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Body Language – Common Myths and How to Use it Effectively

By Dr. Ale Drewnic!y

"hat is #ody language$

Body language has all sorts of influences on people and we use it to communicate in many situations without even being aware that we are doing so. Most of us have a vague understanding of what body language is but might be hard pressed to pin a definition on the concept. Essentially though it is reasonably straightforward. Body language is any method of communication using our body. It includes both verbal (what we say, our tone and the volume we use) and non-verbal (body movements, facial e pressions, hand gestures and posture. !hese different elements sometimes communicate more than we mean them to and they have accurately been described as "a silent orchestra that can have long-lasting repercussions#. In recent years body language has entered into popular culture, helped in no small part by television game shows such as $ould I %ie to &ou' and crime dramas li(e !he Mentalist and %ie to Me. Even in the political realm body language has become a hot button topic with spea(ers# every move being analysed in free)e frame to identify which candidate wins the body language contest during the presidential debate. It would be rational to thin( that we could easily tell what someone is thin(ing and whether they are lying *ust from a hand gesture or a crossed arm, but of course it is far less straightforward than that. “I speak two languages, Body and English” - Mae West Myths of #ody language You can always tell what someone is thinking !hat a little (nowledge is a dangerous thing is a truism that definitely applies to body language. +s the sub*ect has become increasingly popular it has led us to ma(e assumptions about what a person is thin(ing based on their body language. $hen we see a person covering their mouth or when their voice becomes high pitched we automatically thin( they are lying, whereas in reality these actions can simply indicate that the person is feeling under stress. ,esearch by -aul El(man and others has found that we are e tremely poor at telling when a person is lying - around ./0./ or about the same as if we guessed randomly. People who are lying a oid eye contact !hey will not meet my eye so therefore they must be lying1 !his is a common misconception about body language and comes from the belief that a person who is lying (nows they will be found out because their eyes will show the deception. !he corollary is that people who loo( us in the eye are telling the truth. 2owever, some people are so confident that they can bra)en out a situation where their lie may be uncovered that they can loo( at the listener directly even though they (now they are lying. Indeed, because it is commonly (nown that maintaining eye contact is (ey to being believed some people overcompensate by staring at the other person. Interestingly, psychopaths, sociopaths and other psychologically malad*usted individuals have often developed the ability to maintain fi ed eye contact. Interestingly, in some games such as po(er the myth may hold out. -layers who avoid eye contact sometimes do so because they are bluffing with a low value hand. People look to the right when they are telling a lie !he basis for this is that we thin( creatively with the right side of our brains and therefore if we ma(e up something that is false we will instinctively loo( over at that side. 2owever, humans actually store memories in different places and we all loo( at different points when we are retrieving a memory. !his may be to the left, right or dead centre and can be up or down, depending on the person. !herefore if a person loo(s in a particular direction it does not prove that a person is either telling the truth or lying. 2owever, people are consistent so it is possible to gauge with an untruth with greater accuracy if we do a little groundwor(. If we as( a couple of 3uestions that we (now will elicit a truthful response, such as how they travelled in that day we can identify where the person "stores# their memories. !hese anchor 3uestions can guide us as to the person#s future responses and tell us when they are telling the truth. !rossing your arms means "#o$% +lthough it sometimes does indicate that the person does not want to listen to the message they are hearing it can also mean that the person feels comfortable in that position or even *ust that they are cold. 4rossing arms can also help some people to concentrate. !he same is true for people who cross their legs. 5ften people are *ust comfortable in this position.

&ast talkers are not to 'e trusted +nother common myth about body language is that people who tal( 3uic(ly are hoping that they will not be 3uestioned because they are preventing people from raising ob*ections or disputing what they are saying. 5ur average tal(ing speed is between 67. and 77. words per minute. +t the lower end people give the impression of being in control, authoritative and truthful. +t faster speeds listeners often put up mental barriers to what the spea(er is saying. 2owever, in reality people who are telling a lie often spea( more slowly because they have to spend slightly more time ma(ing up the what they are saying. !hey initially have to process the truth and then alter this to fit the lie. $here a person#s speech is slow, bro(en up with pauses and lac(ing in contractions ("I would li(e that# rather than "I#d li(e that#) it is more li(ely that they are telling a lie. 8imilarly if someone acts in a nervous way we tend to thin( they are not to be trusted. 2owever, people find different situations stressful and may simply be reacting to the occasion. 8ome po(er players thin( wrongly that a person who is nervous has a wea( hand when in reality the nerves often come from e citement about having a strong hand. Mas!ing -eople use mas(ing in social situation for a variety of reasons, some positive and some negative. $e can thin( of many e amples where it would be inappropriate to show our true feelings and because of this it becomes preferable to hide them. If you were out to dinner and found yourself ne t to a particularly boring or disli(able person you would probably smile politely and hope the meal passes as 3uic(ly as possible (hopefully avoiding dessert and coffee at the end). !here are countless situations when we stic( a smile on our face and get on with things hoping we can move on with our lives before long. In these situations a smile helps everything run smoothly. !here may also be times when we hide our feelings for less altruistic reasons, such as lying to get ourselves out of a tric(y situation. -o(er players sometimes act in a friendly way towards other players after they have made a bet, if they have a wea( hand and are bluffing. !his is because they subconsciously want to avoid a confrontation. In situations such as these it can be useful to develop mas(ing s(ills. 5ne way we use mas(ing is to mirror the body language of the person we are spea(ing to. !his involves positioning our bodies in the same way, including their posture, how they hold their arms or turn their heads. !his techni3ue is commonly used when people are consciously trying to build rapport and can be effective because the congruence of body language suggests agreement, which is vital for rapport, and other people are less li(ely to distrust someone with whom they have this connection. &ou can test whether you have built rapport in this way by mirroring the other person for a while in a reactive way (following the other person#s movements) and then trying to lead by, for e ample subtly changing posture. If the other person follows your lead then it is li(ely that you have built rapport. If we lie our body language can get thrown out of (ilter because there is a disconnect between what our voice is telling the listener and what our body language is saying. +s people tend to believe what they see more than what they hear a conflict is created between the two sets of messages. In this situation listeners will often believe the body language over the person#s words. “When the eyes say one thing, and the tongue another, a practiced man relies on the language o( the (irst)” - *alph Waldo Emerson It is a truism that the best salespeople are those who believe in what they are selling. 5ne of the reasons for this is that their body language is in harmony with the message they are conveying. In the same way actors who are immersed in the part communicate performances with much greater power. !herefore, if we want people to accept what we are saying the (ey is to believe in it ourselves. -o(er players who adopt a pure or game theory optimal (9!5) strategy can benefit from this approach. $ith this strategy a player decides in advance how they are going to play certain combinations of cards. :or e ample, if -layer 6 is dealt a high

value pair (pair of ;ac(s) they might decide to raise every time, whereas if they have a connected suit (< and = of clubs) they might decide to always call. !his strategy aims to remove the opponent from consideration. $hen a player stays in the game, believing they have the winning hand, their body language should flow in harmony with their actions, pro*ecting the (ind of confidence that can win a game. +nother way we can mas( our thoughts and emotions is to modulate our voice to a low, confident pitch. +s mentioned previously, high, fast voices can sometimes (unfairly) give the impression that a person is lying or should not be relied upon. 2owever, this can be turned to our advantage by controlling our voices to pro*ect an impression of confidence. + well (nown e ample of this was Margaret !hatcher, who changed her spea(ing voice from a fast, slightly high pitched tone to one that was far deeper and more measured. !he result was that she invariably gave the impression of being confident and in control of a given situation. %etting #etter at reading &eo&le &amiliarity 'reeds understanding It is something of a fool#s errand to believe we can predict with one hundred percent accuracy what another person is thin(ing or whether they are lying or not. !he way that people use habits and mannerisms is often specific to them and can mean different things from one person to the ne t. !o assess someone#s behaviour you would have to (now how they behave in situations where they are comfortable and then compare this to situations where you thin( the person is lying. If the person#s behaviour is very different then it might be an indication that the person is trying to deceive. 2owever it could also be as a result of the individual feeling under stress. It can be easier to separate the false positives from the true indicators of lying with nonstrangers. 8ome have argued that with people we (now it is not necessary to be s(illed at reading body language because we can recognise the signs of their behaviour instinctively. $hen a partner or family member is happy or annoyed with us it usually doesn#t ta(e us long to figure it out and most of us are not e perts in the field. >ndoubtedly this is because we spend so much time with the people closest to us that we are very familiar with their individual habits and mannerisms. !he (ey to understanding their body language is that these little give aways are specific to them. 5ther people may use similar posture, tone of voice and facial e pressions but be communicating in very different way. It may be that the best way to learn about someone is *ust to spend time with them and learn to read their individual body language. !his may bear fruit for wor( colleagues, clients or even po(er opponents. +hinking can 'e counter-producti e If we try to over process what body language means it can wor( against us. !his is because if we stamp a meaning on every cross of the arms, pull of the ears or glance to the floor we may be getting in the way of our natural ability to tell what people are thin(ing. 2umans have developed e cellent s(ills at reading those around us as part of our evolutionary defences. In layperson#s terms this is (nown as gut instinct or women#s intuition and can be much more effective than conscious detection. !herefore, instead of trying to analyse a situation to death we may be better off paying attention to what our instinctive thoughts are telling us and then figure out what it means. ?oing this often enough may help us fine-tune our ability. “+he most important thing in communication is hearing what isn,t said” - Peter &) -rucker Pay attention to the relia'le indicators $hile the arms, legs and voice are unreliable body language indicators, many facial e pression are useful in reading someone#s thoughts. Interestingly we do not necessarily include smiling in this as people sometimes use a smile to try and mas( their emotions. “. man can smile and smile and 'e a illain” - William /hakespeare

;ames Borg has e plained that it is virtually impossible for us to mas( certain body language indicators that our faces give away, principally the eyes. $hen we smile in a true way our eyes are connected to the action of our mouths and the corners crin(le - giving us crows feet as we get older. !his connectivity between the mouth and the eyes is something we are largely powerless to prevent. $hile we can force a smile on our faces to pro*ect an impression to the world we cannot force our eyes to connect to the smile. 0ook at the entire person !rying to read body language from a single gesture has been compared to believing you can understand a sentence from a single word. ;ust as one swallow doesn#t ma(e a summer, we must ta(e note of groups of signals and put them all together. In this, our first impressions can be useful because when we meet someone we can begin to piece together all the clues they are undoubtedly giving us. :or e ample, if you are at a business meeting does your opposite number have their paperwor( placed in an orderly, symmetrical way or is it more hapha)ard' @eatness can suggest conservatism or an aversion to ris(. In the same way a po(er player that places their chips in a careful pile may be one to shy away from ris(y bets. !he flipside is that when they do bet you can be confident they have a good hand, which is very useful information. 4onversely, a player that (eeps their chips in a messy pile may play in a less controlled way and be more li(ely to bluff or bet in a ris(y way.

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