Body Language 1 – New Series on Body Language

November 10, 2018

This is the first in a series of articles on the topic of body language. I normally publish my articles on the weekend but may skip a week now and then. I have no way of knowing how many articles will be in this series, but we might guess it will take over 100 weeks to fully explore this rich and vital topic area.

You can benefit from following this series because the ability to accurately interpret body language signals sent by other people (consciously or unconsciously) will give you a significant advantage in every interface. In addition, knowing what signals you are sending with your own body language will sharpen your skill at communicating with others accurately.

I have been studying Body Language for over 40 years, and I am still on a steep learning curve. The topic area is not only endlessly fascinating, it is vital for understanding other people well regardless of your position.

My curiosity for the topic was piqued in 1975 when I read the book “How to Read a Person Like a Book,” by Gerald Nierengberg and Henry Calero. The book gave a philosophy of how to read the thoughts and intentions of other people, even if you do not pay attention to the words.

My own experience amplified how important body language is when I was stationed in Guadalajara, Mexico, for a couple years early in my career. At first, I had no understanding of the language, but I found it possible to follow the discussions and arguments in meetings simply by paying attention to the voice inflections and body language of the participants.

Another source of understanding was a wonderful DVD produced by Bill Acheson from University of Pittsburgh. His humorous style and deep insights based on research about body language had me spellbound throughout his program entitled, “Advanced Body Language.”

I also became familiar with the work of Albert Mehrabian: a psychology professor at UCLA, who reported a series of experiments in the mid 1960s. There is some confusion about the bottom line, but I understand his results showed that only 7% of meaning comes from the words we use. The other 93% come from a combination of the body language and tone of voice. It is important to point out that Mehrabian’s experiments only hold true when we are talking about our feelings or attitudes. This conclusion was amplified well by Creativity Works in a little cartoon called “Busting the Mehrabian Myth.”

More recently I have used the internet where there are countless primers on body language. One example is Psychology Today, which has many tips for understanding body language. There is also an excellent quiz in Greater Good Magazine for how well you can read facial expressions. For additional resources, just type body language into your search engine, and you will find hundreds of other sites to explore.

These resources are just a sampling of the material I have digested on body language over four decades. The topic is truly endless in its interpretations. In this series, I will share observations from my own work colored by what I have found in the external resources. Sometimes I will agree with the experts, and sometimes I will have a caution or even a contrary view.

Every person on the planet can benefit from becoming more aware of the signals being sent by other people. As a professional, you will be more alert and thus more successful as you gain skill in this mode of communications. We all interpret body language all the time, but the more you know the better your interpretations will be.

In each segment, I will link the specific gesture or topic to the concept of building or maintaining trust, since that is my primary area of professional interest. As we understand and practice greater body language control, we become more authentic. This control helps us build higher trust on a daily basis.

There are some precautions, however, when trying to interpret meaning from body language. It is rather easy to get a false signal and experience some confusion. I will be dealing with some of these problems in my article next week in what I call “The Five Cs of Interpreting Body Language.”

For example, one of the Cs is that body language is culture specific. You cannot be sure that the meaning you ascribe to one type of body language in your culture is the same in other cultures. It can get very complex, so you need to be alert for the traps and keep studying.

I hope you will enjoy this series and benefit from it. Please also share any counterpoints you have to the ones I make. Also please share articles that are helpful to you with others so they can benefit from them. I am still learning and want to have the benefit of your views and observations along the way.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language.” The entire series can be viewed on 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, or 585.392.7763

Communication Complexities

October 14, 2012

Most of us have played the campfire game where a bunch of kids sit around the fire and pass a message from one to the other. It never fails that the message coming out at the end bears little resemblance to what was started.

The same kind of phenomenon is going on when two people try to communicate. There are many steps in the communication process, each of which might be pictured as an individual cub scout sitting around the fire. Here are ten steps that happen each time we say something to someone else:

1. I have a thought that I want to convey to you.

2. I decide how I am going to convey that message to you with my choice of words.

3. I send the message according to my interpretation of how my words will translate my true intent. (I will discuss tone and body language below.)

4. The information goes out from me through the air in sound waves.

5. You then pick up some portion of those waves depending on your level of attention and your physical ability to receive them. You never get them all.

6. You process the information based on your interest in what I am saying and your current level of distraction.

7. You make an interpretation of the information based on your biases and filters about how you perceive the world and what you were expecting me to say.

8. You make a decision how to translate the input into reaction thought patterns in your brain.

9. You make a determination about what you are going to do with the information.

10. You then give some external reaction, comment, or action based on your thoughts.

In each of these steps, there is the potential for tiny modifications of the original thought. Each modification may seem insignificant, but just as in the case with the campfire game, if you add up all of the minute changes, the final meaning may be quite different from the original one.

If the communication is reasonably good, then the thought in my head would be planted in your head roughly intact. If one step in the process modifies the input slightly, the starting point for the next step will be different, and a significant distortion in the final received message is likely.

When you add in the infinite variety of signals included in tone of voice and body language, the complexity goes up exponentially. The complexity involved in getting the words right is a significant challenge, but studies show that the words contain only a tiny fraction of the meaning we get. In 1967, Albert Mehrabian measured that when talking about feelings or emotions, only about 7% of the meaning is contained in the words we use. The remaining 93% of content is in the tone of voice and body language.

If I say to you, “You couldn’t have been any better in that meeting this morning,” the message you will receive is highly dependent on my voice inflection and body language. The same words can have very different, even opposite, meanings.

Body language is so complex because we send signals on many different levels subconsciously. The meaning you get will be colored by my skill at accurately projecting the intent behind the communication and also your skill at picking up the signals and decoding them correctly. There may be cultural differences as well that can make the interpretation even more complex. That is why knowledge of and appreciation for the complexities of body language are essential for good communication.

When you consider the complexity of this process, it is not shocking that a fair percentage of meaning in direct communication does not even hit the target area, let alone accomplish a bulls-eye. I think it is amazing that we get as close as we do.

When miscommunication happens, it is a natural reaction to become frustrated and even angry. We may jump to conclusions about the worthiness of our partner in communication. We say things like, “You are not speaking so I can understand your message,” or “You never listen to me,” or “You just don’t pay attention to what I am saying.” All of these scape-goating expressions may make us feel better by putting the blame on the other person, but they do not identify or rectify the root cause.

What is needed when message content becomes garbled is a sense that the inevitable straying off message has occurred. It is not necessarily the fault of either person. It just may take more than one attempt to communicate a message. To mitigate the problem, we need to patiently verify the message internalized is the same as the message sent. That takes a verification step, either verbally or with body language. Since the original communicator is 100% sure of what he or she thinks was said, it seems redundant to go through a verification ritual, but it is really necessary, especially for important messages.

When communicating with another person, keep in mind the complex process that is going on. Use your powers of observation to detect possible visual or verbal cues that the communication did not work as intended. Try to not blame the other person, because the truth is, it is a system problem, and you are also part of the system. Work on improving your own system both on the sending side and the receiving side.