Body Language

What you don’t say can still speak volumes

By Nancy Cardillo

That look on your mom’s face that indicated you were in big trouble. The gentle touch of a hand on your arm or the small of your back that makes you feel loved. Crossed arms, a raised eyebrow or pursed lips that express someone’s doubt or mistrust.

We communicate with each other in many ways, but body language — or nonverbal signals — can account for more than 65 percent of all communication, and can have more than four times the impact than anything we communicate verbally.

Understanding how to read and use — or decode — body language is a valuable life skill, as it can help you interpret true emotion, gain insight into someone’s personality and extract information that can help you get a job, close the sale, strengthen a relationship and possibly even save your life.

Save your life?

According to behavioral expert, speaker and former FBI special agent Mike Liwicki, yes. “Knowing how to read non-verbal cues can enhance a person’s professional life as well as personal life,” the Orchard Park resident says. “It can also help someone recognize deception, aggression or danger, which can save them from a potentially life-threatening situation.

“In the business world, this skill can make you a better boss or employee, help you motivate or influence others and build trust,” says Liwicki. “It can also help you interpret, strengthen and better understand personal relationships.”

Liwicki honed his body language skills during his nearly 30 years of behavioral assessment work for the FBI, where he conducted and supervised national security and criminal investigations and testified in numerous high-profile cases.

These days, the now-retired FBI agent uses his experience with and knowledge about body language to deliver presentations around the world to colleges; universities; government agencies; Fortune 500 companies, and more.

“Oftentimes even though a person says one thing, the body language is telling you something else,” he says. “Picking up on those cues can help you get more information, get to the truth and recognize and solve problems.”

Mark Frank, PhD, department chairman and professor in the University at Buffalo’s communication department, is also an expert on body language, having spent more than two decades studying people and their expressions.

He says the face is the most telling body part to read, as it is tied directly into the emotional system, and controlled by the same part of the brain that causes the heart rate to go up or the hands to become sweaty and so sends signals to the face to respond.

He cautions, though, that people have learned to manage facial expressions to some degree [think: boys being taught not to cry]. “But when an emotion is strong enough, despite our efforts to control facial expressions, some can ‘leak out’ and betray what we are saying,” says Frank. “If you know to look for even the most subtle cue, you can tell, for example, if someone isn’t being completely honest with you.”

Frank says a good analogy for how body language works is to think of the entire body as an orchestra. “Each body part is a section of the orchestra, with its own cues,” says Frank. “The sections normally tell one story, similar to when the orchestra plays one piece of music. But, at times, one section might play a different tune from the other sections, which alerts us that something might not be right, and what the person says they are feeling might not be what they are actually feeling.”

Here are some examples:

Lips and mouth: a world of information can be conveyed by a simple facial expression. A smile can indicate happiness or approval, while a frown signals the opposite. But other emotions — such as anger, disgust, fear, confusion and desire — can also be expressed using the lips and mouth. For example, tightening of the lips can indicate anger.

• Eyes: the eyes are very accurate barometers as to how we really feel. Our pupils, which we can’t control, will dilate or constrict when responding to certain stimuli, such as thoughts, arousal or fear. We’ve all seen that “deer in the headlights” look on the face of someone who’s just been surprised or caught off guard. When someone covers, scratches or pokes their eyes, it’s often a sign they don’t like what they are seeing, but when someone looks directly into your eyes during a conversation, it likely means they are interested in what you have to say and are paying attention. When someone is genuinely happy, they smile with both their eyes and lips. With a polite smile, however, one sees only the lips.

Hands and arms: when people are happy, they use their hands to help express that happiness (think: athletes high-fiving or audiences clapping). A clenched fist can indicate anger and gestures such as the thumbs up or a circle formed by the thumb and index finger can indicate approval. Crossed arms can indicate defensiveness, while hands placed on the hips can indicate control or aggressiveness. A firm handshake indicates confidence and tapping fingers can indicate boredom or impatience.

• Feet, legs and posture: Liwicki says the feet are the most honest part of the body and the least respected because “people don’t think to control their feet during a conversation.” Someone enjoying a conversation will often rock back and forth or raise their heels. Crossed legs can indicate a person’s desire for privacy. And watch where the toes are pointing: if it’s toward the door, that person is looking to get away, whereas someone standing in a doorway with arms crossed or hands on hips and feet spread wide apart is likely trying to intimidate someone.

Understanding body language can be a critical tool when you communicate with others and are trying to truly interpret and understand what they are saying or what they mean. It’s not foolproof, and won’t take the place of verbal communication but, rather, work in concert to help you gain true insight into the behavior of others.