It doesn’t work with everybody and the people it does work with; it doesn’t necessarily work with them all the time.
Its crap then, you may be thinking. Well no, not at all, it’s highly useful (especially in a Life Coach setting), but you have to know when and where you’re likely to gain credible results.
I’ve read 4 blogs recently on the topic of body language. A couple have been insightful, and a couple less so.
The area that most people fall down on is the tendency to make sweeping generalizations and that can make you look dumber than the guy that said “Blogging is a waste of time and will never catch on” (That was me by the way).
Body Language Myths
If you ever hear anybody make any of the following statements you have my permission to laugh in their face and mock them heartily.
- If somebody touches their nose when they are talking they’re lying
- If somebody breaks eye contact they’re lying
- If somebody folds their arms they are being defensive
- If somebody can’t hold your gaze they are insincere
- Actually it’s more likely they have an itch, although they could be lying
- It’s quite often just the opposite, although again that’s a generalization
- That’s possible, but it could be that they have always done that (think academic types) or even that they are mirroring or matching you (more on that in the next post)
- They may be shy, they may be autistic, they may be highly kinesthetic ,and yes, they may be insincere
The point is that you can’t know any of the above unless you have calibrated the person to start with and by that I mean, formed a baseline of how they normally react in any given situation.
Let’s take the example of somebody that can’t hold your gaze. Can they normally hold your gaze? Can they hold other peoples gaze under normal circumstances?
If the answer to those is yes, then that probably rules out shyness, autism and being kinesthetic. “A-ha! So they are insincere, I knew it all the time” I hear you declare. Well maybe and maybe not.
Body Language Is About Content And Context
You now have to take context and content into consideration.
What is the conversation about? Are they embarrassed? Have they felt slighted and gone into their shell? Have they spotted a shiny new dime on the floor behind you? Are you boring the rear off them? Have you got a big poached egg of a zit on your nose that they are trying to avoid staring at?
Now can you see how easy it is to make mistakes and jump to inaccurate conclusions?
Taking all that information on board simultaneously as well as holding a conversation is tricky at best.
I once had a client say to me that they thought it must be fascinating being able to read peoples body language, especially when out socially.
What? I’m about the most unobservant person you could imagine in a social setting, I am oblivious to stuff that my wife picks up in a heartbeat.
This is work to me and requires a lot of concentration, which is why I seldom see more than 3 face-to-face clients in a day.
I’m absolutely drained by the end and my powers of concentration have slumped to levels only previous measured in very small cannabis smoking fish.
I’ve told you how difficult it can be to read body language, so I suppose I tell you what you can do to give you a better idea of what to look for to have a clearer idea of what people are thinking.
You’re Probably Better At Reading Body Language Than You Think
The fact is that all of the reasons I listed originally (except maybe the cod one) could very well be correct and are useful to watch out for.
You’re probably already very good at reading people you know and the reason for that is you know their baseline and their usual ways of reacting to given situations.
The main thing I look for with clients when trying to ascertain whether they’ll follow through on something and how committed they are is congruence.
A lack of congruity between words and body or even words and their tonality is a dead giveaway that they’re telling me one thing and thinking another.
The latter is fairly easy to spot for anybody that has an ounce of sensory acuity.
Have you ever you asked a sullen partner what was wrong, only to have “Nothing” snapped back at you?
That was a lack of congruity. The tonality and maybe even the body language didn’t correspond to the words that were coming out of his mouth.
The best advice I can give you here is to say ‘Okey Dokey’ and head to the nearest bar for a cocktail with your friends and a great night out. That will usually ease the situation, if not, dump the loser, you can do better anyway.
If on the other hand if he had said “Nothing” in a cheerful voice it would be natural to assume he was being honest although even then it’s not necessarily so.
The Tricky Element Of Reading Body Language
It’s possible that at a conscious level he genuinely believes nothing is wrong but his unconscious is sending all sorts of contradictory signals trying to warn him that you’re on the pull.
I get similar behavior regularly with clients. They agree to something, their voice tonality is compliant too, but they still don’t follow through.
This used to bug the hell out of me when I first started coaching. Now though I’m half expecting it and looking for visual clues that may indicate incongruence so I can deal with it very harshly.
For you delectation, here is a far from exhaustive list of potential ‘tells’ but please remember to calibrate first and be aware that cultural differences can come into play too.
- Slight slump of the shoulders when agreeing with something
- Reddening of the face or neck
- Tensing of muscles in neck/head area or even the arms or hands
- Defocusing of eyes
- Excessive fidgeting or possibly just the opposite
We all do every one of those from time to time so the trick is looking for changes of behavior rather than what a book tells are the giveaway signs.
It can be great fun learning how to read body language, but you need to spend a lot of time studying people, getting it hideously wrong on numerous occasions and making a complete muppet out of yourself from time to time. The choice is yours.