Chapter 1 - How People Read The Body Language Of Leaders

The author opens with an anecdote about observing a senior vice president give a presentation at a conference. He was a highly engaging speaker and kept the audience well engaged during the presentation, but when his speech was over and he transitioned to the QA session, the audience fell silent and the scene became awkward.

The speaker had said nothing to discourage the audience asking questions, and his prompt was entirely inviting: ''I'm open for questions. Please, ask me anything.'' But a nonverbal signal shut the audience down: the speaker crossed his arms, giving a clear signal that he was not open to being questioned, regardless of his indication that he was.

This shows the impact of nonverbal communication: while one message is delivered verbally, the other message that is delivered nonverbally takes precedence. The shift in posture may have been entirely unintentional, but the message was clear.

Your Three Brains

The notion that segment major systems within the human brain, which somewhat controversial, has in some instances been supported even by the most recent neuroscientific analyses, which consider the brain to exist in three distinct parts:

Analyzing the behavior of humans, in business or social situations, often considers the manner in which these three separate systems are engaged and interact with one another. The more spontaneous and superficial behaviors are understood to involve the reptilian and mammalian brains, whereas those that are more deliberate and contrived (require the most "thinking") involve the functioning of the primate brain.

Returning to the topic: nonverbal communication, both generating and interpreting body language, are largely controlled by the limbic brain. Hence, many people are entirely unconscious of their physical signals and responses - and even for those who attempt to modify or control their actions and reactions, it is difficult for the higher mind to override or re-train the more primitives brain systems.

(EN: This brings to mind the notion of "micro-expressions," which was rather popular about a decade ago. This notion was that a person's initial reaction was evident for a split-second before their higher mind took over and attempted to conceal or override a more primitive reaction. The premise that this was always a signal of deception caused a great deal of confusion and misdirection.)

Another bit of research the author trots out is that MRI scans of individuals demonstrated that the higher mind often follows the lower - that electrical impulses enter the brain stem, are interpreted by the reptilian mind first, the mammalian mind second, and the primate brain last ... if at all. It was theorized that the primate brain in most instances merely approves or confirms the decision of the more primitive systems: that we have an emotional reaction and generally "go with it" and find a higher justifications later.

(EN: Cognitive psychology agrees with this, but emphasizes that this is for routine decisions only. That is, if a previous reaction had a beneficial outcome, it becomes virtually automated - but when a stimulus is unfamiliar and we perceive the situation to be different, the higher mind is engaged to find a solution. If that solution is satisfactory, it can over time be encoded as an automatic response in the limbic system.)

Wired for Body Language

The ability to recognize and interpret body language is likely one of the earlier forms of "communication" among social animals: to recognize when another person was hostile and likely to be dangerous was an important survival mechanism. (EN: it's theorized that this did not qualify as communication as there was no intent. That is, an animal was not cognizant of its own posture or behavior, but acted naturally and others learned to recognize the significance of a given signal. It was not until much later in our evolution that we developed the ability to intentionally use signals to influence the behavior of others.)

The body language sued by modern-day humans is a combination of instinctual and culturally learned behaviors, the development of which begins in early childhood. By the time we are adults we have a broad vocabulary of nonverbal signals we instinctively read in others, even if we are not fully aware of it.

A random bit: a study done in 2004 indicates that blind athletes demonstrate some of the same nonverbal signals (postures and gestures) as sighted athletes in similar situation, which gives support to the notion that some nonverbal signaling is innate rather than cultural.

The Eye of the Beholder

When it comes to body language, or communication in general, what a signal "means" is determined by the interpretation of the recipient of a message - regardless of what the sender of the signal may have intended to communication (and for nonverbal, it is often completely unintentional).

Going back to the opening example of the speaker who crossed his arms: he may have been unaware of the gesture, or perhaps he merely felt more comfortable, or perhaps he drew his arms around himself because he was feeling cold. Regardless of what his intentions were, the audience interpreted the signal as being closed-off and defensive.

In general, people do not call attention to another person's body language or ask to confirm their interpretation of what it means. In other instances, they may be aware, but confident in their interpretation. (EN: Another possibility the author overlooks is that remarks about someone else's body is a second-tier taboo in Western culture. Even in relationships where it is appropriate, it is considered rude to do so in the presence of others.)

In most instances, people are simply unaware - much of nonverbal communication works on an unconscious or intuitive level. The audience merely sensed that "something is not quite right" in the situation, though they may not be able to articulate what is causing them discomfort or even why they felt that way.

In this sense, learning about body language is not a method for controlling the way in which others respond to you, but merely predicting the manner in which they might respond to you. Because much depends on the other party to recognize and interpret nonverbal communication, it is not a sure-fire method of influencing others.

Personal Curb Appeal

A person's "curb appeal" is the general feeling that other people have about a person, based on entirely superficial observations - as for the most part, people in the workplace do not take time to form deep and meaningful relationships, but merely interact with one another in a superficial manner.

First impressions are not only meaningful, but they can also be quote accurate. She cites a study in another book in which subjects who watched a thirty-second clip of a college professor rather their characteristics about the same as students who rated the same instructors after an entire semester-length course.

She then refers to the hackneyed example of the Nixon-Kennedy debate of 1960, in which people who listened to the debate on the radio felt that Nixon had won the debate, whereas those who saw the debate on television felt Kennedy had won.

It's been observed that there has been a change in the qualities that people value in leadership: whereas it was once acceptable for a leader to be cold and removed, and a bit of a tyrant, modern leaders are expected to be warmer and more likable. It's not that intelligence is less valued, but it is not as significant in winning trust as charisma. Ideally, a leader can embody both warmth and authority.

People who hold formal positions of leadership are under constant scrutiny. The author quotes one CEO as stating that everyday behavior that employees observe is more important than the behavior they see in formal meetings and presentations. It's a careful balance to be approachable and friendly, while at the same time conveying power, status, and confidence.

Five Mistakes People Make Reading Your Body Language

Body language is derived from basic survival instincts - and while the parts of the brain that house instinctual behavior react more quickly than those which house intelligent behavior, they can be highly inaccurate. In particular, the author has identified five major mistakes people make in interpreting body language.

Failure to Consider Context

Most gestures have multiple meanings. Most people consider raising the shoulders to be a sign of uncertainty or indifference, communicating "I don't know" or "I don't care" - but there are other instances in which raising the shoulders is a sign of fear, submission, or apology. To be aware of what a gesture means, the context must be considered.

(EN: It's worth noting that some people who study body language often fall into this trap, and begin to assume that a given gesture "always" means a specific thing. In this instance, a little knowledge can be dangerous because they often second-guess their intuition, which would have led them in the right direction.)

Presumption of Constancy

One of the most common questions asked of receptionists and other gatekeepers is "what mood is the boss in today?" This is quite natural, because if a matter is not urgent (but is important), they want the boss to be in a receptive mood to hearing it.

The problem here is that they assume that moods are constant and fixed - failing to recognize that another person's mood will change based on their experience. Moods change. If you pass by someone who is coming out of an exasperating meeting, you will read the body language of someone who is annoyed - and then assume that they are going to stay that way for the remainder of the day.

(EN: I recall another author used the phrase that "there's never a bad time to give someone good news, nor a good time to give them bad news." In essence, this is encouraging people to consider that the other person is going to react positively or negatively to the news itself, not according to their mood before hearing it.)

They Don't Know Your Baseline

One of the keys to accurately reading body language is to compare a given response to their normal behavior - but when individuals are not aware of your normal behavior, then they may place too much emphasis on nonverbal signals that do not merit much emphasis simply because they are not familiar with them.

The better you are acquainted with someone, the more you will begin to recognize their moods and mannerisms, and the more accurately you will be able to recognize when a gesture or posture is indicative of something specific, or when it's merely "the way they are" under normal circumstances.

Personal Biases

People are primarily biased to assume that others are similar to themselves, which is further distorted because they are never entirely self-aware: they assume that they would do something in a given situation that they would not.

There is also the bias of personal experience, of being too quick to assume that a person is "like" another person we have previously met because of certain superficial aspects of their appearance and behavior that we associated to the original person.

A bias may work in your favor or against it: if you resemble someone to which they associate positive qualities or if you resemble someone to which they associate negative ones. Moreover, if we perceive a person as being likable, we also tend to believe they are more honest and trustworthy, and vice-versa.

Cultural Biases

People in groups develop a standard nonverbal vocabulary, which improves the accuracy of communication among members of the group, but makes it more difficult to communicate with members of other groups - likewise assuming that their culture's nonverbal language is universal.

(EN: Another source refers to the adoption of gestures as "mirroring." People consciously or unconsciously imitate the behaviors of others in their environment. When a new group forms, the gestures and even certain parts of verbal language are idiosyncratic. AS the group becomes normalized, they begin to adopt a common set of phrases, gestures, and other behaviors, often without consciously realizing that they are doing so.)

When Body Doesn't Match Words

While knowledge of an individual's customary patterns of communication are necessary to identify instances of incongruity, a mismatch between body language and verbal message is instantly apparent to any casual observer - the human brain is inclined to register any incongruence, even on the unconscious level.

Studies (Kelly 2004) of body-language congruity using an electroencephalograph (EEG) reflect that a "valley" in brain wave activity that occurs when people listen to nonsensical language also is evident in instances when body language is incongruous to verbal message - so in a very real way, the audience is aware that something does not make sense.

The author provides the example of a speaker who stated that he welcomed input from the audience while, at the same time, using the palm forward "push away" gesture toward the audience. A second example mentions a supervisor who was checking her cell phone while telling an employee how important he was to the team. In both these instances, the nonverbal behavior nullifies, or at least calls into question, the validity of the verbal statement.

The Body Language of a Great Leader

On hiring an image consultant, some clients believe that they can learn a few simple tricks that will give them the demeanor of a great leader, whereas others seem to assume that they have to inhibit every spontaneous gesture in favor of a contrived pattern of verbal communications.

Not only are both of these wrong, but they are also the wrong way to go about inspiring confidence. When a person resorts to "tricks" and contrivances they are not fooling anyone - most people can recognize that their behavior is unnatural, and become suspicious and untrusting

Having effective body language is a matter of awareness and habituation - recognizing that your body language dramatically affects the impression that others form of you, being aware of bad habits that you must change, and developing better habits to be incorporated to align your nonverbal communication with the message you intend to deliver.