One of the great advantages of a face-to-face encounter is that we can glean a significant amount of information by watching someone’s posture and movements. This also explains why email and other written correspondence, where there is an absence of body language, is often misunderstood.
Joe Navarro spent his career analyzing nonverbal cues during his interviews with suspects as an FBI agent. He has since written several books on nonverbal communication, including What Every Body Is Saying (HarperCollins, 2008) with Marvin Karlins, PhD. The authors believe that the limbic system of the brain, which plays a key role in regulating emotion and behavior, stimulates certain involuntary movements that stem from our basic survival system (freeze-flight-fight). When you know how to read these involuntary signals, you can pick up clues about how the conversation is going, and adjust your own language and body language as seems appropriate.
Recognize key signs of comfort.
These signs mean a conversation is going well:
- Leaning in indicates genuine interest.
- Touching an arm communicates trust.
- Looking away during a conversation can, in some cases, actually be a sign of comfort, Navarro explains. It may signal the speaker is at ease enough to break eye contact to help focus her thinking.
Recognize key signs of discomfort.
These can all be cues to seek a new topic — unless, of course, you’re trying to pry an uncomfortable truth from someone:
- Rapid eye blinking can signal nervousness.
- Lip compression is a common sign of stress or anxiety.
- High shoulders around the ears (“the turtle effect”) can indicate a lack of confidence and possible embarrassment.
Watch those feet.The lower limbs are the most honest part of the human body, Navarro claims, because they were the human body’s first responders to danger for thousands of years before speech.
- Bouncing feet can be a sign of authentic happiness or excitement, which may follow from the human habit of dancing in celebration. They can also be a sign of impatience or nervousness. Context will suggest the difference.
- The direction of the feet also matters; if one or both are pointed toward the door, it can be a sign that your partner wants out of the conversation or is anxious to go. When someone points his or her feet directly toward you, he or she is most likely engaged.
- Crossing the legs is usually a sign of comfort, because it puts the body off balance — and we are more willing to be off balance when we trust our situation. If both parties have their legs crossed, Navarro says, these people are probably quite comfortable together, because they are also mirroring each other.
This originally appeared as “The Art of Conversation” in the November 2019 issue of Experience Life.