Being able to read nonverbal cues can help you better understand your family, significant other and boss. For ex-FBI agent Joe Navarro this was an indispensable tool for catching criminals. In his new book, "What Every Body Is Saying," Navarro translates body language to help you hear what's really being said. An excerpt.
Chapter one: Following the ten commandments for observing and decoding nonverbal communications successfully
Reading people successfully — collecting nonverbal intelligence to assess their thoughts, feelings, and intentions — is a skill that requires constant practice and proper training. To help you on the training side, I want to provide you with some important guidelines — or commandments — to maximize your effectiveness in reading nonverbals. As you incorporate these commandments into your everyday life and make them part of your routine, they soon will become second nature to you, needing little, if any, conscious thought.
It’s a lot like learning to drive. Do you remember the first time you gave that a go? If you were like me, you were so concerned with operating the vehicle that it was difficult to track what you were doing inside the car and concentrate on what was happening on the road outside at the same time. It was only when you felt comfortable behind the wheel that you were able to expand your focus to encompass the total driving environment.
That’s the way it is with nonverbal behavior. Once you master the mechanics of using nonverbal communication effectively, it will become automatic and you can focus your full attention on decoding the world around you.
Be a competent observer of your environment. This is the most basic requirement for anyone wishing to decode and use nonverbal communications.
Imagine the foolishness of trying to listen to someone with plugs in our ears. We couldn’t hear the message and whatever was said would be lost on us. Thus, most intent listeners don’t go around wearing earplugs! Yet, when it comes to seeing the silent language of nonverbal behavior, many viewers might as well be wearing blindfolds, as oblivious as they are to the body signals around them. Consider this. Just as careful listening is critical to understanding our verbal pronouncements, so careful observation is vital to comprehending our body language.
Whoa! Don’t just breeze past that sentence and continue reading. What it states is critical. Concerted (effortful) observation — is absolutely essential to reading people and detecting their nonverbal tells successfully.
The problem is that most people spend their lives looking but not truly seeing, or, as Sherlock Holmes, the meticulous English detective, declared to his partner, Dr. Watson, “You see, but you do not observe.” Sadly, the majority of individuals view their surroundings with a minimal amount of observational effort. Such people are oblivious to subtle changes in their world. They are unaware of the rich tapestry of details that surrounds them, such as the subtle movement of a person’s hand or foot that might betray his thoughts or intentions.
In fact, various scientific studies have demonstrated people to be poor observers of their world. For example, when a man dressed in a gorilla suit walked in front of a group of students while other activities were taking place, half the students didn’t even notice the gorilla in their midst (Simons & Chabris, 1999, 1059–1074)!
Observation-impoverished individuals lack what airline pilots refer to as “situational awareness,” which is a sense of where one is at all times; they don’t have a solid mental picture of exactly what is going on around them or even in front of them. Ask them to go into a strange room filled with people, give them a chance to look around, and then tell them to close their eyes and report what they saw. You would be astounded by their inability to recall even the most obvious features in the room.
I find it disheartening how often we run into somebody or read about someone who always seems to be blindsided by life’s events. The complaints of these individuals are nearly always the same:
“My wife just filed for divorce. I never had a clue she was unhappy with our marriage.”
“The guidance counselor tells me my son has been using cocaine for three years. I had no idea he had a drug problem.”
“I was arguing with this guy and out of nowhere he sucker punched me. I never saw it coming.”
“I thought the boss was pretty happy with my job performance. I had no idea I was going to be fired.”
These are the kinds of statements made by men and women who have never learned how to observe the world around them effectively. Such inadequacies are not surprising, really. After all, as we grow from children to adults, we’re never instructed on how to observe the nonverbal clues of others. There are no classes in elementary school, high school, or college that teach people situational awareness. If you’re lucky, you teach yourself to be more observant. If you don’t, you miss out on an incredible amount of useful information that could help you avoid problems and make your life more fulfilling, be it when dating, at work, or with family.
Fortunately, observation is a skill that can be learned. We don’t have to go through life being blindsided. Furthermore, because it is a skill, we can get better at it with the right kind of training and practice. If you are observationally “challenged,” do not despair. You can overcome your weakness in this area if you are willing to devote time and effort to observing your world more conscientiously.
What you need to do is make observation — concerted observation — a way of life. Becoming aware of the world around you is not a passive act. It is a conscious, deliberate behavior — something that takes effort, energy, and concentration to achieve, and constant practice to maintain. Observation is like a muscle. It grows stronger with use and atrophies without use. Exercise your observation muscle and you will become a more powerful decoder of the world around you.
By the way, when I speak of concerted observation, I am asking you to utilize all your senses, not just your sense of sight. Whenever I walk into my apartment, I take a deep breath. If things don’t smell “normal,” I become concerned. One time I detected the slight odor of lingering cigarette smoke when I returned home from a trip. My nose alerted me to possible danger well before my eyes could scan my apartment.
It turned out that the apartment maintenance man had been by to fix a leaky pipe, and the smoke on his clothes and skin were still lingering in the air several hours later. Fortunately, he was a welcome intruder, but there could just as easily have been a burglar lurking in the next room. The point is, by using all my senses, I was better able to assess my environment and contribute to my own safety and well-being.
Observing in context is key to understanding nonverbal behavior. When trying to understand nonverbal behavior in real-life situations, the more you understand the context in which it takes place, the better you will be at understanding what it means. For example, after a traffic accident, I expect people to be in shock and to walk around looking dazed. I expect their hands to shake and even for them to make poor decisions like walking into oncoming traffic. (This is why officers ask you to stay in your car.) Why? After an accident, people are suffering the effects of a complete hijacking of the “thinking” brain by a region of the brain known as the limbic system. The result of this hijacking includes behaviors such as trembling, disorientation, nervousness, and discomfort. In context, these actions are to be expected and confirm the stress from the accident. During a job interview, I expect applicants to be nervous initially and for that nervousness to dissipate. If it shows up again when I ask specific questions, then I have to wonder why these nervous behaviors have suddenly presented again.
Learn to recognize and decode nonverbal behaviors that are universal.Some body behaviors are considered universal because they are exhibited similarly by most people. For instance, when people press their lips together in a manner that seems to make them disappear, it is a clear and common sign that they are troubled and something is wrong. This nonverbal behavior, known as lip compression, is one of the universal tells that I will be describing in the chapters to follow. The more of these universal nonverbals you can recognize and accurately interpret, the more effective you will be in assessing the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of those around you.
Commandment 4: Learn to recognize and decode idiosyncratic nonverbal behaviors. Universal nonverbal behaviors constitute one group of body cues: those that are relatively the same for everyone. There is a second type of body cue called an idiosyncratic nonverbal behavior, which is a signal that is relatively unique to a particular individual.
In attempting to identify idiosyncratic signals, you’ll want to be on the lookout for behavioral patterns in people you interact with on a regular basis (friends, family, coworkers, persons who provide goods or services to you on a consistent basis). The better you know an individual, or the longer you interact with him or her, the easier it will be to discover this information because you will have a larger database upon which to make your judgments. For example, if you note your teenager scratches his head and bites his lip when he is about to take a test, this may be a reliable idiosyncratic tell that speaks of his nervousness or lack of preparation. No doubt this has become part of his repertoire for dealing with stress, and you will see it again and again because “the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.”
Commandment 5: When you interact with others, try to establish their baseline behaviors. In order to get a handle on the baseline behaviors of the people with whom you regularly interact, you need to note how they look normally, how they typically sit, where they place their hands, the usual position of their feet, their posture and common facial expressions, the tilt of their heads, and even where they generally place or hold their possessions, such as a purse. You need to be able to differentiate between their “normal” face and their “stressed” face.
Not getting a baseline puts you in the same position as parents who never look down their child’s throat until the youngster gets sick. They call the doctor and try to describe what they see inside, but they have no means of making a comparison because they never looked at the child’s throat when he or she was healthy. By examining what’s normal, we begin to recognize and identify what’s abnormal.
Even in a single encounter with someone, you should attempt to note his or her “starting position” at the beginning of your interaction. Establishing a person’s baseline behavior is critical because it allows you to determine when he or she deviates from it, which can be very important and informative.
Commandment 6: Always try to watch people for multiple tells — behaviors that occur in clusters or in succession. Your accuracy in reading people will be enhanced when you observe multiple tells, or clusters of behavior body signals on which to rely. These signals work together like the parts of a jigsaw puzzle. The more pieces of the puzzle you possess, the better your chances of putting them all together and seeing the picture they portray. To illustrate, if I see a business competitor display a pattern of stress behaviors, followed closely by pacifying behaviors, I can be more confident that she is bargaining from a position of weakness.
It’s important to look for changes in a person’s behavior that can signal changes in thoughts, emotions, interest, or intent. Sudden changes in behavior can help reveal how a person is processing information or adapting to emotional events. A child who is exhibiting giddiness and delight at the prospect of entering a theme park will change his behavior immediately upon learning the park is closed. Adults are no different. When we get bad news over the phone or see something that can hurt us, our bodies reflect that change immediately.
Changes in a person’s behavior can also reveal his or her interest or intentions in certain circumstances. Careful observation of such changes can allow you to predict things before they happen, clearly giving you an advantage — particularly if the impending action could cause harm to you or others.
Commandment 8: Learning to detect false or misleading nonverbal signals is also critical. The ability to differentiate between authentic and misleading cues takes practice and experience. It requires not only concerted observation, but also some careful judgment. In the chapters to come, I will teach you the subtle differences in a person’s actions that reveal whether a behavior is honest or dishonest, increasing your chances of getting an accurate read on the person with whom you are dealing.
Commandment 9: Knowing how to distinguish between comfort and discomfort will help you to focus on the most important behaviors for decoding nonverbal communications. Having studied nonverbal behavior most of my adult life, I have come to realize that there are two principal things we should look for and focus on: comfort and discomfort. This is fundamental to how I teach nonverbal communications. Learning to read comfort and discomfort cues (behaviors) in others accurately will help you to decipher what their bodies and minds are truly saying. If in doubt as to what a behavior means, ask yourself if this looks like a comfort behavior (e.g., contentment, happiness, relaxation) or if it looks like a discomfort behavior (e.g., displeasure, unhappiness, stress, anxiety, tension). Most of the time you will be able to place observed behaviors in one of these two domains (comfort vs. discomfort).
Commandment 10: When observing others, be subtle about it. Using nonverbal behavior requires you to observe people carefully and decode their nonverbal behaviors accurately. However, one thing you don’t want to do when observing others is to make your intentions obvious. Many individuals tend to stare at people when they first try to spot nonverbal cues. Such intrusive observation is not advisable. Your ideal goal is to observe others without their knowing it, in other words, unobtrusively.
Work at perfecting your observational skills, and you will reach a point where your efforts will be both successful and subtle. It’s all a matter of practice and persistence.
You have now been introduced to your part of our partnership, the ten commandments you need to follow to decode nonverbal communication successfully. The question now becomes “What nonverbal behaviors should I be looking for, and what important information do they reveal?” This is where I come in.
Excerpted from "What Every Body Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent's Guide to Speed-Reading People." Copyright (c) 2008 by Joe Navarro. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins.