I’m finishing out the year with a back-to-basics 5-post review of the fundamentals of body language.  In this era of #metoo, it’s incumbent upon all of us to be aware of our body language — what we’re projecting, what other people are receiving — our intention, in short.  If you were thinking of making 2018 the year you finally got conscious of your unconscious behavior, now is the time to review what’s going on and what’s at stake.  Enjoy!

Every face-to-face communication is two conversations, the content and the body language.  Most of us spend a great deal of time preparing the first conversation for our important conversations, meetings, presentations, speeches, negotiations and so on.  The content is what we think about – what takes up all our conscious thought.  Indeed, if you’re like me, you may even spend a fair amount of time after the fact, obsessing about what you might have said, should have said, could have said more effectively.

How much time do you spend preparing the second conversation – the non-verbal one?

That’s the conversation that counts.

Our unconscious minds are whirring away, taking in enormous amounts of data in real time, analyzing intent and emotion and attitude constantly.  We are open or closed, we move closer or further away, we grimace, smile, frown, open our eyes wide or narrow them, raise our eyebrows or lower them, shake our heads yes or no – the list goes on and on.  We don’t have to think consciously about any of it most of the time.  We just talk.  We evaluate intent, interest, commitment, decision, and so on, all unconsciously.

If you’re like most people, as you head out for your workday, you give some thought to what you’re going to wear, and you may recall a rule or two that your mother or a mentor taught you – along the lines of stand up straight…look people in the eye…give them a firm, friendly handshake, and so on, if you have an important meeting or are scheduled to meet someone new.  But that tired old retinue doesn’t even begin to address the complexity of the unconscious nonverbal exchange that people carry on once they’re in sight of one another.

What happens is that when the two conversations are aligned, you can communicate effectively.  But as soon as there is any mis-alignment between words and actions, people believe the nonverbal every time, and your message is sunk, gone, useless, empty, null and void.

In practice, that means that if you’re selling confidence in some form, but you start out with a little nervousness – a very human and typical situation – you won’t be believed.  Most business presentations, for example, are failures because of this simple, yet powerful truth:  the executive doing the talking has some mismatch between his or her content and emotions.  Perhaps you’re there to talk about the rosy future of the company, but internally you’re harboring a few doubts about the viability of the whole thing, especially after the initial angel investment runs out.

Mismatch.  Most of us are not very good actors.  Our bodies will betray that diffidence, the audience will pick up on it, and the game will be lost.

Our bodies betray our feelings

All of us have an extraordinary unconscious ability to read the body language of others, but only in some very basic ways.  We pick up on nervousness, fear, confidence, sexuality, hunger, openness and its opposite, trustworthiness and its opposite, credibility and its opposite, and so on.  These are basic readings on how safe or dangerous, important or disposable, other people are relative to our survival and the survival of the species.

We have mirror neurons that have one job and one job only:  to pick up on the emotional states of the people around us.  We do that in milliseconds, long before conscious thought or speech can take place.  It’s why when your spouse comes home on some momentous day, you ask immediately, “What happened?”  You just know that he or she is bursting with news – you can see it radiating out of them.  That’s the power of the unconscious mind and mirror neurons.

That’s how we evolved to communicate the important stuff of our ancient everyday lives.

That power is limited, however, in a particularly important way for people who want to communicate through speeches, in meetings, and so on.  The unconscious mind is really only asking “what does that behavior mean for me?”

So, in the present, if you’re negotiating with suppliers about the future of the company, or talking about the success of a new product with the engineers, and a lot is riding on the meeting, and you’re a little nervous, the unconscious minds across from you don’t make allowances for those natural jitters.  No; those minds immediately start thinking “danger!” or worse, “fear!” even before you’ve opened your mouth.

Next time: how to align the two conversations.


  1. The following position would be more related to empathy?

    “What happened?” You just know that he or she is bursting with news – you can see it radiating out of them. That’s the power of the unconscious mind and mirror neurons”

    1. Thanks, Elazier — we used to think that it was empathy — noticing how someone else is feeling, and responding accordingly — but the neuroscience has taught us that we’re actually sharing the same emotions with mirror neurons. It’s not noticing, it’s sharing.

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