Are You Fluent in Body Language?

Written by John Curtis on . Posted in Negotiation

He lied. Did you see it? He moved his eyes side-to-side. What a shifty liar. Oh look, she’s lying too; she’s fidgeting like crazy. I don’t know what they’re lying about because I wasn’t paying attention, but they are definitely lying.

We all like to think we are capable of knowing what people are saying even when they are not saying a word. We believe that body language can tell us whether someone is telling the truth, whether what we’ve said has struck a nerve, whether someone is being evasive. In truth, we can only tell others are lying with accuracy every time – if their nose starts to grow in front of us. Without such a cue, it’s a crapshoot.

Maureen O’Sullivan, psychology professor at the University of San Francisco conducted a study looking at over 13,000 people. Of these, only 33 were “wizards” at reading body language. And even the whizzes weren’t 100 percent accurate. While it is virtually impossible to conceal emotion as seen through body language, it is also incredibly difficult to read it accurately, especially with people you do not know, especially in tense situations when anger, nervousness, anxiety, and other emotions can cloud natural body language – and our ability to read it.

Some body language “clues” experts tell us to look for to spot untruths include:

  • Hunching the shoulders.
  • Adjusting a tie or necklace.
  • Restricted movements.
  • Steepling the hands.
  • Lack of eye contact.
  • Crossing the arms.
  • Certain foot movements

Of course, it may be cold in the conference room and this person is trying to warm up by crossing her arms; someone could be suffering from allergies, which makes his eyes twitchy or maybe her heels are “killing” her toes. Other times, there are cultural differences that we can misinterpret; in many Asian cultures, for instance, eye contact is considered aggressive or threatening, so they may have downcast eyes. It does not indicate deceit, disinterest, or insecurity at all, but instead shows respect and politeness.

WARNING – WARNING – WARNING!!!!

The most important thing to remember with any interpretation of body language is to test your beliefs and not to place too much confidence in them without careful thought. I tend not to trust my reading of any specific sort of body behavior to determine if someone is lying to me. A general rule for giving others the “benefit of the doubt” has always yielded better results for me. Trying to decode body language, which is very specific to the individual, his/her culture, and the situation, tends to get in the way of good listening. This is especially true when you are acting as a mediator.

So how useful is body language? The experts agree that when it comes to body language one must rely on clusters of gestures, that context is very important, and that to be consistently good at drawing useful/accurate conclusions, one needs specialized training and/or a natural talent for it. Exceedingly few of us are wizards at accurately interpreting body language. The rest of us would benefit from listening and using clues within context without jumping to conclusions.

John Curtis

John Curtis

John Curtis is a successful lawyer with over 15 years’ experience in litigation focusing on Sport Law and Mediation Services. In addition, he is an expert in providing engaging, hands-on Conflict Resolution Training including Mediation Training, Negotiation Skills Training and Conflict Coach Training