Truth In Body Language

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We all give ourselves away every minute of every day. That is, we broadcast our true intentions, feelings, and even thoughts without knowing it through our body language, tone, and facial expression. This happens whether those intentions, feelings, and thoughts match what we express through language or not. Thus, poker players compromise their bluffs, public speakers their performance anxiety, and friends and lovers their true feelings.

This happens not just because we broadcast these messages so “loudly,” but also because unless we’re talking about someone with autism, Asperger’s syndrome, or dementia, research shows that human beings are experts at understanding them. Even so-called “microexpresssions”—facial expressions that appear and disappear so quickly that almost no one registers them—have an impact on us, albeit an unconscious one, perhaps explaining how we gain intuitions about what people are really thinking and feeling without knowing how.

As good as we all are at reading body language, tone, and facial expression, however, it seems we do this mostly through our intuition—that is, we come to conclusions about what someone is thinking or feeling without being able to explain why. When asked to justify why we think someone is mad, for example, we’re often reduced to making inane-sounding statements like, “You just look mad.” And without being able to justify our impressions more concretely, we find ourselves far more likely to dismiss our intuition when it’s challenged. After all, who knows better what someone is feeling, the person himself or the people around him?

In fact, it may be the people around him. Our own awareness of what we’re feeling, it turns out, is affected by many things: by how strongly we may want to avoid feeling it, by how we may be wired to experience emotions as physical sensations, and by how many other emotions we may be feeling at the same time, to name just a few. As ridiculous as it may sound, our own subjective awareness may not actually be the most accurate monitoring and reporting system of our emotional state.

We all presume it is, however. Which often gets in the way of good communication. Whether you’re communicating with a friend, a lover, a spouse, or a boss, people often have incentives to lie not just to you about what they’re thinking and feeling but also to themselves. And that second kind of lie is even harder to detect than the first: if a person genuinely believes he’s not angry when, in fact, he is, for example, we’re far more likely to be convinced by his arguments as we’re likely to detect not only that he’s angry but also that he’s being honest. How then do we reconcile that contradiction? Often by believing what he says rather than what we intuit.

My point here is that we discount our intuitive read of the emotions people are feeling far more often than we should. We allow ourselves to be hoodwinked by what they say and in so doing find ourselves perpetuating fictions that we can’t disprove but that we don’t believe in our heart. We’re thus often prevented from resolving issues that we want to resolve.

So my advice: even if you can’t explain why, trust your intuitive readings of other people. At the very least, don’t surrender them out of hand the very first time they’re challenged. If there exists a discrepancy between what you think someone is feeling and what they say they’re feeling, more often than not there exists a second feeling that’s strongly influencing their willingness to admit their first—and it’s this second feeling that’s often the real problem. Your spouse seems angry but won’t admit it? Fine. Don’t press him on his anger. Seek to understand why he doesn’t want to admit he’s angry. Perhaps he’s afraid to feel anger. Perhaps he’s invested in believing he’s not an angry person. Luckily, people are often less sensitive about this second feeling (often not even realizing they’re feeling it), making it, therefore, easier to uncover. And once you do uncover it—once it’s openly recognized between you both—the problem with denying the first feeling often goes away on its own.

Trust your intuition. Though you must always remain careful not to overweight it, remember that you’re an expert on reading the feelings of those you know.

Next Week: The Secret To Achieving Anything You Want

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  • I recently heard a fascinating interview with a leading biographer of Lyndon Johnson. Johnson had his faults, maybe more than a few, but one thing he undoubtedly was was a master at reading people. To use the biographer’s words, LBJ could quickly determine the most important three pieces of information for negotiation: what they wanted, what they needed, and what they feared. The biographer once explained Johnson’s advice to a young aide, and if I recall correctly it was something like this: look at a man’s hands and how he sits. It’ll tell you more about what he truly wants than anything he’s saying.

  • Wonderful article. Helps reinforce my own faith in my intuition.


  • I can be sitting at the table, frowning in concentration over a grocery list and my spouse will think I’m irritated with him! SHEESH! Not everything is about him.

  • […] Truth In Body Language « Happiness in this World. […]

  • This post is *spot on* Alex. Possibly (very, very possibly!) adding tone of voice to the mix creates fairly sound judgement of a situation. That and experience. Body language for sure.

    Let’s face it: some people don’t even know the birds are singing or a soft warm wind is blowing or that someone strange is sitting way too close to them or that their best friend won’t look them in the eye.

    Many are too busy with electronic gadgets to be present and mindful of the moment.

    My gut—whatever that means 🙂 & mind are sharp and clear in providing me a sense of what others are feeling or thinking.

    Hypersensitive? Perhaps. But keeps me safe and is a sort of personal “stop-check” as well.

  • A great book (if you don’t mind) is Gift of Fear by Gavin De Baker.

  • Intuition is what makes good doctors great. It is what helps strong police officers stay safe. We all have it but we don’t always trust it. For me, I really appreciate this post because I have always used intuition to help guide my decisions. Some use the phrase trust your gut. If it doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t.

    Having been a supportive partner to a sweet lady with rapid cycling bipolar, intuition often conflicted with what she was saying and what my mind wanted to believe. My intuition was almost always right but it didn’t serve me very well because it was well after my partner had cycled that I realized what was happening.

    Great topic and great blog post. I look forward to reading your posts every week.

  • [Hi to Sam]: Intuition is what makes a nurse take a second serious look at a patient as she/he quickly passes a patients room or suddenly fly back down the hall at 0330 to check on a patient. My “inside” voice has prevented many, many serious complications. Intuition helps make a mum/dad stronger in being persistent in helping their child receive immediate mental help support. When “I’m OK” just doesn’t sound right.

    The book I recommended (above) discusses what intuition really is: (a combination of things). It was suggested to me by a patient who was an ex-combat pilot. In 1/2 hour he gave me dozens of clues on how to read body language, eyes, facial expression, tone of voice & posture. Most importantly if someone out of the blue offers assistance (particularly a man to a woman) decline the offer.

    [To Eli]: My spouse does the same thing! gggrrrr….. 🙂