Updated February 9, 2019
Do you ever get the feeling that someone isn’t telling you the truth about how they feel? If you know the person well, it may just be a feeling that something is off. Perhaps the body language of the person doesn’t match their words. Your intuition, the internal warning that alerts you to potential red flags, is giving you clues that something deeper may be happening with your friend. It’s these kinds of clues that can provide insight into the condition of another. We depend on them for most social interactions and relationships. If you want to be more empathetic and compassionate toward your fellow human beings, it’s important to focus your attention outside of yourself and your own state of existence. Being able to gain insight through observing the four nonverbal signals others give is a great way to help guide your actions toward them. This skill might just give you a big advantage in life.
1. Emotions & Micro-Expressions
Emotions are a temporary state, one that is separate from a person’s medical condition, personality, intelligence or other aspect of personality. Emotions include feelings such as happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, and disgust. They arise in response to something that happens to you or that affects you. Your emotions are at play on a daily basis, and for many of us, our reactions are, as the saying goes, “written all over” our face. The muscles in your face display a smile, frown, raised brow or tight lips in response to the way you react to an event. Many facial expressions are universal and easily recognizable in correlation with the emotion they represent. Some facial formations, known as micro-expressions, can occur in as little as a fifth of a second and are involuntary.
By gaining an understanding of these micro-expressions and what they mean, you can then gain clues into the true feelings or intentions of another. This kind of inside information has the potential to put you at an advantage. Recognizing a quick signal of distress on a child’s face might lead you to press for important information they are withholding or to be more observant of their behavior for the remainder of the day. Such actions on your part may be relevant to the child’s safety or emotional well-being. With regard to your career or business relations, being able to read the “poker face” of a client or colleague could definitely give you an edge in negotiations. It’s crucial that you keep ethical considerations in mind when making such deductions. The information you gain is only an educated guess on your part, and it was not provided openly by the other person. Be sensitive in such cases, as you would within other interpersonal dynamics. Remember that empathy and compassion are key to successful relationships.
2. Gaze into the Eyes
The eyes really can serve as a kind of “window to the soul.” Involuntary actions such as pupil size and direction of gaze provide information that is potentially helpful in decoding emotional state. For instance, pupils will dilate when someone is interested in the topic of conversation. Blinking is another involuntary response that can be telling. The average rate humans blink is six to ten times per minute. Excessive blinking is an indicator that someone may be attracted to the person with whom they are conversing.
If you notice that someone’s eye contact seems to be a bit over-emphasized, that could mean that they’re not telling you the truth. As can looking away or avoiding eye contact. Looking to the right is believed to indicate that creative or imaginative thought is occurring. Thus, it can also be an indication of deceit. Directing the eyes to the left is associated with trying to remember or thinking about something. All of these eye movements are ways you can delve more deeply into someone’s true feelings.
3. Notice the Upper Body
When concentrating on the focal points of the eyes and face, it can be easy to overlook the largest and most obvious part of the body. The larger movements and postures of the torso are important to note when reading body language. Slumped posture with shoulders sagging often means a person is feeling defeated or sad, while standing tall reflects confidence.
Fidgeting hands are a sign of anxiety or boredom. Most of us are familiar with the fact that crossed arms are an indication of anger or that the individual is closed off to further communication. Standing with hands on hips can be an arrogant or challenging stance. Someone with arms comfortably at their sides or hands folded in their lap is likely calm, unless other body language signs provide other clues.
4. Observe the Lower Extremities
As with crossed arms, legs that are tightly crossed are a sign of resistance or of being closed to communication. Legs stretched out in front of a person casually indicate comfort or calm, sometimes boredom. Anxiety, worry or anger come across through shaking, jittery legs. This is an unconscious way of directing these negative energies.
The feet send messages of their own. Foot tapping shows impatience or being in a hurry to move along. When standing, feet that face an individual in conversation indicate a fondness or attraction. Even the way one walks can reveal something about their current mood. Short, staccato steps show anger or annoyance, while a longer than necessary stride is the walk of someone who is in a hurry or trying to get away.
There are so many things you can infer about a person simply by paying attention to what they aren’t saying, in addition to their words. Reading body language clues can help you to determine when someone may be in need of some compassion. When you can interpret such nonverbal cues as facial expressions and body language, you will improve your likelihood of acting with empathy and compassion as you put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Call to Action: Are you aware of your own non-verbal cues? How good is your ability to detect the incongruences between an individual’s body language and verbal cues?
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