Learn to speak body language
A significant cluster of body movements is used to signal aggression.
This is actually quite useful as it is seldom a good idea to get into a fight, even for powerful people. Fighting can hurt you, even though you are pretty certain you will win. In addition, with adults, fighting is often socially unacceptable and aggression through words and body language is all that may ever happen.
Much aggression can be shown in the face, from disapproving frowns and pursed lips to sneers and full snarls. The eyes can be used to stare and hold the gaze for long period. They may also squint, preventing the other person seeing where you are looking.
When somebody is about to attack, they give visual signal such as clenching of fists ready to strike and lowering and spreading of the body for stability. They are also likely to give anger signs such as redness of the face.
Exposing oneself to attack is also a form of aggression. It is saying ‘Go on – I dare you. I will still win.’ It can include not looking at the other person, crotch displays, relaxing the body, turning away and so on.
Invading the space of the other person in some way is an act of aggression that is equivalent to one country invading another.
Invasion is often done under the cloak of of familiarity, where you act as if you are being friendly and move into a space reserved for friends, but without being invited. This gives the other person a dilemma of whether to repel a ‘friendly’ advance or to accept dominance of the other.
When you go inside the comfort zone of others without permission, you are effectively invading their territory. The close you get, the greater your ability to have ‘first strike’, from which an opponent may not recover.
Touching the person is another form of invasion. Even touching social touch zones such as arm and back can be aggressive.
There are many, many gestures that have the primary intent of insulting the other person and hence inciting them to anger and a perhaps unwise battle. Single and double fingers pointed up, arm thrusts, chin tilts and so on are used, although many of these do vary across cultures (which can make for hazardous accidental movements when you are overseas).
Many gestures are sexual in nature, indicating that the other person should go away and fornicate, that you (or someone else) are having sex with their partner, and so on.
Gestures may include symbolic action that mimics actual attacks, including waving fingers (the beating baton), shaking fists, head-butts and so on. This is saying ‘Here is what I will do to you!’
Physical items may be used as substitutes, for example banging of tables and doors or throwing . Again, this is saying ‘This could be you!’
All of these gestures may be done suddenly, signaling your level of aggression and testing the other person’s reactions.
The size of gestures may also be used to signal levels of aggression, from simple finger movements to whole arm sweeps, sometimes even with exaggerated movements of the entire body.
When a person is bored, they whole body is telling you. So if you are trying to persuade them, don’t bother (unless you are trying to bore them into submission).
Language of boredom
A ready body is poised for action.
A bored person looks anywhere but at the person who is talking to them. They find other things to do, from doodling to talking with others to staring around the room. They may also keep looking at their watch or a wall clock.
Bored people often repeat actions such as tapping toes, swinging feet or drumming fingers. The repetition may escalate as they try to signal their boredom.
A person who feels that they are unable to act to relieve their boredom may show signs of tiredness. They may yawn and their whole body may sag as they slouch down in their seat, lean against a wall or just sag where they are standing. Their face may also show a distinct lack of interest and appear blank.
Reasons for boredom
Lack of interest
If the person is not interested in their surroundings or what is going on, then they may become bored. The disinterest may also be feigned if they do not want you to see that they are interested. Watch for leaking signs of readiness in these cases.
A bored person may actually be ready for the actions you want, such as closing a sale. Sales people are known to keep on the sales patter long after the customer is ready to sign on the dotted line.
When a person is feeling threatened in some ways, they will take defensive body postures.
Defending from attack
The basic defensive body language has a primitive basis and assumes that the other person will physically attack, even when this is highly unlikely.
Covering vital organs and points of vulnerability
In physical defense, the defensive person will automatically tend to cover those parts of the body that could damaged by an attack.
The chin is held down, covering the neck. The groin is protected with knees together, crossed legs or covering with hands. The arms may be held across the chest or face.
Arms may be held out to fend off attacker, possibly straight out or curved to deflect incoming attacks.
Using a barrier
Any physical object may be placed held in front of the person to act as a literal or figurative barrier. This can be a small as a pen or as large as a table. Straddling a reversed chair makes some people comfortable in conversation as they look relaxed whilst feeling defensive.
Barriers can also protect the other person and if I am powerful, I may use a simple barrier to make you feel less defensive. It also means I control the barrier.
One way of defending against attack is to reduce the size of the target. People may thus huddle into a smaller position, keeping their arms and legs in.
Another primitive response is to tense up, making the muscles harder in order to withstand a physical attack.
Rigidity also freezes the body, possibly avoiding movements being noticed or being interpreted as preparing for attack.
Flicking the eyes from side to side shows that the person is looking for a way out.
Pre-empting the attack, the defensive person may reduce the, generally using submissive body language, avoiding looking at the other person, keeping the head down and possibly crouching into a lower body position.
Aggressive body language may also appear, as the person uses ‘attack as the best form of defense’. The body may thus be erect, thrust forward and with attacking movements.
Where attack and defense both appear together, there may be conflicting signs appearing together. Thus the upper body may exhibit aggression whilst the legs are twisted together.
A significant cluster of body movements are all about closing. This is sometimes misinterpreted solely as indicating defensiveness.
Language of closure
Closure literally closes the body up. It may range from a slight bringing together of the limbs to curled up into a tight ball. Extreme cases may also include rhythmic rocking of the body to and fro.
In a closed positions one or both arms cross the central line of the body. They may be folded or tightly clasped or holding one another. There may also be holding one another.
Lighter arm crossing may include resting an arm on a table or leg, or loosely crossed with wrists crossing.
Varying levels of tension may be seen in the arms and shoulders, from a relaxed droop to tight tension and holding on to the body or other arms.
Legs, likewise can be crossed. There are several styles of leg crossing, including the ankle cross, the knee cross, the figure-four (ankle on opposite knee) and the tense wrap-around.
Legs may also wrap around convenient other objects, such as chair legs.
When legs are crossed but arms are not, it can show deliberate attempts to appear relaxed. This is particularly true when legs are hidden under a table.
Looking down or away
The head may be inclined away from the person, and particularly may be tucked down.
Reasons for closing
There can be several reasons for closed body language. This is one reason why reading body language can be hazardous and you should take into account other factors. In particular look for the transition when the body closes and the triggers that may have caused this change.
When we feel threatened, our body language becomes defensive. We use closure to place the barriers of our arms and legs across in front of us to defend ourselves from attack. When we close, we also make our body smaller, reducing the size of the target. When we tuck our chin down, we are protecting the exposed throat.
We also may be signaling to the other person that we are not a threat to them. Thus the held-in arms shows that we are not attacking and looking away from them removes aggressive staring.
In a variant of this, particularly where the person is holding themselves, a closed position may indicate self-nurturing. The person is effectively holding or hugging themselves in an imitation of a parent or other caring person.
Closing also may serve the purpose of hiding something that we do not want the other person to see. Holding the body still prevents it from betraying our thoughts. Looking away prevents the other person from seeing our expression that may show dislike or lying.
A more pragmatic form of closure is when we are cold. Huddling up reduces exposed body area and reduces heat loss. Holding warmer parts of the body against colder parts evens the temperature and prevents extremities from being chilled too much.
And we also cross our arms and legs when we are relaxing. It can just be a comfortable place to put those gangly limbs. We may look away because we are thinking, nothing more.
When you are trying to persuade a person, then their standing or sitting in a closed position is usually a signal that they are not ready to be persuaded. Moving them to an open position can significantly increase your chances of persuading them.
Force hand use
A common method sales people use to break a crossed-arms closed position is to give the person something to hold or otherwise ask them to use their hands, for example asking them to hand over something, turn over a page, stand up and so on.
The other common method of opening a person is to first adopt a closed position like them. Then some effort is put into building a bond with them, such that they start to like you and are attaching their identity to yours. Finally, you then open your position, unfolding arms and legs. If they are sufficiently bonded then they will follow you.
This should be done naturally and steadily, for example unfolding your arms in order to use your hands to illustrate what you are saying. If they do not follow you, return to the closed position and work further at bonding before trying again.
When a person is seeking to trick or deceive you, they there are many different body signal they may use.
Language of deception
A deceptive body is concerned about being found out — and this concern may show.
A deceptive person is typically anxious that they might be found out (unless they are psychopathic or good at acting), so they may send signals of tension. This may include sweating, sudden movements, minor twitches of muscles (especially around the mouth and eyes), changes in voice tone and speed.
Many of us have hidden anxiety signals. For example: Biting the inside of the mouth (George W. Bush), patting head (Prince William), hands in pockets (Tony Blair).
These signals are almost impossible to stop as we start them very young.
In order to avoid being caught, there may be various signs of over-control. For example, there may be signs of attempted friendly body language, such as forced smiles (mouth smiles but eyes do not), jerky movements and clumsiness or oscillation between open body language and defensive body language.
The person may also try to hold their body still, to avoid tell-tale signals. For example they may hold their arms in or put their hands in their pockets.
A person who is trying to deceive needs to think more about what they are doing, so they may drift off or pause as they think about what to say or hesitate during speech.
They may also be distracted by the need to cover up. Thus their natural timing may go astray and they may over- or under-react to events.
Anxiety may be displaced into actions such as fidgeting, moving around the place or paying attention to unusual places.
Reasons for deception
There can be many good reasons for deception.
Deception may be an act that is intended to get another person to say or do something.
Deception also may be more self-oriented, where the sole goal is to get away with something, perhaps by avoiding answering incriminating questions.
language is related to aggressive body language, though with a less emotional content.
The body in dominant stances is generally open, and may also include additional aspects.
Making the body big
Hands on hips makes the elbows go wide and make the body seem larger. So also does standing upright and erect, with the chin up and the chest thrust out. Legs may be placed apart to increase size.
Making the body high
Height is also important as it gives an attack advantage. This can be achieved by standing up straight or somehow getting the other person lower than you, for example by putting them on a lower seat or by your standing on a step or plinth.
By invading and occupying territory that others may own or use, control and dominance is indicated. A dominant person may thus stand with feet akimbo and hands on hips.
Breaking social rules
Rulers do not need to follow rules: they make the rules. This power to decide one’s own path is often displayed in breaking of social rules, from invasion and interruption to casual swearing in polite company.
Owning something that others covet provides a status symbol. This can be territorial, such as a larger office, or displays of wealth or power, such as a Rolex watch or having many subordinates.
Just owning things is an initial symbol, but in body language it is the flaunting of these, often casually, that is the power display. Thus a senior manager will casually take out their Mont Blanc pen whilst telling their secretary to fetch the Havana cigars.
A dominant act is to disrespect the ownership of others, invading their territory, for example getting to close to them by moving into their body space. Other actions include sitting on their chairs, leaning on their cars, putting feet up on their furniture and being over-friendly with their romantic partners.
Invasion says ‘What’s yours is mine’ and ‘I can take anything of yours that I want and you cannot stop me’.
Superiority signals are found both in saying ‘I am important’ and also ‘You are not important’. Thus a dominant person may ignore or interrupt another person who is speaking or turn away from them. They may also criticize the inferior person, including when the other person can hear them.
Much dominance can be shown in the face, from disapproving frowns and pursed lips to sneers and snarls (sometimes disguised as smiles).
The eyes can be used to stare and hold the gaze for long period. They may also squint, preventing the other person seeing where you are looking. They may also look at anywhere but the other person, effectively saying that ‘you are not even worth looking at’.
Faces can also look bored, amused or express other expressions that belittle the other person.
Dominant people often smile much less than submissive people.
Dominant men will often expose their crotch, effectively saying to other men ‘I am safe from attack’ or ‘my penis is bigger than yours’, whilst showing off. They may also be offering ‘come and get it!’ to women. When women do this, it is to some extent a tease or invitation to men but may also be an emulation of the male display, thus saying ‘I am as strong as a man’.
This appears in standing or sitting where the legs are apart. It may be emphasized by scratching or adjusting of the crotch.
The dominant greeting
When people first meet and greet, their first interaction sets the pattern for the future relationship. When a person is dominant here, then they will most likely continue to be dominant.
A classic dominant handshake is with the palm down, symbolically being on top. Another form of dominant handshake is to use strength to squeeze the other person.
Holding the other person’s hand for longer than normal also shows that you are in control.
Prolonged, unblinking eye contact acts like overplaying the handshake — it says ‘I am powerful, I can break the rules.’ The dominant person may alternatively prevent eye contact, saying ‘You are beneath me and I do not want even to look at you.’
The person who speaks first often gets to control the conversation, either by talking for longer or by managing the questions.
Responding to dominance
If others display dominant body language you have a range of options.
The simplest response is simply not to submit, which is what they probably want. Continue to appear friendly and ignore their subtle signals.
Another response is to fight dominance with dominance, for example:
- Out-stare them (a trick here is to look at the bridge of their nose, not their eyes).
- Touch them, either before they touch you or immediately when they touch you.
- When they do a power handshake, grab their elbow and step to the side.
- When they butt in to your speech, speed up, talk more loudly and say ‘let me finish!’
Another approach is to name the game. Ask them why they are using dominant body language. A good way to do this is in a curious, unafraid way.
Power is often expressed in communication as a combination of strength and humanity. This is very attractive and is a form of Hurt and Rescue.
As the other person approaches, move to left side, extend your arm horizontally, palm down (be first to do this). Grab their palm firmly, pull them in and hold their elbow with your left hand.
The horizontal arm is an unmissable signal. Palm on top is being dominant, putting yourself on top. Holding the elbow further controls them.
The royal handshake is outstretched arm to keep the other at their distance. A limp hand, palm down, stops them doing a power shake.
Touching is power symbol. Touching people can be threatening, and is used by leaders to demonstrate power.
The handshake is, of course, a touch, and can lead to further touching, such as the elbow grip and patting shoulders and back.
Guide people with a palm in the small of the back. Greet them with a hand on the back. Touch them on the elbow or other ‘safe’ areas.
Talk with confidence and use the body beat in time with assertions. Beat with a finger, a palm or even a fist (which is rather aggressive). Emphasize and exaggerate your points.
Use silences too. Pause in the middle of speaking and look around at everyone. If you are not interrupted they are probably respecting your power. Stand confidently without speaking. Look around, gazing into people’s eyes for slightly longer than usual.
It is powerful to show that you have emotion, but in the right place only. It shows you are human. At other times it emphasizes how you are in control. A neat trick is to bite the lower lip, as it shows both emotion and control (Bill Clinton did it 15 times in 2 minutes during the Monica Lewinsky ‘confession’).
Walk with exaggerated swinging of arms, palm down and out. Kink elbows outwards, making the body seem wider. Add a slight swagger.
When walking with others, be in front of them. When going through doors, if you are going to an audience, go first. If you are going from an audience, go last (guiding others through shows dominance).
Generally be higher. Sit on a higher chair. Stand over people. Wear heels. Drive a higher car.
A significant cluster of body movements are all about being ready for something.
Language of readiness
A ready body is poised for action.
Any part of the body may be pointing at where the person is thinking about. This may be another person or the door. This may be as subtle as a foot or as obvious as the whole body leaning. Eyes may also repeated flash over in the intended direction.
The body is tensed up and ready for action. If sitting, hands may hold onto armrests in readiness to get up. Legs are tensed ready to lift the body. Things in the hand are gripped. Attention is away from everything except the intended direction.
The hands may slightly hook clothing, in particular with thumbs hooked into the waistband. This is like a not-quite putting of hands in pockets, indicating the person is relaxed but ready to move quickly.
Where there is movement, it is in preparation for further movement. Legs uncross. Hands grab bags, straighten clothing, and so on. The whole body leans in the intended direction.
Reasons for readiness
There can be several reasons for a ready body language.
The person may want to leave. Perhaps they have another appointment. Perhaps they are uncomfortable with the situation and just want to get out of there.
Ready to buy
When a person is ready to buy, then they may send readiness signals. They point at the thing they want to buy or the contract that needs selling.
Readiness may also be to talk more. When you are talking and they show readiness signals, maybe they just want to say something.
Ready to fight
When a person sees a real or verbal fight coming up, they put their body in a position where they can move quickly, either to attack or to defend.