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!

As I noted in Part 1, if you’re negotiating with suppliers, for example, 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.

Build trust by being open

That’s why it’s so important to give some real thought to your body language before it betrays you.  You’ll be tempted to move in some way to try to discharge that nervous energy.  So lean in, instead of away, because that builds trust.

You’ll be tempted to clutch your hands protectively in front of your stomach, because of all the eyes on you, and you feel self-conscious.  Instead, keep your torso open and pointed toward the others.  That similarly builds trust and makes them feel safe.  You’ll be tempted to speak in a breathy, or nasal voice (of which you’ll be completely unaware) because the adrenaline coursing through your system will be pushing you to take short, shallow breaths.  Instead, take deep, slow breaths from the belly.  The one you’re not hiding from the rest of the people in the room.

Great presenters, negotiators, and leaders choreograph their conversations, meetings and speeches by planning where and how they’re going to stand, move, and sit in order to ensure that their messages and their body language tell roughly the same story.  And they do the hard work of becoming self-aware of their persona, what they look like to other people, so that they don’t send inadvertent nonverbal messages that contradict their content.

Every communication is two conversations.

The unconscious mind can process something like eleven million bits of information per second. At any given time, as much as ten million of those bits can be connected to processing visual information. By contrast, our paltry conscious minds, those little thinking machines we’re so proud of, can only handle something like forty bits per second. The unconscious mind is also where both emotions and decisions are processed. It’s where the real action is, for humans.

We’re just not consciously aware of most of that activity most of the time.

That’s how our ancient, superlative ability to communicate works, and indeed how it works so well.

Let’s look a little deeper.

Most of us think that we’re relatively rational beings. We get a thought, we decide to act on it, we instruct our bodies to move, and they do. So, for example, we wake up in the morning and think, “I need a cup of coffee.” Our brain then instructs our body to go to the kitchen, prepare the coffee, get the mug out of the kitchen cabinet, and drink ourselves into wakefulness.

Most of our mental life is unconscious

But it doesn’t actually work that way much of the time. We get unconscious impulses for a lot of the important things that drive us: relationships, safety, emotional needs, fears, desires, meeting new people, seeing old friends, and so on. Our bodies immediately start to act on these impulses, and then, a bit later, we form a conscious thought about what we’re doing.

It’s as though our rational minds are explaining to ourselves after the fact why we’re doing something. That intent comes from somewhere deep in the brain, beneath where conscious thought originates, in the unconscious mind. And that intent governs a good deal of our supposedly rational lives.  It’s concerned with a few basic questions; foremost among them, how to stay alive.  After safety, it’s food, sex, and power, roughly in that order.

Next time, what to do with your hands!


  1. I love these thoughts of yours, Nick.
    Years ago I learned about the power of body language from Pat and Linda Parelli, and also from my very best teacher ever, a Thoroughbred horse named Ginger.
    Pat and Linda taught that the conversation with your horse starts the minute the animal can see you. If you drive up to the barn and Ginger is, say, 100 yards away in the paddock with her friends, she will see you get out of your car. If you’re not careful she’ll think, “Oh no, here she comes again. I wonder what she’s going to do to me today.” Or, ” How can I outsmart her tricks today?” Or, “Look at her, she doesn’t even know that right now I am reading her intentions. I can see what she wants from me. I’d better start preparing my response!”
    This is what I learned from Ginger. As soon as you see the friend you are coming to meet, your lover, your opponent, who ever, stop in your tracks. Assess what their body language is telling you. Assess the surroundings. Adjust yourself, and send a proper body-language greeting from the distance. What ever you send, even if the person (or animal) doesn’t look toward you with their eyes, their body will start to respond.
    Nick you are right. These things make all the difference in the world. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth — I love your example of stopping in your tracks, because in another context, I like to coach people to “listen with your whole body.” What you’re describing is exactly that. So often we pretend to listen while really protecting ourselves by turning slightly away, or looking away, or using protective gestures. A great example, and well taught, Ginger!

  2. Nick,

    This is an incredible article. Your focus on how powerful our minds are, paired with the art of presentation is brilliant. We all find ourselves spending so much time honing one skill or aspect and ignoring the things we consider less important or don’t understand. It’s the small things that can derail our efforts.

    Great article, as always relevant and insightful.


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