Being able to understand what other people are feeling and thinking is a core life skill – it’s what makes great communicators and relationship builders. Some people do this quite naturally and are highly intuitive. Others need to spend time learning how to observe others and to notice the clues. Fortunately, this is something everyone can learn; it just takes a little practice.
My first piece of advice – don’t get misled or distracted by verbal clues. Words can tell a lot but they are only one part of the language jigsaw and they are conscious. This means they can be crafted to achieve objectives. Non-verbals, on the other hand, are mainly subconscious and therefore more honest. They are stimulated by a part of the brain responsible for our survival and are therefore reflexive and instantaneous. Because this is hardwired, it is difficult if not impossible to suppress.
When you first start reading body language, there’s so much to learn that it can be quite bewildering. There are different facial expressions, gestures, touching, physical movement, posture, body adornment; as well as the tone, timbre and volume of voice.
However, to get you started, I’m going to share my secret into the single best place to look for reading what someone really thinks and feels. But, before I do, I need to share some golden rules for reading body language:
Establish a baseline
Each of us is unique, with our own idiosyncrasies. It’s critical to establish ‘normal’ behaviour to understand when someone deviates. For example, do they have a nervous twitch which might otherwise be a clue to stress, discomfort or deception?
Look at the context
What situation and environment is the person in? An action might be appropriate in one environment but totally inappropriate in the next. For example, yawning and stretching back in a chair at home vs. in a meeting at work. Or someone folding their arms because they’re defensive or because they’re in a cold room.
Draw conclusions from clusters
One non-verbal clue is not enough. To read body language properly, you must look at patterns and piece together evidence. Non-verbals are clues, not answers. Never draw assumptions from one clue.
Look for changes
Reading people is all about looking for a deviation from ‘normal’ behaviour and these can be momentary changes called micro-expressions. These flash so quickly that it takes a lot of practice to notice them. For example, when you mention something or someone else walks in the room, can you detect a change? If you do, it signals that you might want to investigate further to uncover the source of the comfort or discomfort.
And the most important part of the body for reading people? (drum roll please)
…..The legs and feet
Most people mistakenly start with the face. And yet this is the one part of our anatomy that we’re taught to control. How many times have you heard mothers saying, “don’t pull that face”! The further down our body we go, the further away it seems to be from our conscious control and the more honest it becomes. Here are a few clues to start looking out for:
1. Where feet point: the direction of our feet tell so much. They orient towards objects or people they like and feel comfortable with, and away from things they don’t. Next time you observe a conversation between people, notice where the feet point. Quite often, I’ll witness people’s torsos facing each other for social manners but the feet are pointing away. This signals that someone doesn’t really want to be standing there and probably wants to leave. I also love looking at this on the tube as it often reveals who’s attracted to who!
2. Knee clasping: sit down and place your hands on your knees now. How does it make you feel? It’s a clear sign that someone’s ready to leave.
3. Rocking up and down: this commonly indicates excitement. People bob on the balls of their feet when they’re feeling good. I use this as a way to improve my mood if I need energising.
4. Leg splaying: this is all about territory and is seen much more with men than women. When someone wants to show status, they take up more space. Next time you’re sitting in a crowded area, take a look at the amount of space people are taking up with their legs.
5. Leg crossing: if you see someone crossing their legs, it’s generally a sign that they feel comfortable. If you think about it, you can’t run away when you have your legs crossed – it makes you vulnerable. Two people who are close often have this pose, reciprocating each others body language and showing they feel safe in one another’s company.
And my personal favourite!
6. Happy feet: when we’re feeling happy, our feet literally wiggle and bounce with joy. However, I should point out there is a difference with legs that bounce and legs that nervously twitch or start kicking. This is why we need to look for clusters, context and change.
Next time you need to find something out, are interviewing someone or you’re in an important business meeting (or you just want an honest response) try speaking to the other person standing up, or organise a room with two chairs facing each other. Don’t let tables get in the way and you’ll be amazed what the feet have to say.