So, You Can Read Body Language; Now, What?!

Recently, there has been a growing interest in the art of reading and interpreting body language. The accepted adage that words convey only about 7% of what you are trying to communicate, the tone in which those words are used, about 40%, and the physical body language the remainder (53%) of what we communicate in our everyday exchanges is now accepted as increasingly true. These numbers may not be very scientific or even accurate, but have been bandied about for so long and have such a face-value appeal that most take them for granted. Regardless of the actual numbers, their one-sided emphasis on the impact of non-verbal communication is undeniable.

Those who wonder about the importance of body language and question if anything more than the right words and language can help convey what you intend, look around in the realm of our animal kingdom. Inter-species and intra-species exchanges all take place by physical vocabulary. A tiny animal can scare off a beast ten times its size by proper use of its own body language without even making a sound (“words”). They can express their emotions and reactions fluently through this medium and when we watch them in those exchanges it is unmistakable what they are trying to convey to the other party.

If there are animal sounds also expressed as a part of this exchange those sounds are a by-product of the physical stance or vocabulary the animal is trying to signal. In other words when a cat arches up, with a bushed-up tail, hair standing on its back, it inevitably growls at the adversary, but that sound does not come out until the cat has assumed that physical stance. A corollary of this effect is that if you just happen to hear such a growl from a cat you do not need to turn around to look at what stance it has assumed at that moment.

Although there are many articles, videos, and demonstrations about body language interpretation there is no prescriptive guidance from these experts on what to do with it, once you become an “expert” in reading body language. Also, as the Presidential election season gets into high gear, major TV outlets will continue to tap body language experts to educate viewers on what a candidate said and what they are trying to hide. So, watching the more reputable experts may help the readers of this blog understand some unmistakable cues of the body language (physical vocabulary) and how it shows alignment (or misalignment) between what is said and what is unwittingly conveyed.

The purpose of this blog is not to catalog physical vocabulary and to educate its readers on how to interpret these visual cues when someone is engaged in an important exchange. The literature is rich with such catalogs and descriptions to educate the uninitiated. Rather, the purpose of this blog is to equip the readers on what to do when you spot these unmistakable cues in important exchanges that may benefit you in turning that conversation with an outcome beneficial to you.

In typical exchanges there are at least two parties. One of them is likely to be in a superior position (an interviewer, boss, teacher, customer, or a traffic cop writing you a ticket). So, they typically have an upper hand in calling you on your body language than you do on theirs. So, how do you turn the tables and make the body language exchange work for you? Here are some tips to improve your advantage in such exchanges:
1. Calming down: In encounters such as those listed here it is natural for you to be nervous, anxious, defensive, and complaisant. So, the first order of business is to calm down and look and feel confident without looking hostile or aggressive (especially with a traffic cop). If you come across as agitated, nervous, anxious, or diffident the other person may wonder what are you trying to hide or what are you so anxious about. Take a few deep breaths (from your diaphragm) and calm your nerves. Smile. If they see you in a calm, confident state the exchange can go much more in the direction that you desire. Your cowering in fear empowers the other party to ratchet up their game a notch and you are providing them that advantage by your reaction to their presence. In such exchanges (including interviews) a certain degree of anxiety or nervousness is expected, so if you are able overcome that feeling you have an advantage. This is a learned skill, so practice this calm and confident stance in such anxiety-provoking encounters.
2. Building momentum: As you engage with the other person build your presence through exchanges that mirror the other person’s body language. If that person is relaxed you mirror that state, if that person is smiling you sport a similar smile on your face. If the person looks serious and glum start with a smile and see if that person responds in kind. Otherwise, assume a more serious stance. Try cracking a smile now and then throughout your exchange, it will help defuse that tension because of the person’s demeanor.
3. Being defensive: If the other person is in a superior position (an interviewer) do not question how they read your body language, but acknowledge that reading as valid. For example, if the interviewer says, You looked puzzled when I asked you that question; why was that? Do not say, No, I was not puzzled, but I was just thinking of a good answer for it. Instead, say, You are correct, I was a bit puzzled because I thought you were asking me about my first project, which we discussed before. Then go on to say, I quickly realized that you were asking about the first project in the previous company.
4. Reading THEIR body language: When you see clear signals of their physical vocabulary giving you cues for you to reframe your response pay more attention to that than you would to what they are saying verbally. As an example, if you are responding to their question and see that person getting uncomfortable, impatient, or annoyed do not continue on that track. Do not ask, Is this making you uncomfortable? But, pause and say, Let me rephrase what I just told you: I did not just terminate that errant employee, but first worked with HR on a corrective performance plan and then escalated that approach as he continued to slip with no end in sight.
5. Managing your body language: When you are in a meeting with person of superior status, do not offend them by asserting your presence beyond what is reasonable. One example of this is how much space you claim as you start interacting with this person. Taking on too much physical space—folding your legs, standing akimbo, putting both your hands on your head, leaning back, etc.—can signal to the other person that you are being “offensive” in your stance. This can be construed as an aggressive behavior and disrespectful. So, manage your space and gestures in deference with the perceived status gap that exists between the two of you. Just as you are expected to be polite in your use of the language with them be polite with your physical vocabulary, too.
Being able to read body language is a good skill that you can learn and benefit from. As the next step use some of the tips from this blog prescriptively to drive the conversation in a way to benefit you, even when you are not in the superior position in an exchange.

Good luck!

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