Successful Supervisor 37 – Mastering Body Language

July 30, 2017

The topic of Body Language has fascinated me for decades. There is no way to cover the topic completely in a short blog article, but I can give some tips that may help supervisors know how to prevent misreading BL and how to control their own so the message they are sending with their body is consistent with their verbal message.

I will also share some resources at the end in case this brief introduction whets the appetite for further study.

Body language points us in the direction of what people are feeling, but it is not an exact science. A person could make a gesture that is a random act or something not indicative of the classical meaning.

For example, if a person touches the side of his nose when giving a response, the experts would say that he is lying or exaggerating. Alternatively, it could simply mean that he had an itchy nose at that moment.

Taking singular pieces of body language and assigning specific meaning can result in some wrong conclusions. So how do we know which things are the real meaning?

In interpreting body language, keep the following five “C’s” in mind, and you will improve your accuracy at reading people.

1. Context

Pay attention to what is going on around the person. Body language is contextual and can vary greatly due to ambient conditions.

Folded arms at a cocktail party might suggest the person is being defensive, but folded arms in a snow storm is more likely to be the result of the person being cold.

2. Congruence

Do the words and body language match? If we are faced with two signals, one from the words that are spoken and another from the body language, then we will likely believe the latter.

For example, if I ask a coworker if he is angry with me and he glares at me with a scowl and clenches his fists while he says “NO!,” I am most likely to believe he is angry with me, even though what he said denied it.

3. Clusters

If we see a single bit of body language, we might suspect that it is an indication of something, but it is hard to tell. However, if I see an individual exhibit several signals of a particular body language cue, then I can be very sure of the conclusion.

For example, if a person is wringing his hands and shuffling his feet while wrinkling his forehead and not maintaining eye contact, I can be pretty sure the person is feeling anxious.

4. Consistency

We all have habitual patterns of body language that we revert to when nothing special is going on. While you are sitting in a classroom or in church, you will habitually cross your legs in a certain way or touch your face in a certain spot.

It is best to not interpret body language that is habitual as some kind of signal, but if the habitual position changes, especially as a result of some comment or other stimulus, then the change in body language is probably a signal.

For example, if a person is listening to me and suddenly starts pulling on his ear lobe as I shift the conversation to the new employee, he is likely showing high interest in what I am saying.

5. Culture

Body language and proximity (which is a part of BL) vary greatly from one region of a country to another and even more so from one country to another.

If I am a USA-based business person and I am doing some work with a person from Saudi Arabia, I may find that he stands a little too close for my comfort level.

Likewise if I meet an Eskimo, I might interpret his head shaking side to side as a “no” response, when he is actually telling me “yes.”

Beyond these five general rules, there are thousands of facial expressions and other cues relative to body language. The more you know these cues the better off you will be at interpreting their meaning accurately.

A few of my favorite resources:

1. A very old book, but still available is “How to Read a Person Like a Book” by Nierenberg.
2. A great online test of your ability to read facial expressions accurately.
3. Online resource Body Language Dictionary
4. A DVD of Bill Acheson; a body language expert from University of Pittsburgh

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on http://www.leadergrow.com/articles/supervision or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


Your Body Language Gives Away Intent

May 23, 2015

Business handshakeBrandon was a 22 year old I happened to meet at a Speed Networking event at my local Chamber of Commerce. His ability to connect with me instantly was impressive.

Without saying a word, and even before we shook hands, he let me know that he was truly anxious to meet me. It was so powerful that when we did shake hands a second or two later, rather than say “It’s nice to meet you,” I said, “Congratulations, you are going to be a very wealthy man.”

The gift that young man had was an amazing control of the body language he exhibited when we first met. He made great eye contact and showed by his facial expression that he truly wanted to get to know me. It was the kind of expression you see on the face of that one puppy in the pen at the pet shop that just captures your heart instantly.

Our body language gives away what is going on in the back of our mind. It is extremely difficult to hide our pattern of thoughts. It just comes out of every part of our body naturally.

I have been studying body language for about 40 years, and there is still a lot to learn. The topic is extremely engaging and insightful. The language we use to communicate with others using facial and body expression is far more complex and intricate than any verbal language is.

We know many of the signals intuitively, but we also miss many important signals that are there but hidden to us.

This article is not intended to be an exhaustive treatise on the complexities of body language. Rather it is to recognize the amazing power of being able to read signals and a warning not to rely on body language signals too much.

The truth is that understanding body language correctly requires more than just knowing the particular body positions and their meaning. You can never be certain if a particular kind of body language is a true signal, just a random event, or a misleading gesture.

The way to increase the odds of interpreting body language correctly is to study what the different signals mean, then apply the following areas to your interpretation. The five C’s will help you interpret body language correctly.

1. Context –

You must consider what is going on around the signal, what happened just before, where the person is located, what else is going on, etc. For example, if I am talking with you and I scratch my nose, it probably means I have an itch on my nose.

But, if I am on the witness stand and have not touched my nose for an hour, it is a different context. When the prosecutor asks me about the bloody knife, and my finger goes to the side of my nose as I answer the question, that is a strong indication that I am lying or at least exaggerating.

2. Clusters

Since there are many body language signals going on with each person at any given time, you should not ascribe heavy meaning to any single one. Instead, look for patterns or clusters.

I can witness you rubbing your palms, rapid blinking, hair on arms standing out, foot movement, heavy swallowing, and shifting of weight. I might also notice more perspiration than normal. With a cluster of signals like these, I can be certain you are experiencing anxiety.

3. Congruence

If your words, your tone of voice, and your body language are telling me the same thing, chances are I am getting a true signal. When you are saying one thing, but your body language shows a different pattern, I need to be alert that you may be trying to deceive me in some way.

I need to be vigilant and test more for congruence. If there are several indications of incongruence, it could signal that you are not telling me the full truth.

4. Consistency

Look for patterns in people’s behavior. If a student in one of my classes habitually likes to sit with her arms folded because that is a comfortable position for her, then that is a baseline. I should not think it is a signal when she folds her arms.

For another person who rarely folds his arms, if I notice he does so immediately after making a statement about his boss, I might suspect he is being defensive and look for other signals to corroborate the suspicion.

5. Culture

People tend to forget that cultural differences in body language are huge. For example, if you are an Eskimo, moving your head up and down means “no,” while shaking your head from side to side means “yes.”

An obvious difference in culture is the issue of proximity. When talking with a person from a middle eastern culture, expect the gap between you and the other person to be significantly less than when addressing a person from a western culture.

Correct interpretation of body language needs to factor in these five areas. Taking these things into account allows us to be more accurate when we read meaning to body language.

Become a student of body language yourself. You will find it is a vital skill, and the more you develop it the more you will improve both your ability to understand the intentions of others but also send more consistent signals yourself.


Learn Body Language

June 3, 2012

What is the most frequent employee complaint on Quality-of-Life surveys conducted in organizations? It is not enough effective communication (Chilingerhan, Credit Union Times, June 22, 2011). That is frustrating to managers and leaders who spend a lot of time and energy trying to communicate well. It turns out that nearly all of us have been saddled with a significant gap in our personal education. Most of us have never taken a course on how to read body language.

It is well known that humans communicate more through body language and tone of voice than they do with the words used to send messages (Mehrabian, A. 2009 “Silent Messages: A Wealth of Information About Nonverbal Communication”). It would be smart for all of us to take several courses in school on reading and controlling body language. Unfortunately most people are never exposed to formal training in this vital skill.

I find the topic of body language to be incredibly interesting, and I teach it in all my classes. I am an avid student myself trying to learn more all the time. I believe knowing this “language” is vital because, like it or not, we are sending hundreds of messages to others all the time that give them the opportunity to correctly or incorrectly decode our thoughts and intentions.
On the receiving side, we are bombarded with conscious and subconscious cues coming from other people. If we are not sensitive to the meaning being communicated, then we can take actions or make statements that are unwise, insensitive, or just plain dangerous.

It is relatively easy to get an education in body language if one is interested. There are numerous books on it and many good video disks that can illustrate the complexity. One of my favorite treatments is a DVD called “Advanced Body Language,” by Bill Acheson (www.seminarsonDVD.com). There are also many short Youtube videos that can help as well. Just go to Google and type “body language” for a full array of insightful help. Many of these resources are fun because they frequently lampoon the missed or mixed signals we sent to each other.

It is important to take the context and pattern of body language into account when we try to interpret meaning, For example, one typical piece of body language is when a person is talking and he puts his finger up to the side of his nose. That is generally thought to be a sign of exaggerating or lying, but it could just mean that the person has an itch. In fact, in Bill Acheson’s video, he makes frequent gestures with a finger to the side of his nose. It is a habitual gesture for him, and he does it unconsciously. Imagine, a full time expert on body language giving an ambiguous signal like that roughly every five minutes. It demonstrates two points 1) do not interpret all signals literally, and 2) you are often not conscious of the body language signals you are sending out.

The point I am making here is that if you are not studying and learning all you can about body language, then your education is incomplete and your communication is hampered. Get online and start learning all you can about the signals we send each other. Become sensitive to the cultural differences in body language because each culture has a unique set of signals that need to be factored into any dealings.

Do not take every piece of body language as a literal signal. Rather, look for patterns that can explain what is behind the words. Consider the context around the body language signal so that its meaning is more precise. You will find yourself becoming a lifelong student of body language, and your level of communication, both going out and coming to you to be vastly richer.


5 C’s of Body Language

January 8, 2012

The study of body language has fascinated me for years. There are over 30,000 known signals in body language and facial expression that we interpret, mostly subconsciously. It is a favorite game at cocktail parties, or in other public venues, to try to uncover the meaning ascribed to certain types of body language.

The truth is that understanding body language correctly requires more than just knowing the particular body positions and their meaning. You can never be certain if a particular kind of body language is a true signal or just a random event or a misleading gesture. The way to increase the odds of interpreting body language correctly is to study what the different signals mean, then apply the following 5 C’s to your interpretation:

1. Context

You must consider what is going on around the signal, what happened just before, where the person is located, what else is going on, etc. For example, if I am talking with you and I scratch my nose, it will usually means I have an itch on my nose. But, if I am on the witness stand and have not touched my nose for an hour, it is a different context. When the prosecutor asks me about the bloody knife, and my finger goes to the side of my nose as I answer the question, that is a strong indication that I am lying or at least exaggerating.

2. Clusters

Since there are dozens of body language signals going on with each person at any given time, you should not ascribe heavy meaning to any single one. Instead, look for clusters. If I see 5 indications in your body language that you are experiencing anxiety, the symptoms start to add up. I can witness you rubbing your palms, rapid blinking, hair on arms standing out, foot movement, heavy swallowing, and shifting of weight. I might also notice more perspiration than normal. With signals like these, I can be pretty certain you are anxious.

3. Congruence

If your words, your tone of voice, and your body language are telling me the same thing, chances are I am getting a true signal. When you are saying one thing, but your body language shows a different pattern, I need to be alert that you may be trying to deceive me in some way. I need to be vigilant and test more for congruence. If there are several indications of incongruence, I should conclude you are not telling me the full truth.

4. Consistency

Look for patterns in people’s behavior. I might have you as a student in my class and notice you are holding your head up with the palm of your hand. I might conclude you are bored with this lecture, but as I look for consistency I see a pattern. You have shown other signs of fatigue since you arrived for class this evening. A few questions might confirm that you were up all last night with the baby. It had nothing to do with the quality of my lecture.

5. Culture

People tend to forget that cultural differences in body language are huge. For example, if you are an Eskimo, moving your head up and down means “no,” while shaking your head from side to side means “yes.” An obvious difference in culture is the issue of proximity. When talking with a person from a middle eastern culture, expect the gap between you and the other person to be significantly less than when addressing a person from a western culture.

It is critical to understand the body language patterns in the culture you are currently in, as they may significantly modify the message. A great book to help you sort out these differences, particularly if you travel a lot of business, is Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in Sixty Countries, by Terri Morrison, Wayne Conway, and George Borden, Ph.D.

Once you become adept at reading body language, you will be more likely to read the intentions and meaning of other people and also improve your own ability to project your intentions accurately. It is one of the best ways to improve your communication skills.