Let’s play detective…


Did you ever talk to someone and get the feeling they weren’t being truthful? Or see someone smile, but suspect it might be fake? You were probably picking up on some non-verbal signals the person was expressing.

I just finished reading an interesting book on non-verbal communication: What Every Body is Saying by Joe Navarro. Mr. Navarro worked for the FBI for years, and ended up becoming an expert in non-verbal communication and body language.

I don’t know about you, but it’s no surprise to me that our bodies will often give off clues to how we are feeling, without us ever having to say a word. It all goes back to our “survival” brain, aka the limbic/mammalian brain.

Our limbic system governs survival, and so will prompt our bodies to take action automatically, without conscious thought. We’ve all heard about the “fight or flight” response when faced with danger. The author points out that the first stage is actually “freeze”, where we assess the threat before deciding on which action to take.

With safety in mind, our limbic brain is constantly assessing the people and situations around us. It will prompt our body to react in specific ways, depending on the environment. Different movements or positions of our feet, legs, torso, arms, and faces will “tell” others about our relative level of comfort or discomfort for an any given situation.

If I were to picture different scenarios in my mind’s eye, they’d look something like this… tense muscles are a sign of discomfort and vice versa.  I would also expect someone feeling happy to have more energy and movement than someone feeling scared or sad.

I think many of us would draw those same conclusions from past experience.  And, according to this book, many of those deductions would be correct. The author talks about the fact that each person has a unique level of expressiveness, and that a change from their typical body language is a clear sign that something is going on.

Aside from those general observations, there are many “signals” you can look for when observing people. One universal indication of discomfort is when an individual moves their hand to their neck or upper chest. With this movement, they literally block access to the heart, lungs and throat as a protective measure.

Another way people reveal fear or discomfort is through physical distance. A person may take a step away from someone who is standing too close.  They may also cross their arms over their torso or hug a pillow or other item to their chest, which effectively creates a barrier.

What about when people are feeling relaxed? You’ll notice that people who enjoy each other’s company will lean towards each other, and their bodies will face and often mirror each other. On the flip side, if someone is leaning away or has their body turned towards another direction, they are probably ready to make an exit.  (Literally or figuratively)

While most people analyze the face to detect feelings, Mr. Navarro points out that this is the worst indicator of emotion. Why? Because we’ve been socialized to “lie” politely since childhood. We’ve been trained to follow good manners and behavior to avoid conflict. Ever put on a fake smile while speaking to someone you aren’t fond of? While we may have learned to use a poker face, the rest of our physiology is giving away how we really feel.

The book goes into much more detail about different postures, gestures and expressions. If this topic caught your interest, I highly recommend reading the book. I loved this topic because I feel like I’ve learned some kind of esoteric information that not everyone knows about. And, I like getting more insight into human nature and decoding the world around me.

What’s your experience been with “reading” people through their body language?





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