The third step in brain mastery involves learning how to read the body language of others around you.
There is a huge body of misinformation that has built up around reading body language. The research approach for most of the last 40 years studied gestures as if they had specific meaning. In other words, if you put your hand to your chin, you were thinking – in all circumstances – and so on.
The problem with that is not that such a reading of a particular gesture isn’t sometimes correct. The problem is that gestures are ambiguous, fluid, and multi-determined. So focusing on a particular gesture and insisting that it has a specific, singular meaning, will get you into trouble. That hand on the chin may mean you’re thinking, or it may mean you’re tired and resting your head in your hands. Or it may mean you’re scratching an itch surreptitiously and trying to look wise while doing so.
A more useful way to think about gestures is as an early warning system for intent, emotion, and mood. We gesture because our unconscious minds push us to do so with an emotion, an intent, or a desire that our conscious minds are not aware of until after the gesture has started. Our bodies know what we want before our conscious minds do.
That’s counter-intuitive, because of course the only mind we’re aware of is our conscious one, but brain science in the last decade bears this out. Studies of decision-making show that we make decisions unconsciously, and act on them physically before we’re aware consciously that we’ve done so. The delay can be up to 9 seconds.
So it’s useful to watch others’ body language to know what they’re thinking, desiring, and feeling – before they do.
But don’t try to learn gestures as if they were a one-to-one code, or there was an encyclopedia of gestures to be memorized.
Instead, bring the power of your unconscious mind to bear on the problem.
We are all unconscious experts in reading other people’s intentions toward us. We can react with blinding speed, literally before we can think, to duck a punch that some drunken lout throws in our direction, or to hop out of the way of an oncoming object. That’s a good thing; it’s unconscious, and it works. But we are far less adept in general at noting consciously what everyone else in a meeting is really thinking, say, or evaluating who the chief ringleaders are in the party that’s against your plan for expansion, for example.
Yet those intentions are there to see. The problem is that, far from too little information about how others are feeling, you actually get too much. People are constantly shifting, twitching, looking up, down, and sideways, raising their eyebrows, narrowing their eyes, scratching their noses. What does it all mean? How can you possibly monitor all of it in a room of ten people, or many more, and do so in time to react appropriately?
You can’t. It is too much information, too fast, and there is too much chaff intermixed with the wheat. Is Jack folding his arms because he’s resisting your best attempts to talk the whole group into changing direction, or is he merely cold? You can make yourself crazy trying to consciously monitor the constantly changing body signals of a roomful of people to little avail, because by the time you sort it all out, the conversation has moved on. Meanwhile, you haven’t been attending to the content of the conversation as closely as you probably need to.
Is there a way around this dilemma of needing to monitor gigabytes of streaming data about people’s intentions consciously and rapidly, while at the same paying close attention to the content of the conversations? There is. If, rather than monitoring the data generally, you look for confirmation of your own hypotheses about intention, then you can speed up and narrow the stream of information you need to take in.
So the real question is this: If you want to become a conscious expert in reading other people’s unconscious expression of their intent, how do you form hypotheses about that expression and confirm or reject them? The answer is to restrict your possible hypotheses to a few that you’ve identified before your meeting, conversation, or presentation. Then you can pose the single question to your subconscious mind and use that unconscious expertise we all have to give you a clear, reliable answer.
There are five possible continua along which to locate others’ intents:
You can, of course, add your own for specific situations that these don’t cover, but you’ll find that these work with most human interactions where you need to monitor body language in detail.
What you do, then, is simply ask your unconscious the question: is this person open or closed to me? Then wait for your unconscious to provide the answer. At first, the activity will seem strange and you won’t be sure of the answer you’re getting. But with a little practice, you’ll find that your unconscious will begin to answer you clearly and swiftly.