If you’re a fan of the US TV show ‘Lie to me’, love the observations of Sherlock and can generally suss out pretty rapidly who to avoid at parties, you’re probably into non-verbal communication, or body language. But is there any truth to it? Is ‘reading’ eye contact, facial expressions and gesturing as reliable as the so-called experts would have us believe?
Common sense or science?
Most body language teaching is common sense. It’s pretty obvious that if you sit with your hand over your mouth and mumble you’re not going to be as effective a communicator as the person who stands up, ensures everyone can see their face and projects beautifully.
But what about those more subtle signals? What does it mean when someone looks away when they’re talking to you? Should we read anything into the way someone rubs their nose at the first mention of money? And does that little laugh at the end of every sentence mean someone is lying, nervous or simply under the illusion that what they’ve said is funny?
Body language myths
The problem with reading body language is that very few of us are trained to do it properly. We make judgements on a few well-worn myths and draw conclusions based on our own preconceptions and biases. Something as simple as meeting someone who looks like our old school bully is enough for us to make assumptions about that person.
Then there’s the danger of reading one sign and jumping to conclusions. For example, we’re told that crossed arms is a sign of defensiveness. But people also cross their arms when they’re cold, comfortable or trying to hide a stain on their shirt. Or you might read gestures such as pointing and hand rubbing as aggressive when they might have been a sign of excitement and enthusiasm.
Dr Carol Kinsey Goman, international speaker and author of The Truth About Lies in the Workplace: How to Spot Liars and How to Deal with Them, says most of us make five major mistakes when attempting to read body language:
- Looking for negative signals
- Not taking context into consideration
- Finding meaning in one gesture only
- Not knowing a person’s ‘normal’ expression and body language
- Evaluating through a preconception or bias
She advises keeping an open mind and looking at the big picture first. If possible, watch people in their relaxed state and establish their normal baseline so you can compare this to how they behave, say, in a meeting. If they’re usually upbeat with big gestures and fast speech and they start avoiding eye contact, holding their arms close to their body and using monosyllabic sentences, they’re probably feeling uncomfortable or unhappy with what’s being discussed.
The important thing is to look for non-verbal communication clusters – you need at least three signals to suggest a particular behaviour or state of mind. Taking up a lot of space in a meeting can be a sign of aggression, or it could simply be a need to display a set of designs or a large amount of paperwork.
The same applies to facial expressions. They too can be very unreliable. In his article 7 Surprising Truths About Body Language, communications coach Nick Morgan says that by the time we reach adulthood most of us have learnt how to mask our true feelings. We learn to adopt a polite smile or bland expression, particularly in business.
But the one thing we can’t hide are our micro expressions – sudden, fleeting ‘leakages’ of true emotion that our faces can’t mask. They’re called micro expressions because they last a fraction of a second and only those trained in looking for them are able to spot them.
The most authoritative expert on the subject is Dr Paul Ekman, the psychologist on which the character of Dr Cal Lightman in ‘Lie to me’ is based.
Over many years of research across different geographical regions and cultures, Paul Ekman discovered seven universal facial signals denoting the seven universal emotions:
These seven facial signals involve the lowering and raising of eyebrows, widening and narrowing of the eyes, tightening and relaxing of the mouth, widening and curling of the lips and wrinkling of the nose. You can see examples of these on the Science of People website.
Displaying emotions openly
In our normal, day-to-day lives, when we have no need to hide our emotions, we display these seven facial expressions and their variations openly. You see them in sport, entertainment and social situations, and don’t need to be a body language expert to spot them. Think about the football player who’s unhappy with the referee’s decision, the new dad holding his baby for the first time, or an audience responding to a violent or harrowing scene in a movie.
However, when we need to put up a ‘nothing wrong here’ front, we’re actually pretty good at masking our emotions. We can adopt open body language, put on a ‘sincere’ smile, look someone straight in the eye and deliver our verbal lies surprisingly easily. It’s only the true body language expert who can spot those tiny micro expressions, those uncontrollable leaks of emotion that give us away.
What came first – the feeling or the expression?
What I find particularly fascinating about Paul Ekman’s work is his findings on the correlation between expression and emotion. He was able to prove that when someone adopts the facial expression denoting one of the seven universal emotions, they actually start to feel the emotion they’re displaying.
Try it yourself. Smile. Hold that smile for 5-10 seconds. Make sure your eyes are ‘smiling’ too. How are you feeling? Happier?
Now draw in your eyebrows slightly, lower the corners of your mouth and push your bottom lip out. Hold for 5-10 seconds. Feeling sad?
Now open your mouth slightly and wrinkle your nose. Hold for 5-10 seconds. Feeling disgusted?
Feel yourself positive
A similar thing happens with posture and gesture. According to Dr Carol Kinsey Goman, we can make ourselves feel and behave more or less confident by simply adopting depressed or powerful postures.
Try it. Sit in the depressed position (arms folded, head lowered, shoulders rounded) and say “I’m feeling really good about myself today”. How does your voice sound? Enthusiastic and powerful? Or bored and flat?
Now adopt the Superman pose. Stand with your legs straight, feet hip distance apart, hands on hips, chest out, head up, chin forward. Hold this pose for a few minutes. According to Dr Carol Goman, our bodies will actually undergo a physiological change. Our testosterone levels will rise, our cortisol (‘stress’ hormone) level will lower and we will feel more confident in our own abilities.
What to look for, what to avoid
While there are too many generalisations about body language, there are a few things worth paying attention to in difficult meetings or negotiations. But remember to look for at least three signals before making judgements.
Feet – even people who appear particularly calm and confident can give away their anxieties with their feet. Look out for tapping, twitching and shaking of the feet under the desk or table.
Hands – most people know that ‘palms up’ shows submission (I’m no threat to you), ‘palms down’ shows authority (I’m stopping you getting ideas above your station) and ‘palms apart and facing each other’ show openness and confidence (I’m open to your suggestions). Ideally, keep your hands on show (I’ve nothing to hide) and avoid touching yourself (e.g. rubbing your face, fiddling with jewellery, touching your neck) as this gives the impression of being anxious – even if you’re not.
Eyes – there’s a lot of nonsense about eyes (i.e. looking up signifies reflection, looking down signifies boredom) but most of us are pretty good at picking up eye clues. The obvious stuff to avoid is holding eye contact with one person for too long (making them feel intimidated), avoiding eye contact altogether (making people think you’ve something to hide) and trying too hard to look interested. Yes, wide eyes and raised eyebrows are a sign of being interested but forcing this expression will make you look more startled than involved – and just a tad scary.
If you want to know more about body language and/or presentation skills, there’s no shortage of online information and training courses. Here are a few of my suggestions.