Or should I say “How to read body language – the right way”
Many people consider themselves “experts” in the field of analyzing the behavior of others.
And I’m not talking about the actual psychologists who study, make all the funny experiments, and write books about it later. I’m talking about people who either saw too many detective films or decided that they’re “natural” for some reason.
I’m sure you know someone like that: someone who will describe in detail all the personal history of someone by looking at him for a quick 10 seconds.
Someone who will comment in your ears that “this guy is X” based on the fact that he stood in some way. In short – they’re the reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes himself. These fellows are the “true calibers” in this field and we can’t compete or argue with them.
This guide is NOT meant for this kind of person, sarcasm put aside, my intention in this guide is to provide some essential guidelines that will help us keep an open mind, and become more accurate in our observations.
The first thing you need to understand about nonverbal communication is the fact that this is not an exact science. We’re talking about feelings and thoughts expressed through our body and voice – things that are hard to measure. So making firm decisions, generalizing information, and judging others by it, is wrong.
This guide is about how to read body language by developing the right mindset for it. Open, inquisitive, creative, and slow to judge – these are the attributes we need to emphasize when trying to analyze the behavior of others.
Read Body Language in Clusters
Think for a second about body language as a regular verbal language. You have single words that when put together – create a sentence that delivers a meaningful message. In body language, we substitute the words for non-verbal cues such as:
PostureFacial expressionsGesturesEye contactPersonal spaceVoiceWhile individually, these “words”, may give you the general idea about the mood or personality of whom you observe, it’s very hard and wrong to assume anything based on that single clue. That’s why you need to seek additional clues and additional “words” to complete the whole sentence and finish the puzzle.
For example (made from a male perspective, but obviously, the idea applies to both genders):
Let’s say you got the impression that a certain woman you’re observing is interested in you.
Because you observed her playing with her hair, and you read that it’s a signal for playfulness and attraction. But is it enough to solely rely on that single sign?
Nope, while your assumption might be correct it’s not enough to go “all-in”.
How her body is positioned? What gestures does she make? Is she leaning forward? Is she giving you a sideways glance?
You can run through your head many other questions before deciding what the most probable interpretation is.
If you wish to become an accurate “reader” you must train yourself to look for a lot of signals. Don’t assume anything from just one sign, otherwise, you’re just being prejudiced, be smarter than that.
How to Observe it All
I remember when I was at the beginning of my way in body language I was so excited to “field test” it on my own, so I tried reading every single clue while making conversation.
A lot of awkward moments and sudden silences.
When interacting with others it can be too distracting to keep note of every nonverbal cue, analyze it, and stay focused on the conversation at the same time.
You can become quite paralyzed and overloaded with information. This is because we usually consciously focus on the verbal message, while our subconscious mind takes care of the nonverbal communication.
The solution is to keep it simple: don’t try to force yourself to absorb and analyze everything. Instead, relax, and tell yourself to be more receptive, don’t try to replace your focus, but rather expand your awareness and be mindful of the present moment.
If you already know what to look for and its meaning, you will receive and analyze it automatically.
And if you don’t – don’t worry, you will get better with time, as it becomes a more natural and flowing exercise for you, just like it happened to me.
The best way in my opinion to start reading body language the easy way, when nothing else is on your mind – Do it when you sit and relax in the park or waiting in line, for example.
Another option is to watch TV on mute and try to understand what’s going on based on the body language of the actors, just turn the volume up once a couple of mins to see if you’re right.
When interacting with others your main aim should be to look for congruency between the words and the body language of the speaker.
Trust your gut feelings to help you understand if the person who speaks means what he says, or not. If he’s not, signs will surface – and you will sense it on some level.
When you will become more proficient you will also be able to analyze your observation and explain to yourself why you felt mistrustful.
Read Body Language in its Context
Another important thing to understand when learning how to read body language is that we’re dealing with people… and they can be very unpredictable at times. You can assume many things based on your previous knowledge and get it completely wrong in the end.
So, how to minimize your mistakes?
First, get your facts right – if you believe that a nod always says “yes” nonverbally, you can get in quite some trouble in Bulgaria – where it means the exact opposite.
The lesson: if you’re not sure, check the manual! Learn what else this gesture might mean, especially when visiting foreign cultures. You can also ask the locals – there is no shame in asking, and people will often be glad to talk about their culture.
After you observe some signals – take a look at the context: Where are you?
Who is the person you are observing? What other elements are present? What are the circumstances?
Different settings can lead to different behaviors; a beach party is not the same as a board meeting because there are different social codes in play.
Don’t expect that everything you know and learn about body language will apply to all circumstances the same way.
I congratulate you on completing the guide on ‘How to read body language the right way, I hope this was insightful and fun because now you’re ready to “jump in” and begin your observations.
Just avoid the pitfalls of the “experts” I mentioned, and you’ll be just fine.