Some people believe body language’s power is a fictional concept. They say things like, “Every person is different, every person has ticks or nuances. How can we say that if any person looks down and to the right, they are lying? How can we say that any person who has their arms crossed in a conversation is feeling abrasive?”
Past guest on the Negotiations Ninja podcast, Joe Navarro, is a former FBI counterintelligence and behavioral assessment special agent. He is also an expert on nonverbal communications, and author of many books, including What Every Body is Saying and The Dictionary of Body Language: A Field Guide to Human Behavior. Body language is not a fictional concept, but some of the things we believe body language is telling us are false.
Joe says when people cross their arms in front of themselves during a conversation, it’s because they are self-soothing. They are comforting themselves. They are hugging themselves – as opposed to the idea that they are blocking. If you are angry and you subconsciously cross your arms in front of your chest, you are doing it to comfort yourself.
Many people believe that when you look down and to the right, you are lying; whereas, Joe says, “There is no single behavior indicative of deception.” There needs to be a collection of behaviors observed before we can make any conclusion on deception.
In poker, players often talk about “tells” as typical body language nuances that can indicate when a player is lying. We can’t assume one person’s tell will be the same as another person’s tell. You have to baseline their behavior to determine how it is they’re responding to specific situations before you can assess what a particular tell means.
In negotiations, it’s important to use this technique of baselining behavior and body language to help you understand a person and how they might react in certain situations. From the handshake and niceties to the meat of the conversation, body language should be witnessed in every circumstance. “Any opportunity you have, the best baselines are really when someone doesn’t think they’re being observed,” says Joe.
Be careful not to confuse nervous behaviors with deception tells. In a negotiation, like in poker, you are put in a situation that will create a lot of nervous behaviors: you’re sitting close to other people, you’re asking for things, things are being asked of you, you’re potentially arguing. To identify what is a nervous behavior, it’s important to note the body identifiers when that person is calm. In a moment when you know there is no stress, the person is relaxed, observe things like the lips, eyes, and chin and imprint those features in a moment when there is no psychological discomfort. With that image in your mind, you will be able to notice when they start to compress their lips or block their eyes, telling you when they are becoming uncomfortable.
It isn’t only in the face, however. “You’ve got to be able to observe the whole body,” says Joe. The “poker face” is a real thing. Professional poker players have learned what their tells are and how to hide them, and professional negotiators should do the same. But when hiding emotions in your face, there is a good chance they will show themselves somewhere else on your body. Pay attention to tapping feet or fingers, shaking legs, hair twirling, etc. These body language indicators are always saying something, if only just that the person is feeling stress.
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