Body Language 67 Afraid

February 14, 2020

A person who is experiencing fear may show it in several different ways with his or her body language.

In this article I will highlight the most common ways people express fear without speaking. First, we need to understand that there are an infinite number of different sources and magnitudes of fear.

You might be afraid that the rumor you heard about a layoff this month could be true. Depending on your seniority and several other factors, you could be afraid of losing your job.

On the other extreme, I may be convinced there is a thief with a gun in my apartment about to enter the room where I am trying to sleep.

The type and intensity of the body language signals will depend not only on the reason I am afraid but also my current ability to tolerate uncertainty and not show it. This spectrum of signals makes the interpretation of one’s body language signals a chancy endeavor.

As with all body language, when trying to interpret what you see, you need to take into account several factors:

1. Is there a cluster of signals that all point in the same direction? If so, that will greatly enhance a correct diagnosis

2. Is this person from a culture different from the one I am most familiar with? Although fear is a primal feeling, how it is expressed in body language can be unique to a specific culture. The likelihood of misinterpretation goes up dramatically if you are observing a person from a different culture than your own.

3. Is the observed body language as a result of a specific stimulus or is it a habitual pattern for this person?

4. If there is a specific stimulus, is the reaction immediately following the stimulus, or is there a delayed reaction?

5. Is the person picking up and mimicking another person who is making an overt signal of fear? If so, the gesture may not be genuine; it could be an imitation.

6. Is the person making an attempt to hide the emotion, or is the reaction obvious to everyone?

7. Is the person consciously attempting to look a certain way or is the reaction an unconscious and authentic gesture, at least at first?

These are the main factors that will influence the specific gesture in reaction to fear. Here are some of the common facial and body reactions to fear that we have all seen at some point.

Contorted Facial Muscles

The narrowing of the eyebrows and wrinkling of the forehead is a pretty good give away that the person is experiencing fear. You need to be careful though, because the same facial contortions are common with anger. Look for more corroborating signals.

Hands to the mouth

Usually both hands will go to the mouth when a person is experiencing high fear. It may take the form of symbolically biting the nails, or it may be to actually cover the mouth and eyes. The person is trying to disappear from sight.

Arms outstretched

Another gesture of fear is a kind of blocking motion made by outstretching the arms in front of the person with palms facing the thing being blocked. Here, the idea is to put up a figurative wall between yourself and the offending person, animal, or thing. In this gesture, the head may be lowered and shoulders raised as we cower in fear. The posture is to make yourself a smaller target.

Behind an object or blanket

Children will often express fear by hiding behind something, like a couch cushion or a blanket, then the gesture is to peek out ever-so-slightly from behind the safety of the screen. Adults often hide behind other items or excuses. If one is afraid of the outcome of an effort, the fear may be manifest in procrastination.

Open mouth

The mouth is usually open when a person is experiencing high fear. The idea is to give a symbolic primal scream, even if the sound is inaudible. People in fear do not look tight lipped, instead they normally will be showing their teeth.

In a business environment, be alert to less obvious, but symbolically equivalent signs of fear in a person. Reach out to determine the nature of the fear and attempt to engage the person in some dialog about it.

The verbalization of fear and the brainstorming of ways to mitigate the angst are both ways to calm the person down. Helping another person who is in mild fear regain his equilibrium is an excellent way to build rapport and trust.

Adults develop patterns to help them deal with fear in ways that may not show in overt body language. They use compensating actions, and if you can recognize these signs, you can address the underlying cause to help the person, even though no specific physical signals are evident.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”


Body Language 54 Doubt

November 16, 2019

The physical manifestations of doubt are pretty easy to spot. We have a special way of contorting our face and upper torso to convey the message.

This kind of analysis is very much culturally specific, as are many body language gestures. This article is focused on facial and upper torso expressions of doubt in a Western Society.

We need to pay close attention when we see signs of doubt, because it has a direct impact on the trust between people. I will describe some tips to use at the end of this article.

While the facial postures below may be observed in association with various other emotions in some circumstances, these are the ones that are typically involved with an expression of doubt. When you see many of these gestures at the same time in a cluster, it sends a strong message conveying doubt by the person doing them.

Eyebrows

Typically, you will see one eyebrow up and the other normal or slightly down (if the doubt has a tinge of anger associated with it). Sometimes both eyebrows can be raised at the same time. That would normally signal surprise along with doubt.

If both eyebrows are down and furrowed, that indicates anger or frustration with some amount of doubt.

Forehead

The forehead of a person who is experiencing doubt will often be wrinkled, especially if the eyebrows are raised.

Head Tilted

Usually the head will be slightly tilted for a person who is experiencing doubt. The gesture goes along with a pondering stance that suggests analysis on the part of the person with feelings of doubt. You will rarely see a doubtful person with a completely erect head.

Eyes

For a person who is experiencing doubt, the eyes are usually looking to the side, and often upward. The connotation is that the person is trying to reason something but cannot reconcile it in his or her mind. The eyes looking sideways and upward indicate mental activity trying to rationalize what is going on.

Nose

The nose is neutral when a person is in doubt. For example, you will not see a person wrinkle his nose as part of this gesture. If you see that, the other person is likely experiencing some form of disgust along with the doubt.

Mouth

There is a lot going on with the mouth for a person in doubt. Most likely you will see the mouth pulled slightly to one side. The mouth may be open, showing teeth, or completely closed. If the upper lip is curled up, then the doubt is usually accompanied by some disgust or distrust.

The corners of the mouth may be down as a sign of bewilderment or negative feelings about what is going on.

Chin

If the doubt is a part of puzzlement, then the chin is often stroked or grabbed by one hand.

Hands

Sometimes you can see the hands held up with palms up to either side of the body. The connotation there is “what the heck is going on?”

The gestures associated with doubt are numerous and usually easy to decode. Look for a cluster of the ones mentioned above. When you see it in a Western Society, you can be pretty sure the person is having feelings of doubt.

What to do

If you see this cluster of gestures, do not just ignore it. Instead, try to gently understand the genesis of the concern. Ask open-ended questions that will give the other person a safe way to describe what is bothering him or her. Listen carefully to the response, and do not try to correct the person on the spot.

Ponder the input and see if you can create a helpful discussion about what alternative approaches might have led to a different outcome. Thank the person sincerely for sharing some insight about what you did that you might not have known otherwise.

These sincere opportunities for closure can go a long way toward making a large trust deposit with the other person. Congratulations! You took a negative situation and turned it into a trust-building moment between you and the other person.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”


Body Language 20 Language of the Eyes

March 23, 2019

My article last week was about body language with the eyes. I kept the focus (no pun intended) on three aspects of ways we communicate with our eyes. They were: 1) eye contact, 2) pupil dilation, and 3) blinking rate. There are a host of other ways we communicate with gestures around the eyes, and this article will deal with several of them, even though no single blog article can cover them all.

Eyebrows

The eyebrows can add many meanings that you likely will recognize. When you see a person raise both eyebrows at the same time, it generally is a signal of surprise and it is normally a positive gesture, as in the attached photo. We see this look on the faces of kids on Christmas Day when they look out the window and see a pony in the back yard.

Raising both eyebrows can also be a gesture of greeting between people. The meaning is that I am awake and happy to see you. If the mouth is in the form of an “O” rather than a smile, then the gesture usually means shock rather than pleasure.

Lowering both eyebrows is a negative gesture which often shows some level of aggression, concern, or intensity. This is often referred to as “furrowed” eyebrows with the accompanying mouth configuration tight-lipped and straight. You never see furrowed eyebrows along with a pleasant smile. Reason, it is nearly impossible to make these two gestures at the same time. If you doubt that, try it now.

Lowering only one eyebrow often means disapproval or suspicion. You would see this expression on the face of a parent if a child claims to have not eaten any cookies when there is chocolate all over his mouth. In the adult world, you might see this expression when a foreman tells his manager that all of his employees were taking the standard ten minutes for the morning break.

Glances

There are suggested meanings for all kinds of glances, up, down, left, right. I would be a bit careful at being certain of a particular meaning with just one signal. Look for corroborating evidence with mouth or hand gestures. Here are the classic meanings as recorded by several authors.

Looking up – If a person lowers her head and glances upward, it often is a sign of submission. In many of the pictures of Princess Diana, you can observe that look.

Looking up and sideways – This gesture has the connotation of recalling something. Often it will be a picture or visual image that is being remembered when using this configuration. This gesture may also accompany a person who is trying to imagine something pleasant.

Looking down – This gesture has many possible meanings. The most common meaning is some form of shame. The individual may be averting his eyes due to guilt at having told a falsehood. The gesture also accompanies the recall of a feeling or emotion. A third possible meaning is that the person is confused or is searching for a word. A person may use this gesture in shutting down when feeling abused.

Looking left – This gesture may occur when a person is recalling a sound or verbal input.

Looking right – Most often this gesture is seen when a person is recalling an emotion or feeling.

Darting Eyes – Sometimes you will observe a person with an unsteady gaze. Shifting or darting eyes is an evasive gesture. The person is likely looking for some form of escape. It will most likely result in a lowering of trust, because you can instinctively sense the person is holding back in some way. Look at the eyes of most politicians when they are trying to answer a challenging question. The look is unmistakable.

These guidelines are rough at best, because glancing gestures are fleeting and may come in clusters. Also, if a person is left handed, the meanings could be reversed.

Other Common Gestures

Several eye gestures are common to most people and are rather easy to interpret. Here are a few examples you will probably recognize.

Rolling the eyes – This gesture is one of sarcasm. The person rolling his eyes may be bored, or just incredulous. Eye rolling is almost always done in response to someone else’s verbal input, and it is rarely directed at the perpetrator. It is a means of communicating to a third party that you are not buying into what is being proposed. The literal meaning would be “I cannot believe this guy is wasting our time with this drivel.”

Children often use this gesture as a form of exasperation or not wanting to accept what the parent is telling them. In this case, the gesture is usually aimed directly at the parent rather than a third party.

Squinting – Tightening the facial muscles in order to narrow the eye opening to a slit gives the appearance of wincing or finding the information hard to believe. Obviously, there can be a physiological cause as in a person looking in the direction of the sun.

Weeping – Tears may flow if a person is in great pain or is experiencing a peak period of joy. Do not assume you know what a person is thinking just because tears are flowing. I recall singing a song for a music teacher once. When I was done, she was weeping visibly. I assumed she either hated or loved my voice. It turned out that her crying had nothing to do with me. The particular song I sang was a courting song her husband used to sing to her. She was reliving happier days gone by.

Winking – This gesture is not that common, but it has gotten many people in trouble. The most common meaning of the gesture is a kind of bonding with a person across the room. You might wink at a fellow worker when he is advocating for your position in an argument with your boss. The danger is that this gesture may be misinterpreted as a sexual advance, a play for affection, or a lack of sincerity.

Looking down your nose – This gesture is a condescending one intended to make the recipient feel inferior. The extreme case of this gesture is if a person is wearing glasses and looks over them.

The best way to improve your interpretation accuracy is to become more conscious of the eye gestures you see in others. You have seen them all your life, but the majority of the time your interpretation has been subconscious. By increasing the intensity of observation, you can make your conscious mind become more aware of how you are processing the eye gestures of others. In turn, that will increase your conscious level of the signals you are sending to others all day, and it will improve your accuracy of communication.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language.” The entire series can be viewed on https://www.leadergrow.com/articles/categories/35-body-language 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 600 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