Are you fluent in body language?

Written by John Curtis on . Posted in Investigation, Resources

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!

Many of us 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. So, if you work in a field where you need to know if someone is being truthful (like employment law), surely these Zoom calls must make it harder to do our jobs…right?

In truth, we can only tell others are lying with reasonable 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.

I know I tend to talk too much and too quickly when I sense someone does not believe me. Feeling judged negatively like that is pretty rare for me so it makes me anxious and I want to set things right. I often get the sense it has only made things worse – usually because the person I am talking to falls victim to confirmation bias and sees my response as further proof of their initial gut reaction to me.

Some body language “clues” that 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 uncomfortable footwear is “killing” her toes.

Other times, there are cultural differences that we can misinterpret; in some 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. It puts people at ease, meaning they may be less careful if they are lying but it also ensures that they get to put their best foot forward. 

Most importantly, it leaves me with plenty of time to decide if their version of events makes sense in relation to other evidence.  This is perhaps the biggest risk of relying on body language, it promotes quick judgements and these are highly prone to error. For some great reading on the predictability of judgement errors made when we are “thinking” too fast, I recommend a book called Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. He catalogues what the study of behavioural psychology has proven about the predictability and frailty of the snap judgements that we all make every day. My take on it is, when there is no rush, slow down the judgement machine, gather evidence and rely on reason.

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, an investigator, and arbitrator or a judge.

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 carefully, and taking our time to consider all the evidence – what is said and not said by all the witnesses.

Consider how well people’s stories line up with what you know to be facts like the date and time an email or text message was sent, the minutes of a meeting, etc.

Gather all the evidence, pay attention to the details small and large.

Consider the larger contexts like a world event or proximity to a statutory holiday. 

Run it all through the filter of reason rather than your gut. If you just can’t be certain about something, keep listening. With enough pieces of a puzzle in place, they often begin to assemble themselves.

All of this requires comfort with uncertainty.  Relying heavily on body language is usually driven by our natural discomfort with uncertainty. Resist that urge! Trust the process and rely on reason.

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