There’s a good deal of nonsense written about body language. The idea most often expressed is that experts in the field can give a stranger a quick glance or two and instantly decode their innermost secrets. There was a TV show a few years back, Lie To Me, which popularized this idea, with a clever consultant able to walk past people on the street and instantly tell that they were cheaters or forgers or terrorists.
Sadly, it’s just not true. But what is true is actually more interesting. We are all experts in body language, already, ourselves, but not in the way that the articles or the TV show suggest.
Here’s how it really works. We are all unconscious experts in reading other people’s intentions toward us, in a few specific ways. We evolved these skills in the woolly mammoth era because our lives depended on them, and the unconscious mind works must faster than the conscious mind.
So we can tell, right away, with a pretty good reliability rate, the answer to the question our unconscious minds ask of the strangers we meet, “Friend or foe?”
And where we really shine is with people that we know well – our friends and family. We can tell right away if our spouse is out of sorts, or Uncle Jim is about to launch into one of his rants again. Our unconscious minds can sort this kind of body language out because we have lots of hours of observed behavior with people close to us.
But we are not very good at making all this unconscious awareness conscious.
And 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.
That would be useful, wouldn’t it?
Those intentions are there to see, in the body language. The problem is that, far from too little information about what others are intending, we 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, coming at us too fast, and there is too much chaff intermixed with the wheat. Is the boss stroking her chin because she’s pondering your proposal? Or is she merely scratching an itchy chin as surreptitiously as she can? Is Avi folding his arms because he’s unhappy with your idea and wants to go another way, 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.
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 keep up with all the data you’re suddenly going to begin to notice?
The answer is to think about one issue at a time. Let’s go back to Avi. Let’s say you want to figure out if he’s about to argue against your idea or not. You want to know if he’s open or closed to the idea. So, ask yourself that question. But allow your whole mind to play with the answer. Involve both your unconscious and conscious thought processes. Don’t push for the answer; let the question hang there as you listen to Avi and watch him and everyone else in the room.
The idea is to throw your unconscious net a little wider, rather than focusing on those folded arms alone. To understand what Avi is thinking, you need to take in the sum total of his gestures. With your unconscious mind. Which you then tap into by listening carefully.
With a little practice, and knowledge over time about your colleagues thrown in, you can get much, much sharper about figuring out their intentions. If you listen for it, your mind will start whispering clues to you. With fine-tuning of the powerful awareness you already possess, you can become a conscious body language expert.
Not like on TV. Better.