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Interpreting body language, tone of voice, the colours someone is wearing - and believing it!.... Why it inhibits effective communication

(Or why, when we consider 'interpreting body language' to be a science, it creates assumptions and generalisations that lead to disconnection between us.)

I was in a conversation the other day and noticed - some people call it 'interpreting body language' - how I was standing.

I had my arms folded and my legs were also crossed as I stood leaning against the photocopier at work. I was talking to one of the mediators and I was fascinated by a discussion we were having about a course she is doing in Mediation and Conflict Resolution.

But hang on - my arms were folded and my legs were crossed. If I practiced interpreting body language wouldn't that mean I was being defensive or insular or negative in my response to what was being said? Surely that's what all the bibles and gurus of interpreting body language say.

So how could it be possible that I was fascinated by this positive, interesting discussion, with this positive, interesting person?

An earlier version of this article was originally published in Newsletter 3. This webpage is an updated version of the original.

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But I was.

Fortunately, Caroline, the mediator I was talking to, is someone who clearly does not assume she knows how I feel and what I am thinking from my 'body language' as she was happy to continue the discussion.

But if she was someone who believed the books and trainings on interpreting body language that discuss different forms of 'non-verbal communication' she could easily have decided that I was bored, or defensive, or negative and didn't want to continue our discussion and so might have brought it to a close by making some excuse and ending it.

And what a pity that would have been.

An interesting connection and sharing of communication would have been terminated and lost, perhaps never to have been recreated, because of one person's assumption based on their interpreting body language as meaning that I wasn't interested.

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But how often are people swayed by these 'non-verbal' messages. There is a sizeable industry of 'trainers' and 'experts' in 'interpreting body language' who claim that body posture, tone of voice, even the colour of the jumper someone is wearing 'tells you what they are thinking and feeling'.

And as a result, many people who believe what they are told about such things, cease to actually communicate and engage with others because they have 'read their body language' and it was 'aggressive' or 'bored' or 'defensive' and so they either don't start to connect with them or they cut the connection.

Aggressive?

I was once told by another mediator how he had rushed his daughter into hospital when she had suddenly been taken seriously ill.

He was beside himself with worry, but when he asked the receptionist for news of how she was and other information he was told to 'stop being aggressive' and that he would be asked to leave if he didn't stop.

He was being anything but aggressive, he was worried and nervous and frightened. But he was 'interpreted' as being aggressive.

How difficult that must have been - to not even be able to express your fear and anxiety about a loved one because someone misinterprets your tone of voice and other non-verbal behaviour.

These are common examples of speaking for others which lead to a breakdown in communication because we feel we don't need to engage with another person and ask them what their thoughts and feelings are because we presume we know already. And sometimes because we've even been trained on interpreting body language courses to think we know.

It is a common feature of neighbour disputes and other disputes that people ascribe emotions, thoughts and characteristics to others without having had a conversation with them.

They are jealous of our home and can't stand to see us happy in it, that's why they keep playing loud music, trying to force us out.

Charles in Accounts is definitely interested in the new Manager position so he's sucking up to the boss, pretending he likes football.

I don't believe that someone who doesn't wear a tie to work can be relied upon to do a good job.

OF COURSE, it is possible that in some circumstances, some of these beliefs actually prove to be true.

But almost always, they don't.

They arise out of speculation, projection and a need to make sense of something, but without taking the risk of actually engaging with the person about whom the assumption is made.

Interpreting body language is an example of a way in which this way of avoiding communicating has started to become formalised.

Science?

And this is reinforced by the portrayal of communication as a 'science', in which we believe we can generalise about people's feelings and thoughts when they stand in a certain way or speak with a certain tone, or wear a certain coloured jumper etc.

How vast is the wasted opportunity for learning, connection and insight between people that occurs because of these 'facts' that are not facts for interpreting body language and other 'non-verbal communication', that many have started to believe and incorporate into their every day interactions with others?

How many of our Helping Professionals are misinterpreting and alienating their 'difficult' clients each day through what they have been trained to believe about them from their body language, tone of voice and attire?

"But you've missed the point" some of the body language teachers will say. ...."the reason to learn about the science of interpreting body language is to create rapport with the people you work with. So if your client is standing leaning against the door, you move to stand and lean against the wall in the same position(or adjust your tone of voice etc.) Then you will be in tune with each other.".... (or something similar).

Unfortunately, it does not necessarily follow that this achieves what it claims. When two people are standing in the same posture, it doesn't follow that there will be a connection or rapport between them.

It is also not the case that if two people are standing in notably different postures that they will not have rapport or connection with each other.


This book by Aldert Vrij reviews a range of studies of the use of non-verbal behaviour in the detection of lies - the conclusions are......inconclusive - many studies contradict each other's findings and he notes with concern that some Police officers and others dealing with sensitive situations claim to be able to 'tell when someone is lying' from interpreting body language. The research proves otherwise - that there are not consistent non-verbal behaviours shown by people who lie.....or by those who tell the truth.



It is a seductive idea to think that, through 'interpreting body language' we can know what people are thinking and feeling without having to actually speak to them and ask them. Sometimes connecting with people by speaking to them can be very threatening and intimidating. It may be someone we have a strong dislike of, or even that we have a strong attraction to.

In the latter example we can fantasise, based on our 'interpretation of their body language' that they feel the same, but it will only count for anything if we actually speak with them.

And the same would be true for those we dislike, though the fantasies will be of a different kind. And we may say that it matters less to us that we have not spoken with them.

Nevertheless, our fantasies about what they think and feel will still remain unverifiable fantasies. In many such circumstances our practice of interpreting body language will cause us far more distress than finding out the reality.

Learning 'How to tell if someone is attracted to you from their body language'is a particularly popular theme on the internet and in the bookshops. Very seductive as an idea, sadly lacking in any genuine scientific grounding. The following is an example of the kind of claim that is made but is in fact a misrepresentation of the scientific study which it quotes - sometimes known as the 'Mehrabian Myth':

Have a look at this excellent video challenging the idea that there is a 'science' to non-verbal behaviour and interpreting body language. I thoroughly recommend you watch it through:

It was made by Mike Shovel at Creativityworks.net


And here, after 23 minutes through the recording, is an interview with Professor Mehrabian himself who talks about how his research is commonly misquoted and his thoughts about that.

'Movie Mindset'

My further concern about the deliberate and conscious use of interpreting body language* is that, sadly, rather than striving to be present with someone we are communicating with, open to hearing their difficulties and concerns, or even their joys and aspirations, in order to offer them a space in which to talk, a sanctuary in which to be listened to, we can become more concerned with standing in the right place, in the right way, adjusting our tone of voice etc.

*Of course we all unconsciously project an interpretation onto someone's non-verbal behaviour - but this is entirely subjective and is a reflection of us and what we believe about the world rather than what the person whose behaviour we are interpreting thinks and feels. Being present means we become aware of our projections and recognise them as such.

How can we be genuinely present and listening when we are preoccupied with interpreting body language?

Rebecca Z.Shafir describes true listening as being in a 'movie mindset' in her book The Zen of Listening - Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction

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The movie mindset is opposite to the act-like-you-are-listening approach, in which you mimick a listening posture, nod often, say "Mm-hmm," and maintain eye contact. How can you possibly make all these adjustments and still concentrate on the speaker? It is not that these actions are contrary to what you do when you really listen. But to focus on this list of body language to-dos risks appearing artificial to the speaker. Just like at the movies, when you forget yourself and get into the shoes of the speaker, your body naturally relaxes into listening posture. When you truly listen, you don't need to think about your posture or what you should be doing with your hands. Your gestures and expressions effortlessly reflect your interest. All you have to do is enjoy the adventure!

*******************

Here's another link that may be of interest which questions the importance of 'eye-contact'. It particularly deals with its importance or otherwise for people with autism but many of the points made are relevant to all of us.

Eye Contact: Is it Important?


Not playing the game?

Ultimately, the main use of interpreting body language, seems to be to identify when people are not in tune with us - rather than that we are not engaging with them.

When we haven't been able to achieve rapport, the problem is their body language. We've done it correctly, they haven't.

Interpreting body language becomes a game that may be understood by all those 'in the know', but has little if any relevance to what we actually think or feel when we play it.

And so it is more commonly used to demonise those that have been 'difficult', that don't 'play the game'.

Having been trained in it, anyone who doesn't fit the rules is excluded from genuine attention. By which I mean attention that comes from a place of continued commitment to trying not to judge or preconceive, that is rooted in a disciplined commitment to self-awareness regarding our own prejudices.

This is denied those that we work with when we apply such generalisations and presume we know what they are feeling and thinking from their 'body language', or their 'tone of voice' or even, what they are wearing.

When we spend our energies trying to play this game we are taught is meant to be in place, we are not genuinely trying to engage with the other. And as a result, we both lose connection with each other.

How often do you hear a professional say. "I had a really good interaction with a client today, their body language was so open and we got on really well"?

More often, and in my experience to date, always, interpreting body language is used to identify an additional negative aspect of a 'difficult' other, be they client, partner, colleague, etc.

"I couldn't work with Fred Smith today. He was surly and stubborn and his body language was always defensive. There was no getting through to him."

I wonder how Fred felt and what he was thinking? I wonder if he was asked?

I am not for one second suggesting that we are not affected by our interpretation of the way others appear to us. What I am saying is that we can never know if we are correct or not. And so to seek to let go of our prejudgements - 'prejudices' - rather than formalise them into a set of generalisations and portray it as a 'science', is a more effective way of promoting communication and connection between us.

We stop speaking for others and allow them to speak for themselves.

We can only find out what someone thinks and feels by engaging with them and asking them what they say they are thinking or feeling. Everything else can only be our speculation and our projection.

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And if we find out how one person was feeling when they stood a certain way, or had a particular tone of voice, that has no relevance whatsoever to how another person might be feeling when they seem to be standing or speaking in a similar way.

In acknowledging this we remain open to accepting the uniqueness of each individual's thoughts, feelings and other responses.

By ignoring this and even actively promoting these generalisations we treat each other as 'concepts' and labels and become disconnected from each other.

Alan Sharland, author of the Communication and Conflict website is Director of CAOS Conflict Management, where he has a blog called CAOTICA, please visit by clicking this link.


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Hi Alan

It is refreshing to find reading material that informs and inspires and can provide a good resource for small organisations such as ours.

Anne Johnston - The Shropshire Housing Alliance Mediation Service


I did a 1 hour workshop where I presented your Facts and Feelings Listening Exercise. We learned so much about how we listen and the consequences of not listening well that I was asked to purchase your book and have another Listening Meeting.

My team just launched a project that could have whipped the team members and executives into a tremendous conflict. I required everyone to follow your rules for listening and it has been the best implementation we have had in 10years.

Thank you for your generous and comprehensive communications and conflict resolution information.

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'What is a Bully?' Comment on article by Alan which was published on the Mediate.com website

Thank you SO MUCH for this article! It brings forward some very key points about the phenomenon of "bullying" which I have been pondering for some while. Among others, asking to what extent can/should the person on the receiving end of the bullying/perceived to be bullying take responsibility/initiate steps to shift the paradigm? How can this happen without implying that the recipient is somehow responsible for the bullying behavior?

To a certain extent the steps you suggest point to the strategies of NonViolent Communication: Observe and simply describe the behavior, understand and honor your own feelings and needs in the situation, and take responsibility for meeting them by making requests to change the situation.

There has been a significant upsurge of email traffic about bullying in the last year among the members of the Int'l. Ombudsman's Association (principally the academic sector). Much of the exchange, in my view, has tended to favor the stance of "recipient of the behavior as victim," without agency to change the situation, thereby perpetuating the problem and doing a disservice to all. I will be forwarding this article to my colleagues to spice up the conversation!

Laurie McCann, Campus Ombuds, Univ Calif Santa Cruz