Life gets busy. Has What Every Body is Saying been gathering dust on your bookshelf? Instead, pick up the key ideas now.
We’re scratching the surface here. If you don’t already have the book, order the book or get the audiobook for free to learn the juicy details.
Written by a former FBI counterintelligence officer who first became an expert in nonverbal communication as a non-English speaking child immigrant from Cuba to the U.S. before using it to catch countless criminals, What Every Body Is Saying is one of the books you’ll hear most often recommended for learning how to decode body language. Expanding your ability to decode body language is an incredibly important factor in your capacity to deduce motivations in others or establish trust with them – and perhaps more importantly, it is an invaluable skill to use certain body language yourself to do things such as communicate authority or feel more confident.
As you read through this summary, it is often helpful to act out the body language yourself, both to understand exactly what it is and recognize it in others, and to give yourself a mental note so you can identify when you unconsciously exhibit it yourself.
1. & 2. Mastering the Secrets of Nonverbal Communication & Living Our Own Limbic Legacy
The author repeats the often-quoted statistic that nonverbal behavior is 60 to 65% of all communication. He explains why this is through a concept known as triune brain theory, which classifies our mind into the three areas of the reptilian brain (stem), mammalian brain (limbic), and human brain (neocortex). While the classification is not technically accurate, it is useful in conceptualizing how our minds control our actions. This book is primarily concerned with the mammalian brain, which controls the most expression of our nonverbal behavior. The key here is to understand that everything we do, even the most seemingly insignificant scratch or lean, is directed by some portion of the brain. By observing these behaviors, we can learn to interpret what the mammalian brain is communicating.
The communications of the limbic system are extremely reliable because they operate outside of our conscious thought, showing our true response to our environment. In fact, there are only three responses to distress or threats that humans have: freeze, flight, and fight. We express these responses differently than our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but the way our brains react has not changed.
Examples of the freeze response:
- Someone being chastised will become very still
- Someone being interviewed will often exhibit shallow breathing
- Shoplifters will subconsciously try to hide their physical presence by keeping their arms close by their side and hunching slightly
Examples of the flight response (distancing nonverbal behaviors):
- Leaning away from the table
- Placing an object on your lap
- Turning your feet toward the nearest exit
- Closing or rubbing your eyes
- Putting your hand on your face
Examples of the fight response:
- Puffing out your chest
- Violating personal space
- Aggressive posture
These three types of limbic responses are often followed by pacifying behaviors, which are representative of the brain directing the body to provide comforting actions in order to calm down and restore normal conditions. By observing these pacifying behaviors, you can detect when someone has reacted negatively to some situation – perhaps something you have said or done.
Examples of pacifying behaviors:
- Covering the neck, such as playing with a necklace or adjusting a tie
- Rubbing your forehead
- Touching or rubbing your neck
- Touching or rubbing your cheek
- Exhaling with your cheeks puffed out
- The “leg cleanser” – when sitting, pushing your hands from the top of your legs toward your knees
- The “ventilator” – pulling on your shirt collar (for men) or tossing the back of your hair up (for women)
There are many more examples, often involving touching your face, neck, or hair, and sometimes things like whistling or excessive yawning. These behaviors indicate that someone is uneasy or stressed about something, and while the cause is not always straightforward (e.g., these aren’t guaranteed indicators of lying), they are helpful because people generally think nothing of them and make no conscious effort to hide them.
3. Getting a Leg Up on Body Language: Nonverbals of the Feet and Legs
The author then begins to go into detail about various nonverbal communication, starting with the feet because they are actually the most “honest” part of the body, and the easiest to read. He attributes this to the fact that the feet are usually the first body part to be engaged by the freeze, flight, or fight limbic response. This is in direct contrast to how we are used to reading people, which is from the face down. By learning to reverse the process, you will find it to be much easier to read people.
Another reason that the feet are the most honest part of the body is that since childhood, most people’s efforts to disguise their emotions or intentions have always focused on the face. Think about some common parental reprimands: “Fix your face,” or “At least look happy when your cousins stop by.” Most people have given comparatively little attention from their neocortexes to their feet.
1. “Happy feet”. Bouncing or wiggling your feet often indicates excitement or satisfaction. Be careful, though; this behavior can also communicate impatience. Like most nonverbal signals, you must understand the behavior in its context. While you can’t always see someone’s feet, this movement will show in their torso or shoulders even when they are sitting.
2. Feet shifting direction. You will often find yourself turning your feet away from things you don’t want or like. People will generally control the direction of their head and torso, but their feet will point away from you if they don’t want to be talking to you. This is useful when you approach someone and aren’t sure if they really want to be speaking to you. If you are already talking to someone and their foot turns away, it might indicate that they dislike something you said, or that they simply need to leave in order to make their next appointment. Again, calibrate based on context.
3. The knee clasp. When a person who is sitting places both hands on his knees (often also shifting his weight forward), he is ready to leave.
4. Gravity-defying behaviors. These behaviors indicate happiness or excitement and include pointing one foot up when standing, or simply sitting or standing a little taller. The “starter’s position,” where someone lifts his heel, may indicate interest, increased engagement, or a readiness to go.
5. The leg splay. This is a territorial display, in which you spread your feet in an effort to establish control of a situation. If you want to diffuse a situation and notice you are standing in this manner, bring your feet a little closer together.
6. Standing leg cross. The direct contrast to the leg splay is crossing your ankles when standing. This indicates that you are very comfortable, anticipating no need to freeze or run, which would require the balance of two feet on the ground. Crossing your legs when standing is a great way to put someone else at ease. Interestingly, people will usually cross their legs so they tilt in the direction of the person who they like the most, or who makes them the most comfortable.
7. Seated foot movement. This is the opposite of the flight response, and basically communicates, “notice me.” The example the author uses is of a woman dangling or otherwise playing with her shoe.
8. Seated leg cross. The direction of the leg cross often indicates if a person likes you or what you’re saying. If the inside of the knee is facing you, they probably like you or what you’re saying; if the inside of the knee is facing away, they might not.
9. Proximity. Also falling under the category of nonverbal foot and leg communication is the distance that people keep between each other. Everyone has his or her own comfort level of personal space, but when someone steps closer or further away, it gives you a clue about their feelings.
10. Walking style. According to the author, there are about 40 different styles of walking. Again, it is a change in this behavior that gives you a clue as to what someone is feeling.
11. The foot freeze. If a person has been constantly wiggling or moving their foot or leg and then stops (or vice versa), they may be experiencing stress or another emotional change.
12. The foot lock. When a person suddenly interlocks his feet when sitting, it is an indicator of discomfort. The extreme case of this behavior is when someone interlocks both feet with the legs of the chair.
4. Torso Tips: Nonverbals of the Torso, Hips, Chest, and Shoulders
Because the torso contains many of the body’s vital organs, the limbic system of your brain will seek to protect the area when threatened. The result may be abrupt or subtle but will communicate volumes.
1. Ventral denial and ventral fronting. The front (ventral) side of your body is the most sensitive side, so the limbic brain will instruct your torso to shift or turn away from a situation, relationship, or topic you don’t like, and turn toward those things you find favorable. This principle is particularly helpful in reading the room and observing who is in agreement with whom. In individual interactions, a powerful tool to let someone know you are interested or supportive is to simply face them directly and/or lean forward.
2. The torso shield. This indicator of discomfort includes behavior such as crossing your arms, buttoning your jacket, reaching across to play with your watch, or putting a notebook, purse, etc. up to your chest. Again, a change in the baseline is key here; many people are simply comfortable crossing their arms.
3. The torso bow. More often seen in Eastern cultures, the torso bow is an indicator of respect or deference.
4. Torso embellishments. While it can be dangerous to judge a person based on their clothing, the reality is that you will be judged in like manner. The action point here is to be conscious that whatever you wear, you are wearing it to communicate something.
5. Preening. An overall lack of personal hygiene or good grooming often indicates sadness, illness, or other negative states of mind.
6. Torso splays. Leaning back and to the side, while sitting is a territorial/power display, and often indicates disrespect for authority.
7. Puffing up the chest. This aggressive pose is a clear sign of anger.
8. Baring the torso. The common manifestation of this signal is the removal of a hat, jacket, etc, indicating that someone is getting ready for a fight (which in today’s world is usually verbal or intellectual in nature).
9. Breathing behavior and the torso. When the body is stressed, it tries to take in as much oxygen as possible, resulting in a noticeable expansion and contraction of the chest.
10. Shoulder shrugs. Watch how people combine this motion with a declaration of ignorance (“I don’t know”), a full shoulder shrug is consistent with the statement, while a partial shrug may indicate doubt or lack of commitment to the assertion.
11. Weak shoulder displays. This display of bringing your shoulders closer to your ears results from the limbic system trying to protect the neck as a result of an uncomfortable situation.
5. The knowledge Within Reach: Nonverbals of the Arms
1. Gravity-related arm movements. When you are energized, happy, or excited, your arms go up (e.g., “high fives”); when you are feeling confident, your arms will often swing by your side. It’s only when you experience negative emotions that your arms will droop.
2. Arm withdrawal. When someone is upset or threatened, their arms will often move to their sides or across their chest. You’ll sometimes see this when two people are arguing – they are protecting their bodies in a non-provocative way.
3. Restriction of arm movement. This is your body’s attempt to make you less detectable, or a smaller target, in response to a situation that your limbic brain perceives as a threat.
4. Arm cues that isolate. When someone clasps their arms behind their back, they are communicating higher status and a desire for distance. Another example of an isolating arm cue is how people in a crowded area position their arms to create space.
5. Arms akimbo. Placing your hands on your hips is a classic example of behavior intended to communicate dominance or authority. The author notes that this can be a particularly useful tool for women to communicate that they are standing their ground or insisting that an issue be addressed.
6. Hooding effect. Another territory-claiming display of dominance is putting your hands behind your neck with your elbows out when seated.
7. Dominant pose. Any general spreading of your arms – planting your fingers on a desk or spreading your arm out over the chair next to you – is an effort to claim territory in order to communicate authority or dominance.
8. Adornments and artifacts on the arms. Rings, watches, tattoos, and other arm adornments aren’t blandly decorative – they are often worn to communicate certain things, even if the wearer doesn’t consciously acknowledge it.
9. Arms as conduits of affection. Hugging, arms touching, and positioning the arms openly are all mannerisms that communicate affection through the arms.
6. Getting a Grip: Nonverbals of the Hands and Fingers
Because the hands are so expressive and delicate, they can reveal very subtle nuances in behavior coming from the limbic system.
1. Effective hand movements. Using hand movements effectively can greatly increase your credibility and persuasiveness.
2. Hiding your hands. Because this creates such a decidedly negative impression, try to avoid keeping your hands behind your back or under the table.
3. The power of a handshake. This may be the most written-about gesture in the western world. The author cautions against trying to establish dominance by maneuvering your hand to be on top, or by placing your second hand on top. Politicians do these things to avoid looking weaker than the other person, but in most cases, it just makes people uncomfortable.
4. Offensive hand gestures. Unlike many of the other examples of body language we’ve discussed, many hand gestures are learned rather than innate reactions. For this reason, it’s probably advisable to avoid all hand gestures when traveling internationally – you never know what any given gesture might mean in a foreign country. One gesture that seems to be relatively universal is finger-pointing, which is often considered to be blatantly offensive.
5. Learn to manage sweaty hands. Sweaty hands happen because of stress or nervousness, not deception. If you notice someone has sweaty hands, consider if there is something you can do to help them calm down.
6. Nervousness in the hands. Quivering hands can be due to stress, nervousness, excitement, caffeine, neurological disorders, or focus. Due to the wide range of interpretations, use the context and concentrate more on changes in the behavior than on the occurrence of the behavior itself.
7. Steepling. Touching the spread fingertips of both hands together is an indication of great confidence, perhaps in yourself, your abilities, your decision, or your position. Use this gesture to your advantage, and make sure not to hide it under the table or hold your hands too low if you are trying to communicate confidence.
8. Thumb displays. Because people don’t often gesture with their thumbs, thumb displays tend to be fairly accurate tells. Thumbs up communicates confidence, while thumbs hidden (either in your hands or your pockets) indicates the opposite. If you find yourself standing with your thumbs in your pockets, switch to putting your other four fingers in your pocket and keeping your thumb out.
9. Genital framing. When someone rests their thumbs on top of or inside their belt loop with fingers hanging down, they are subconsciously communicating dominance or virility.
10. Frozen hands. Similarly to frozen feet, a sudden cessation of hand movement indicates stress.
11. Interlaced hand stroking or rubbing. Similar to neck touching, this is a pacifying behavior that also indicates stress.
7. The Mind’s Canvas: Nonverbals of the Face
The body language of the face comes last in this book for a reason – it tends to be the least accurate. However, it can still provide many valuable clues. Because body language is most easily interpreted when presented in clusters of behaviors, you need to have an understanding of the body language of the face so you’re not missing part of the picture.
1. Pupillary constricting and squinting. Pupillary responses are often a two-step process: first widening when we are surprised, aroused, or confronted, then constricting once we process something that we perceive negatively. Squinting added to pupillary constriction indicates an even greater negative response.
2. Eye blocking. The limbic system often tries to censor incoming information by preventing the eyes from seeing negative things. This may manifest as closing of the eyes, or blocking them with the hand through some mechanism such as rubbing the forehead.
3. Pupillary dilation, eyebrow arching, and flashbulb eyes. Our eyes also reveal positive emotions through the opposite of pupillary constriction – opening the eyes wider in response to a favorable person or event.
4. Eye flash. Another indicator of positive reactions is the eye flash when someone momentarily raises both eyebrows, usually paired with a smile.
5. Eye-gaze behavior. Looking directly into someone’s eyes can communicate a wide variety of emotions – love, interest, hate, etc. – so don’t over-interpret this behavior. In fact, when people look away from you when they’re talking to you, it often indicates comfort, not disrespect – their limbic systems are telling them that you’re not a threat, so it becomes comfortable for them to look away. This runs in direct contrast to the “look people in the eye to communicate confidence and trustworthiness” advice you’ll often hear.
6. Eye-blink / eye-flutter behavior. An increase in blinking may reflect an inner struggle, possibly with either our delivery or acceptance of information. It can be difficult to tell the two apart.
7. Looking askance. This involves tilting your head sideways while looking to the side or rolling your eyes. It signals distrust or a lack of belief.
8. False and real smiles. A real smile will lift the corners of the mouth up, resulting in wrinkles around the eyes. A fake smile brings the corners of the mouth out but not up.
9. Disappearing lips, lip compression, and the upside-down “U”. This is a sure sign of stress. Essentially, our limbic system is telling us to shut down and not allow anything into our bodies.
10. The lip purse. The lip purse involves puckering the lips and indicates disagreement with something that is being said or done.
11. The sneer. A familiar sign of contempt, the sneer is made by the buccinator muscles, which pull the sides of the lips toward the ears.
12. Tongue displays. Though this is most commonly manifested as lip licking and communicating stress, people sometimes jut out their tongue slightly between their teeth when they are gleeful, cheating, or doing something foolish.
13. Furrowed forehead. More commonly known as frowning, this signal is well known as an indicator of concentration or confrontation with something disagreeable.
14. Nose flare. This is an intention cue, indicating that someone is about to do something – argue, run, fight, pick up something heavy, etc.
15. Nail-biting. Nail-biting is a common indicator of stress, insecurity, or discomfort.
16. Facial blushing and blanching. Blushing or blanching is the limbic system’s response to deep emotional states – rushing blood to or away from the face in response to an emotional situation.
17. Disapproval cues. Disapproval cues in the face tend to vary from culture to culture, and can’t necessarily be universally interpreted.
18. Gravity-defying behaviors of the face. True to the common expressions “head held high,” or “keep your chin up,” the face will literally rise or fall based on high or low confidence.
8. Detecting Deception: Proceed with Caution
Tests of judges, attorneys, clinicians, police officers, FBI agents, politicians, teachers, mothers, fathers, and spouses show that most of us have no better chance than a coin toss of detecting deception. Even the very best is no better than 60% accurate. Body language might be invaluable in deciphering when someone is saying one thing while feeling another, but when someone is deliberately trying to lie, things become murkier. Lying is uncomfortable because it causes cognitive stress, but signs of discomfort often show only that the person is uncomfortable with the situation, not that they are lying.
Since this is the key takeaway, I’m going to skip the author’s advice for detecting deception – it would be much more likely to give us overconfidence in our abilities than to help us. Additionally, the flip side of the subject (learning to be a convincing liar) seems to be an ignoble goal for the most part and is not in the spirit of this site.
You’re certainly not going to be able to memorize every one of the signs discussed in this book, but simply being aware of these things will vastly improve your awareness of the emotions, intentions, and motivations of others. The simple realization that all body positions and movements communicate something from the limbic brain can transform your ability to interact successfully with people. If you want to make the effort to consciously improve your ability to decode body language, pick one body part at a time and practice observing and interpreting the cues. With a little time and practice, you can quickly become an expert.
Keep in mind that some indicators are subtle, while some stand out clearly. Look for clusters of behaviors, rather than assuming something based on a single cue. Body language indicating discomfort may simply mean the thermostat is too low, not that a person doesn’t like you. When you run into mixed signals, the more negative signal is usually the truthful one; it usually means someone is saying one thing but believes another, and people usually hide negatives, not positives.
It may sound a little sneaky to use this knowledge to decode people, but like all power, it can be used for good or ill. You can use this knowledge to enrich your relationships and improve your ability to have successful interactions with others.
What did you learn from this book? What was your favorite takeaway? Is there an important insight that we missed? Comment below or tweet to us @storyshots.
Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler, Stephen R. Covey (Open in the app)