Our bodies can often be more honest than our words when it comes to communicating our thoughts, feelings, and intentions.
When we choose what to say, we’re often using the executive parts of our brains (the “neocortex”). This part of the brain is responsible for conscious attention, language, and thinking, all of which we have a degree of control over with some effort.
Because we have a choice in what we say, this makes it easier to conceal, deceive, and lie with our words.
However, we don’t usually choose our body language, which comes from the automatic parts of our brains (the “limbic system”). This part of the brain is responsible for our emotions, instincts, and gut reactions, all of which we don’t normally have control over.
According to What Every Body Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People, because our body language is more automatic than our speech, this makes it harder to conceal, deceive, and lie about our true thoughts and feelings through our bodies.
Therefore, if you want to learn how to better read people and understand what’s going on inside their minds, you need to listen more to what their bodies are communicating to you. Especially if it doesn’t match up with what they are saying.
Most of us know how to choose our words carefully. We are taught from an early age how to act polite and kind even when we don’t want to – or how to tell a harmless lie to protect someone’s feelings (“Thanks for the birthday gift! I always wanted socks!”)
However, we don’t often pay attention to what our body language is communicating. And because it happens automatically without us deliberately choosing, it’s harder to override how our body responds to a situation. Our bodies rarely lie.
In this article, I will share basic guidelines on what to look for in body language. This can also be a valuable resource in learning what your own body is communicating to others, perhaps without you even realizing it.
The body language of “freeze, flight, or fight”
Our body language is often hard-wired into our nervous system, and many of these behaviors can be traced to our evolutionary past, especially our instinctual “freeze, flight, or fight” response.
When we are stressed or we feel threatened, our “freeze, flight, or fight” response can manifest in many different ways. From an evolutionary perspective, these instincts were crucial for our survival from potential threats and predators.
For example, if our ancestors came into contact with a bear, their first instinct may have been to “freeze.” Movement usually attracts attention. This “freeze” response is a natural impulse to stay hidden or not be seen by a potential threat.
If our “freeze” response doesn’t work, our next impulse would be “flight.” If you know the bear can see you and is coming for you, your best bet would be to start running or to distance yourself from the threat.
And if that “flight” response doesn’t work, we’d have no choice but to “fight.” Our instinct to survive is too strong, even if we are cornered by the bear and survival seems doubtful, we will “fight” if we have to.
Of course, today threats like bears aren’t as likely, but this stress response is still alive and well. And these same instincts of “freeze, flight, or fight” can be interpreted through our body language.
Nonverbal signals of stress and discomfort:
- Freeze – Lack of facial expression, lack of hand gestures, lack of enthusiasm in voice, contracting body posture to appear smaller, “deer in the headlights” look.
- Flight – Torso leaning away from person, feet pointed away, eye-blocking (covering eyes, squinting, avoiding eye contact), placing hands over chest, holding objects in front of you (a purse or cup of coffee), covering skin with extra clothing.
- Fight – Puffing up chest to look bigger, heavy breathing (to stock up on oxygen because adrenaline is pumping), nose flaring, aggressive hand gestures, removing articles of clothing (to free body movement or show off).
These are just a few examples from the book that show how our “freeze, flight, or fight” response can manifest through our body language.
Of course, as Joe Navarro warns throughout the entire book, none of these signals automatically mean a person is stressed or uncomfortable – or that a person has “guilty knowledge” and is hiding something.
You always have to read nonverbal signals in the context of the person and the situation.
For example, a person might just be covering themselves up because they are cold, or they may be speaking in a monotone voice because they are tired, or they are leaning away from the person because they are a generally shy and reserved person.
This is also why it’s very important to always establish a “baseline of behaviors” for each person and ultimately pay attention to changes in their baseline rather than believing a nonverbal signal always means something.
Establish a baseline for each person
Everyone has their own nonverbal “ticks” that are natural to who they are and don’t necessarily indicate anything meaningful.
When a woman is playing with her hair as she talks to a guy, it could potentially mean she is interested in him and finds him attractive – or it could mean she is just a person who likes playing with her hair a lot.
Body language for one person can mean something completely different for another person.
This is why Joe Navarro recommends that we always establish a “baseline” for every person we meet. We need to find out how they act when they are relaxed and comfortable if we want to know what changes to spot when they become stressed and uncomfortable.
He elaborates more on why we need to establish a baseline here:
“To get a handle on the baseline behaviors of the people with whom you regularly interact, you need to note how they look normally, how they typically sit, where they place their hands, the usual position of their feet, their posture and common facial expressions, the tilt of their heads, and even where they generally place or hold possessions, such as a purse. You need to be able to differentiate between their ‘normal’ face and their ‘stressed’ face…Even in a single encounter with someone, you should attempt to note his or her ‘starting position’ at the beginning of your interaction. Establishing a person’s baseline behavior is critical because it allows you to determine when he or she deviates from it, which can be very important and informative.”
Without a baseline, it’s impossible to get any accurate read on a person’s body language. You first need to know how they act naturally before you can notice any change or deviance in their behavior.
Once you establish a baseline of behaviors, then any change in that baseline may indicate a change in thoughts or emotions. Also, changes in frequency or intensity of a “baseline behavior” can indicate a change in a person’s thoughts or emotions as well.
For example, a naturally anxious person may commonly rub their hands on their legs or arms. This is a common “pacifying behavior” that helps soothe our nerves when we are under stress. But if a person starts rubbing their legs more intensely after a certain question or statement, it could mean it triggered an increase in their stress levels that is worth noting.
People can have very different personalities and different biological tendencies, so it’s very important to establish this baseline before making any judgements about a person’s body language.
The body language behind trust and comfort
One of the most important goals of effective body language is to establish trust and comfort with whomever it is you are interacting with.
Not only is this necessary for establishing a baseline, it’s also the best way to increase people’s honesty and truth-telling. Giving people a more comfortable environment to share their thoughts and feelings – without judgments, accusations, or insults – promotes a greater flow of communication.
Building trust is essential for any relationship. Here are some of the key indicators of trust and comfort.
The body language behind trust:
- An open posture – Open and expansive postures, with legs and arms not crossed and a person sitting up straight, have shown to elicit more comfort and rapport than closed and restrictive postures, with legs and arms crossed and a person is slouched over. The first posture is often seen as open and accepting while the second posture is seen as more hiding and distancing. One recent study shows open and expansive postures often make men seem more attractive to women.
- Healthy eye contact – Lots of eye contact is generally a sign of comfort and trust. Unless a person is particularly shy or anxious, avoiding eye contact can often be seen as a sign that a person is hiding something or not interested in the conversation. Lack of eye contact can come off rude and shady. However, prolonged eye contact can also come off threatening or artificial, so it’s okay to look away and look around naturally. But always make sure to meet with the person’s eyes, especially after making an important point or listening to them share something important. Typical eye contact only lasts about 5-7 seconds at a time.
- Genuine smiling – Psychologists have done a good amount of research on “real smiles” vs. “fake smiles,” and most people are very good at telling the difference. People respond very positively to genuine smiles, which use up more muscles in our face – including the zygomatic major muscle which raises the corners of our mouth up, and the orbicularis oculi muscle which raises our cheeks up and creates “crow’s feet” around the eyes (little wrinkles). Genuine smiling and laughter (as well as other expressions of positive emotion) is often an influential factor in building trust and overall like-ability.
- Tasteful touching – Touch is a huge form of nonverbal communication that we often take for granted. Most social interactions begin with a handshake, a hug, or a high five – all of which are greetings that signal respect, friendship, and cooperation. During conversations, touch can be a great way to grab someone’s attention and emphasize an important point. It’s also a common way to provide comfort toward someone who is in physical or emotional pain (like rubbing someone’s upper back or shoulder as they tell you about a break up). It’s also important to remember that different people are comfortable with different levels of touching – and if someone shows signs of discomfort from touching, it’s probably best to pull back a little or stop.
- Mirroring – Mirroring is when we unconsciously copy someone’s body language, posture, or gestures. It often happens outside of our awareness, but it’s a reliable signal that two people are in sync with one another. Mirroring can take many different forms: crossing legs or arms, mimicking a gesture, or taking a sip of a drink at the same time. Mirroring is often a sign of empathizing and being attuned to the other person, so if you find two people mirroring each other it’s likely they have a strong rapport between them. I’ve written before about the the unconscious influence of mirroring if you want to learn more.
- Respecting personal space – Another facet of our body language that we often don’t think about is “proxemics,” which is how the use of space influences our nonverbal communication. When it comes to standing or sitting near someone, the closer two people are is usually influenced by how comfortable they feel with each other. If someone feels someone is too close, or has encroached their “personal space,” they will typically take a step back or lean away to create more distance between themselves. Naturally, romantic couples are comfortable sharing the most intimacy and personal space.
These are the basic signs of trust and comfort on a non-verbal level. Paying attention to these aspects of our body language can be very important when trying to cultivate honesty and rapport with someone.
These principles are also important for establishing a baseline with a person, especially if the goal is to eventually dig into deeper and more provoking conversation (like in a job interview, or criminal interrogation, or meeting your daughter’s fiance for the first time).
Establishing genuine trust is one of the most foundational things to any relationship. Without some element of it, no relationship can work.
Synchronicity in body language and speech
We don’t normally pay attention to body language but with practice it can become a habit that we begin doing automatically.
Because our body can often be more truthful than our speech, focusing more on body language can be one of the most important tools you have in becoming a more effective listener and communicator.
Once you become more attuned to body language, one of the biggest signs that someone is trying to conceal, deceive, or lie to you is when there is a lack of synchronicity between what someone says and what their body says.
Joe Navarro recalls one story in the book where he was interrogating a suspect of a crime. The suspect was telling their alibi story but when they talked about making a right on a certain street, they made a motion with their hands to the left.
Most people wouldn’t have caught the inconsistency, but Navarro did and it raised some suspicion. For this reason, the suspect kept being brought in for interrogation until they eventually confessed to the crime.
In What Every Body Is Saying, Joe Navarro shares many similar examples from his professional life as an FBI agent where his ability to read body language helped him to better understand a person’s mental state and more effectively read a situation. He also combines his findings with valuable research in psychology and neuroscience to help support his ideas.
Overall, this is one of the most comprehensive books on body language you’ll find. Navarro is a natural expert with a strong reputation for being a “human lie detector,” but he also grounds the book in a healthy dose of skepticism, science, and practicality.
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