What Body Language Can’t Tell You

Have you ever Googled “body language” or “nonverbal communication”? (Or is that just me?) If you have, you’ve seen the zillions of articles, books, and organizations dedicated to “decoding” the thoughts and motives behind every little shift, blink, and nervous tic you see. Nonverbal communication can tell you a lot about how to interact with others (or I wouldn’t bother writing about it myself!), but there’s one thing body language can’t tell you: another person’s thoughts.

The logical, sequential, detail-oriented left side of the brain governs speech and words. The spatial, emotional, intuitive right side of the brain focuses on nonverbal cues. Both sides work together in communication, but in wholly different ways.

Your nonverbal communication reflects your emotions, free associations, and latent (unconscious) memories. You may never be able to articulate the complexities of what you feel and remember. Nonverbals go deeper than words. Imagine someone you love reaching up and caressing your face. Can words express all the emotion, history, chemistry, and connection that are in that touch? There are no words! Even poets use words only as tools to arouse emotions and evoke imagery.

A right-brain process—nonverbal communication—will never give you the words in someone’s head. As soon as you assume you know what another person is thinking, you cripple your curiosity. You are no longer present, paying attention, and open. At best, that leads to miscommunication. At its worst, it can lead to hostility and broken relationships.

The lady that’s hugging herself tightly? Maybe she’s insecure… or maybe just cold. The guy that’s blinking too much? He could be trying to deceive you… or his contact lens could be bugging him. The dude with his hands in his pockets? Perhaps he’s trying to hide something… or perhaps that’s simply comfortable.

A client once sent a member of her team to me for coaching. “Honestly,” she said, “my motives are purely selfish. He is looking for other work, and his behavior is increasingly apathetic and even hostile. I’m hoping by sending him to you for coaching, it will make life easier for me.”

At the man’s first session, he sat down in the chair opposite me, leaned very far back in the seat, slouching, and crossed his legs away from me—not “positive” body language. Generally, leaning far back communicates, “I’m trying to get as far away from you as I can.” Slouching often indicates a lack of confidence or attention. Crossing legs (depending on the direction) creates a barrier. All of these nonverbals convey a lack of interest in engaging with others.

As our coaching session progressed, the man’s body language never changed. However, he was engaged. I found him to be pleasant, open, direct, and willing to learn. Toward the end of the session the conversation moved to body position, and I told him what his posture communicated. His eyes opened wide in surprise and he began laughing. “Really!?” he asked! “I’m just trying to look casual and relaxed!”  He went on to say, “My manager told me that my body language seemed to indicate that I don’t want to be there at work.”

The manager had attached too much meaning to the man’s body language and taken the “negative” nonverbals personally. Meanwhile, the man was completely unaware of how he was coming across.

Right brain communication can be a deeper, richer, gut level “language” that fosters connection and gets to the heart of the matter. But only if you leave all your assumptions at the door. As soon as you attach a thought, an intention, or a motivation to the physiological cues you’re picking up on, you’ve lost your ability to be aware, to adapt, to respond, and to connect.

Here are three ways to be respectful and responsible with nonverbal communication.

  1. Pay attention. What cues and clues are people giving you?
  2. Stay open. If people haven’t given you words, don’t attach your own.
  3. Be curious. Find out where the nonverbals you’re seeing are coming from (especially signs of discomfort, like sighing, touching eyes, tensing hands or feet, holding breath). Sometimes you can just ask! Otherwise, modify your own behavior and see what happens.

Don’t ignore the nonverbal cues you receive from others. Don’t use them to make up stories, either. Notice how others communicate and make adjustments, so that real communication can take place.


Change your communication, change your life.

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