Body Language 30 False Signals

June 1, 2019

Throughout this series on body language, I have stressed that the ability to read signals accurately is both an art and a science. You can be educated to pick up the various clues, but there can be a false signal or one that is easy to misinterpret.

You need to be alert that interpreting body language is not 100% accurate. The best way to guard against incorrect interpretations is to look for clusters where different BL signals are all pointing toward one thing. Lacking a cluster, it becomes a game of probabilities.

What we have not covered yet is when an individual intentionally tries to put you off the scent by sending weak or even conflicting signals. If a set of information appears to be incongruent with what your gut is telling you, be suspicious and do some additional detective work.

For example, in a negotiation situation, if your opponent is pacing back and forth while talking and also rubbing his hands while exhibiting a high blinking rate, you would normally assume the individual was nervous and therefore somewhat vulnerable.

What if actually the person was well schooled in body language and wanted to appear nervous in order to lure you into a trap or to extract some information you would not normally share. Actually, he was supremely confident in his ultimate victory but wanted you to think he was insecure.

That kind of play acting can sometimes be observed at car dealers. Skilled horse traders are not shy about sending an opposite signal to gain an advantage. You need to be aware of the ploy.

Actually, when you catch a dealer using a common negotiating ploy and call him out on it, the results can be quite amusing. For example, you might say, “Oh, you’re not going to play the “good guy – bad guy” game with me, are you? I never fall for that tired old ploy.” Now, all of a sudden, you have the upper hand.

There are other situations where the body language you observe in another person might not be indicative of what that person is feeling toward you. A typical example is when you are talking with someone and she is very short with you. She appears to be angry or upset, yet you cannot think of anything between you that might be upsetting her.

It could be that she just had a falling out with one of her superiors and is still feeling the sting when she is interfacing with you. It is common for body language from one conversation to spill or bleed over into a subsequent conversation with a different person.

Another common situation is when you want to chat with a person about something serious, but the other person is acting hurried or distracted in some way. The body language you observe may have little to do with you and much more to do with the source of the distraction.

If she needs to get the budget revision completed in the next 30 minutes, she is not going to emote a lot of patience if you want to analyze a verbal altercation that happened in the break room yesterday.

You can accurately decode that she does not want to talk with you, but it has little to do with you and everything to do with her other responsibilities.

If a person frequently acts in ways that are different from what might be expected, it can become a trust withdrawal. You need to bring up the matter in a constructive and respectful way to find out what is going on.

In all these cases, if what you observe does not make sense based upon what you know, chances are you don’t know the full story. Back off and wait for a better time to approach the other person. At the very least offer some way for the other person to share the disconnect. Say something like, “It looks like you are in a bind here, maybe it would be better if we chat about my situation at a better time.”

False body language signals are at least annoying and are potentially damaging for a relationship. When you encounter them, try to get to the bottom of what is causing the person to act out.

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.TheTrust 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

Please No Bologna

October 18, 2014

garlic bolognaI advocate that each group of managers and leaders establish a list of behaviors that they intend to follow as a group. Reason: when expected behaviors are vaporware or wishy-washy concepts that are not specific, it is impossible for the team to hold each other accountable for abiding by the rules.

It is a mistake to have a long shopping list of 20-30 rules because it becomes too complicated to remember them all or convey them to each other. I think 5-7 behavioral rules work well for a management team.

One rule I wish every group would adopt is the “No Bologna” rule.

This idea is that we are all on the same team here, and we are not here to play games with each other. Trying to impress the other team members by pulling rank or outsmarting or embarrassing each other are common tactics of low performing management groups. If someone on the team wants to be disruptive, then the opportunity is there to bring down the effectiveness of the entire group by orders of magnitude. I have seen it happen numerous times.

If a team adopts a “No Bologna” rule, then a good technique is to have some kind of signal that can be given when someone forgets to follow the rule. Perhaps it might be a raised index finger or some other recognizable sign, like a “time out” signal that the team has agreed to.

One important concept is that the team needs to agree there will be no negative repercussions for anyone giving the sign, even if it is the boss who is causing the problem.

Having a pre-selected, and safe, signal allows the whole team to police the behaviors, and that permission quickly extinguishes the wrong behavior.

I was once with a team that was world class at making jokes at the expense of each other. The jokes were digs or barbs that were intended to be in jest and always taken that way on the surface. Unfortunately there was damage being done under the surface when people picked on each other, even if it was supposed to be a joke.

I suggested that they invent a hand signal to use when someone made a joke at the expense of another individual in the group. Since this was the third item on their list of rules, they elected to use three fingers to indicate someone violated the rule.

The results were simply amazing. In less than an hour the behavior that had been so firmly engrained in the team’s make up was totally extinguished. It only took a couple times of one member giving the sign to another for people to catch on and stop doing it.

The results in this group were transformational. The little barbs stopped, and from that point on the tone of the group was much more supportive. They still had fun and made jokes; they just did not do it at the expense of others.

Take the time with your team to invent some behavioral rules, and also invent some kind of signal to give if the rule is broken. You will find that it can make a big difference in the culture of the entire team.

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 ( 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.