In case you thought reading body language was a new invention, you probably have never heard of a guy named Milton Erickson.
As mentioned in the book The Laws of Human Nature (which I highly recommend), the psychiatrist specialized in family therapy and hypnosis. However, it was Erickson's keen insight about how to read body language that is most notable.
After contracting polio as a teenager in 1919, he was stuck in bed barely able to move. He would listen to his parents talk about his disease, and as his sisters talked across the room, he could tell from reading their body language when they would agree to something by saying "yes" when they really meant no.
Author Robert Greene writes in the book about how it took a keen eye to see these expressions, sideways glances, and body language to read what people were really thinking. In fact, the entire chapter on reading body language is excellent.
Erickson had a simple rule about reading body language summed up in three words. It was observe, observe, observe. Of course, the problem is that few of us actually do that.
In reading the chapter, I started thinking about how much I observe the body language in others and it is minimal at best. A few weeks ago, I started paying attention to the "tells" people give when they are talking, and it was an amazing revelation to me.
First of all, people are actually pretty obvious about what they really think.
I've known a few young adults who think they are experts at lying when in reality they are incredibly easy to read. They fidget, they look away, the pretend to be interested. One adult I know can't seem to ever hide the fact that she is bored and not listening, even though she is staring right at me.
How can you read these things accurately? For me, it's an exercise in patience. Most of us listen to only the words and accept them at face value. As the Greene notes, there are obvious clues--eyes widen, eyebrows raise, and a smile flashes when someone is actually excited and interested. When someone is bored or thinking about something else, they look stern or unmoved. They show boredom on their face.
Few of us are active listeners. It requires effort to clue into what someone is saying, thinking, feeling, and revealing, but it is worth the effort. I've decided in 2018 to listen to people a lot more, to allow more awkward silence than ever before. If you bump into me at the CES tech conference in January, don't be offended if I let you do all of the talking. I might be trying to read what you are really saying.
Now, there are always those who are so convincing in their body language that it's almost impossible to read them. I know a young adult who seems to be half-convincing himself that he is excited about every topic even though that is not possible.
You might be revealing more than you know. Even subtle cues like breathing a little faster, checking your watch, and tapping your foot all tell people you want to be done talking.
Applying this knowledge is the hard part. When I sense someone is getting bored, I've try to end conversations faster or change the topic. If someone seems unhappy, I ask why. Empathy takes an incredible amount of practice and perseverance. It won't come easy.
If you read the chapter in the book and join me in trying to read body language with more intentionality, drop me an email so we can compare notes about what works.