that people’s bodies tell them what they’re thinking, not the other way around. It’s counterintuitive but true. Our minds basically say to ourselves, I’m aligned physically with this person, so I must agree with her. That’s because we don’t like to think of ourselves as acting with no reason.
You must use this control of the physical orientation of other people with sophistication and subtlety. It must be combined with a series of steps that include other kinds of consensus building. It won’t work merely to come into a room, adopt a physical position, and expect everyone else to adopt your intellectual position too.
First, build agreement by adopting their positions, dealing with their concerns, and generally building on your openness to them and their openness to you. Do this work carefully while you’re talking through the issues important to the situation. What you’re doing is aligning your two conversations and using both of them to persuade the others in the room. It takes considerable practice to do this with subtlety and effectiveness, but once you master it, you’ll find that your ability to persuade others will increase enormously.
Powerful vs Subservient
The story of power in a room is written in space and height. Look for the alpha. He or she will be the highest person in the room if at all possible. It’s why kings and queens have had thrones on daises since they began ruling others.
I used to ask CEOs I worked with to test this out by convening a meeting at a large conference table with the CEO highly visible in the middle. CEOs typically take the middle of the table, and sometimes the head, to express their power anyway. Next, I instructed the CEO to sit tall in her seat at the start, but then to gradually sink down in the chair by sliding forward very, very slowly. Imperceptibly, in fact, to the conscious mind. The result? Those in the room who wanted to express their subservience to the CEO unconsciously sank lower and lower in order not to upstage the boss. CEOs have reported to me that they’ve barely been able to contain their laughter as they’ve watched everyone at the table slide slowly toward the floor.
Powerful people also take up more space: they splay their legs out, or their arms, or hog more space in the room. It’s why important people get bigger hotel rooms than lesser folk, and it’s why tall people are statistically more likely to rise higher in their professions than shorter people.
Powerful people employ a host of subtler signals of their dominance, from interrupting lesser mortals to talking more, to indulging in longer pauses. They make more eye contact, or less, depending on their choice. In fact, they dominate the eye contact and the physical touch — all the ballet of the second conversation. It’s why it takes training to meet Queen Elizabeth, and when you leave, you apparently have to back out of the room. All of that is simply to express her authority over the rest of us.
Powerful people may withdraw physically from a conversation, controlling its tempo and showing their power with this ability. I’ve seen people in a meeting lean back and put their hands behind their head in order to express their superiority over the rest of the room. It’s arrogant but effective.
Power in nonverbal display is all about controlling your own behavior and that of others. Once again, this is something that your unconscious is exquisitely attuned to. You will immediately know when you are in the presence of someone who believes she is powerful because of all the signals I’ve described, all of which you are unconsciously aware.
Committed vs Uncommitted
Commitment: this is the moment that you close the sale, ink the deal, get the job, get the ‘go ahead’. It’s a crucial moment, and it’s essential to be able to spot it so that you don’t do the wrong thing at the crucial moment.
What does it look like?
When people are committed, they lean in to you. They are open, sometimes subservient, always sincere, and usually well aligned. It begins with the eyes: they’re open wide, and focused on you. The face is similarly open. Most of all, it will be close to yours. Closing the sale is all about closing the distance. It’s why car sales reps constantly shake your hand. They’re trying their hardest to build commitment, and they know that the mind follows the body.
The torso is open and closer to you than it is if not committed. There is no opposing chatter from the hands and arms, legs and feet. The person or persons may well be mirroring you if it’s possible in the circumstances.
The act of commitment often is signaled with a change in body language, indicating a decision has been made. Look for it — the yea or nay. At that point, put your unconscious mind into high gear. Ask yourself, is this person committed? You’ll be able to tell very quickly if you see all the positive affect I’ve described — or its opposite.
Most of all, you’ll feel comfortable. Commitment is a positive statement, and because we’re social creatures, we humans like to achieve it. We’re uncomfortable when it doesn’t exist. So you can detect it by the general sense of comfort that you get when it happens. That’s your unconscious telling you, yes, it’s all good. They’re going along with this!
In essence, commitment is a kind of connection, and one that makes us feel good. You’ll know it when you see it, if you work with your subconscious. When it’s not there, people express their discomfort with all sorts of agitation, discordant body language, and attempts to leave.
Of course, some cultures cover these awkward moments with an excess of agreement, positive body language, and superficial attempts at commitment. When Westerners first do business in Asia, for example, they often find themselves misreading the Asian politeness and desire to save face for commitment. This is one instance when unconscious expertise can let you down. The studies show that the basic body language is initially the same around the world, but it can quickly be covered with culturally determined body language nanoseconds later. Without a lot of practice, the differences can be hard to spot.
This is not the place for an extended discussion of cultural differences, but there are a number of excellent references on the subject. It’s best to take cultures on one by one, when you’re going to visit another country, rather than trying to learn them all at once. Precisely because the body language we send out is deeply conditioned by our upbringings, when it isn’t biological, it’s hard to change.
In the end, basic authenticity is the same around the world. As I discuss in more depth in Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma, we humans are a social, empathetic species, and we crave the basic connection with others that comes from authenticity. All successful communication begins there.