Main Louder Than Words: Take Your Career from Average to Exceptional with the Hidden Power of Nonverbal Intelligence

Louder Than Words: Take Your Career from Average to Exceptional with the Hidden Power of Nonverbal Intelligence

International bestselling author and behavior expert Joe Navarro helps you successfully navigate the business world by understanding what your boss and coworkers are really thinking. Why is it that some people have all the elements of success—education, skills, integrity, motivation—but can't seem to move from effectiveness to excellence in their careers? Behavior expert Joe Navarro reveals the long-sought answer. Louder Than Words teaches how to master nonverbal intelligence, the ability to interpret and use nonverbal signals—in poker terms, "tells"—in business to assess and influence others. Drawing on his decades in the behavioral sciences, Navarro shows how to use his simple yet powerful "comfort/discomfort" model to decode what's really being said at meetings, interviews, negotiations, presentations, business meals, and more, including the casual exchanges that often impact decisions and reputations. Jump-start your career as you discover how to: Read body language to understand what clients, coworkers, interviewers, or interviewees are thinking, feeling, or intending, and discern nonverbal cues of concern, disagreement, or doubt—even over the phone Master the all-important first impression and use settings, seating, and gestures to inspire and captivate Recognize habits that send the wrong message, from nail biting to wearing inappropriate attire—and see what posture, work practices, workspaces, and even electronic habits say about people Become culturally aware and gender-sensitive, from best handshake practices to personal space preferences Learn what the "comfort dividend" can do for you and your business Explore how the concept of "curbside appeal" applies to you and your business, and can mean the difference between average and exceptional Use Louder Than Words to close the deal, keep your customers, secure new ones, and lead your company with confidence. For job seekers looking to stand out from the pack, this book is your get-back-to-work bible.
Year: 2010
Language: english
Pages: 256
ISBN 10: 0062015044
ISBN 13: 9780062015044
File: EPUB, 602 KB
Download (epub, 602 KB)

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Louder Than Words

Take Your Career from Average to Exceptional with the Hidden Power of Nonverbal Intelligence

Joe Navarro

with Toni Sciarra Poynter

To my wife, Thryth


For Dad




Part 1

The Fundamentals of Nonverbal Intelligence

1 Influence at Your Fingertips

2 The Comfort/Discomfort Paradigm: The Foundation of Nonverbal Intelligence

3 How the Body Talks

Part 2

Applied Nonverbal Intelligence

4 The Power of Your Behavior

5 The Power of How You Look

6 Curbside Appeal: Managing How Your Organization Is Perceived

7 Situational Nonverbals: Best Practices for Best Results

8 Emotional Nonverbals

9 What About Deception?




Searchable Terms

About the Authors

Other Books by Joe Navarro



About the Publisher


IMAGINE KNOWING what others are thinking, feeling, or intending. Imagine being able to powerfully persuade and influence others. Imagine identifying, without being told, points of concern and contention. Imagine being able to enhance how others perceive you, conveying confidence, authority, and empathy.

What we’re really talking about here is the capacity to truly understand people. In business, when confidence, empathy, and the ability to know what others are thinking are combined, you gain a superlative edge.

Fortunately, we are all innately equipped with extraordinary yet seldom used powers of discernment and influence, as well as the potential to achieve great things. This book will reveal how to tap this elemental aptitude that is available to everyone, but employed by few: the silent yet forceful power of nonverbal intelligence.

The world is constantly communicating nonverbally. Our body movements, our facial expressions, how we speak, how we show our emotions, how we dress, the possessions we favor, our conscious and unconscious behaviors and attitudes—even our environments—are all communicating nonverbally.

Nonverbal intelligence allows us to interpret and employ this universal language with fluency and intent. To use a twenty-first-century analogy, nonverbal intelligence is like a computer program: it has tremendous capacity, yet most of us use only a few of its applications, not realizing there are many other valuable features that can assist us in communicating more effectively and in achieving our goals. In addition, like any software, nonverbal intelligence needs to be activated, implemented, upgraded occasionally, and refined with use. In this book, I’ll show you how to access the full depth and power of nonverbals to enhance your business skills as well as your personal life.


We’ve all encountered unproductive, frustrating, or infuriating business situations. We know how they make us feel. What’s less obvious is the degree to which poor nonverbals contributed to the problem: the way a handshake is given or received, how a new client is greeted, the speed of a person’s speech, an arrogant demeanor, even the navigability of a company’s Web site. In this book, you’ll learn how “thin slice assessments” of nonverbals—very rapid assessments or impressions—can support or undermine your business efforts. You’ll also learn how to use these assessments to glean extremely accurate information about others: how cooperative people will be, how intolerant or flexible they are, and whether they deserve your attention.

You’ll learn how to use nonverbals to establish yourself in an organization and place yourself in the lineup for the next promotion. Every day, we have opportunities to score positive or negative points. You will be able to read clients, colleagues, and bosses, and discern when times are good and when trouble is brewing. You’ll discover how to use nonverbals to lead others and create an environment of success that attracts the best and the brightest. You’ll master the secrets of managing people’s perceptions of you to ensure continued success in your present job and when you transition to another enterprise. You will even learn the nonverbals of how organizations are perceived, and how to send the right messages to the public.


My awareness of nonverbals began in childhood, when my family arrived in the United States from Cuba. I was eight years old and knew no English. I was plunged into daily life, attending school, trying to make friends, trying to figure things out in a new country. The only way I could comprehend my world was to watch people’s faces and bodies for clues about what they were thinking or feeling.

My survival response turned into a lifelong study and a professional calling. I learned in the FBI to quickly and assuredly assess the meaning of human behavior so that appropriate action—at times, lifesaving action—could be taken. Moreover, my assessment needed to be scientifically based so that it could stand up to judicial scrutiny. This is what I want to teach you.


Nonverbals are much more than the stereotypical “crossed arms means you’re tense; looking to the left means you’re lying.” As you’ll discover, not only are both examples incorrect, but they also reflect a limited view of the scope of nonverbals.

In every area of life, from childhood to dating to business, we’re bombarded by images, emblems, symbols, acts, and behaviors that transmit ideas, thoughts, messages, and emotions nonverbally. We also use these tactics to draw attention to ourselves, to highlight what we feel is important, to magnify the impact of our words, and to express what words cannot.

Even verbal communication has a nonverbal component: the tone, manner, cadence, volume, and duration of speech are just as important as what is said, as are the nonverbals of pauses and silence.

In business, the setting where a meeting or a speech takes place, the curbside appeal of a building—its architecture, artwork, ornaments, and lighting—are all part of the nonverbal communication process. Colors, too, enter into nonverbal communications, as do seemingly insignificant particulars such as the location of the receptionist’s desk, and whether a security guard sits or stands. All of these communicate something to the public.

On a personal level, we know that our movements, our facial expressions, and our clothes send messages about us, but we also send powerful nonverbal signals by how we’re groomed, whether we have body piercings or tattoos, and how (and even where) we stand, sit, and lean. All of these determine how we’re perceived and what we communicate to others about our feelings, thoughts, and intentions.

Even a detail as simple as carrying a backpack instead of a briefcase may speak volumes, in the same way that the look of our business cards communicates something about us.

The colors we choose for PowerPoint presentations; the speed and appearance of our Web site; the (official or unofficial) company dress code and whether you have “casual Fridays” whether you wear a lapel pin; what your desk looks like; even what time you arrive each day—all of these nonverbals are constantly communicating about you and your business.

Intangible qualities such as your attitude, preparation, humility, presence, and managerial style are also nonverbals. They have profound impact, particularly if you are in a leadership position.

You need only look at leaders of industry and politics to see the mastery of nonverbal communication. When we praise their confidence, charisma, empathy, vision, and leadership, we’re often talking about nonverbals. Our best businesses, too, get the nonverbals right: when we talk about image, branding, halo effect, stickiness, traction, service, responsiveness, and influence, we are often talking about nonverbals.


I have observed, studied, and learned—with continued awe—the power of nonverbals to convey quintessential truths about ourselves. I have witnessed situations in which good people were undermined because they missed nonverbal signals that would have ensured their success, well-being, or safety. In my job as an FBI agent and as a supervisor, a large actor in small events, and a very small actor in large events, I saw many such dramas of life and death, behaviors that acquitted or incarcerated, and actions that led to failure or to extraordinary success. Undertaking this study not in a lab, not in an experiment, but in the high-stakes arena of real life allowed me to analyze and catalogue human behavior engaged for good and for evil, for failure and for success, for mediocrity and for greatness.

Upon my retirement from the FBI, I found myself amazed anew by the ubiquitous presence of nonverbals and by their paradoxes. Nonverbals are hidden in plain sight. They magnify our words and deeds in ways that are incalculable, yet almost indefinable. They are universal to humankind, yet their influence is rarely noticed. They are understood by all, yet actively practiced by a very few of the most successful among us. They achieve tangible victories through intangible means. They are as subtle as the flicker of an eyelid, but they can transform relationships, for nonverbals speak louder than words.

When properly used, nonverbals are the refining element that can draw our actions, words, thoughts, and aspirations into a unified whole and bring others into our circle and in league with one another. They foster trust, comfort, productivity, and respect. They unite rather than divide; bond rather than alienate; elicit the best from each for the benefit of all. That is why nonverbal intelligence is the ultimate requirement for business success.





YOU’VE ARRANGED meetings with two financial advisors in order to choose one to invest your hard-earned savings. At the first office building, the shrubs lining the entrance need trimming and there are fingerprints on the revolving doors.

At the security desk, a guard pushes the guest book toward you. You know the drill: You sign in, volunteer your ID, wait as the call is made upstairs, and then the guard points you toward the elevators.

Upstairs, the receptionist is handling a busy switchboard. In between calls, you quickly state your name and business. She gestures you to a chair, where you choose a magazine from the collection on the coffee table.

You wait ten minutes and are just about to ask the receptionist if you could use the restroom when your prospective advisor strides in. His rolled-up sleeves and loosened tie signal his hectic morning. After quickly shaking your hand, he leads the way to his office.

In his office, the phone is ringing. He grabs it as he motions you to a chair. You sit down and try not to eavesdrop on the one-sided conversation. Finally he hangs up, and your meeting begins.

You proceed to your second meeting. The building’s windows are spotless. The paint job is fresh. The landscaping is crisp.

At the security desk, you’re pleased to be informed that you are expected: your name is on a list of guests. A quick show of your ID, and you’re in the elevator.

The receptionist is on the phone as you approach. She completes the call, hangs up, looks at you, and says, “Good morning. How may I help you?”

You state your name and business. She asks you to be seated while she lets the consultant know you’ve arrived. You sit down and peruse one of the company brochures displayed on the coffee table.

In less than five minutes, your contact comes out, buttoning his suit jacket as he approaches. He greets you with a warm smile and a firm handshake, and you walk together down the hall to his office.

In his office, there is a choice of chairs, and your companion invites you to sit where you’d be most comfortable. You’re surprised to notice that your favorite soft drink awaits you. Then you remember: you received a phone call confirming the meeting and asking what you’d like to drink. You both quickly settle in and begin to talk.

By now I’m sure the answer to this question is obvious: Other variables being roughly equal, to whom will you entrust your money?

What might not be so obvious is that almost every influential element in these scenarios is nonverbal:

The appearance of the premises

The efficiency and courtesy of the security staff

Whether you are spoken to or gestured at

Whether you receive the full attention (time, eye gaze, and greeting) of the receptionist

The type of reading material you are offered

How long you wait

The care your contact has taken with his appearance

Your contact’s approach and handshake

Walking side by side versus being led

Demonstrated concern for your comfort (seating, offering of food)

Your importance compared to the importance of the telephone

Perhaps you consider these things superficial or matters of appearance. But recall the last time you decided to discontinue doing business with someone. Often it’s the accumulation of small, corrosive details—unreturned calls, unanswered e-mails, habitual lateness, the uncomfortable feeling that the person dealing with us is rushed, is disorganized, or has other clients more important than us—that erodes the goodwill and trust on which all commerce is based, ending what began as a positive relationship. Frequently we aren’t consciously aware of how unrewarding a relationship has become—until it’s time to renew the contract, the prices go up, a competitor calls with an attractive pitch, or a careless or costly error becomes “the final straw.”


We humans are born with big, busy brains that love to learn. Sporting a stunning lack of physical defenses (no shell, no claws, no beak, no wings, no fangs, no speed), we have had to depend for our survival on our mental agility: our ability to quickly size up situations, take decisive action based on our impressions, learn from everything that happens, and remember what we’ve learned. We walk around with our radar always switched on. The world is constantly “speaking” to us through our senses, sending a continuous stream of impressions, and we are constantly assessing what those impressions mean.

Many impressions we receive and assess consciously: We spot someone we find attractive and move closer for another look. We smell freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and want to sample them. We hear our boss say our name and go to find out what she wants. Others we receive and assess without conscious thought: We see an oncoming car and leap out of harm’s way. We edge away when someone stands too close. We avoid those whose behavior or appearance seems outside the norm. In short, we are constantly making decisions based on an astonishingly small amount of information—and we do so in an astonishingly short time. This is what is meant by the term “thin slice assessment.”

Thin slice work began to be verified in the 1990s, in studies showing that we make very accurate assessments about people’s personalities very quickly, often after viewing a photograph for just a few seconds or less. It turns out that a great deal of our decision making—from the friends we choose to how we invest our money—is based on the constant promptings of our residual subconscious awareness. This awareness is omnipresent, bypassing logic, operating beneath notice, yet dominating our perceptions. Thin slice assessments give us remarkable insights into others, how we feel about them, their trustworthiness, and their feelings about us. Most of the data on which we base these millisecond, make-or-break evaluations are nonverbal.


My aim in writing this book is to provide the missing piece—and perhaps the most accessible of all—to the success equation: our ability, literally at our fingertips, to influence others in the workplace, interpret others’ nonverbal signals, and gain instant insight into their actions and agendas.


Nonverbals comprise a vast array of movements and gestures as minute as an eyelid flutter and as majestic as the sweep of a ballerina’s arm, from the way we tilt our heads to where we point our feet and everything in between. Popular misconceptions abound about the meaning of specific body nonverbals, and the practice of reading others can degenerate into something akin to a parlor trick. In the chapters that follow, you’ll learn how nonverbal assessment is conducted by professionals, as I performed it in my FBI work, and you will come away with an impressive breadth of knowledge about how to read the body as it “speaks” eloquently in business meetings and in your daily life. You will also learn how body language is just one part of nonverbal communication.


It’s interesting how we profess to dismiss matters of appearance, considering how obsessively we focus on looks (keeping up with fashion; buying anti-aging products; worrying about looking fat; gossiping about who’s had “work” done; reading about the best-and worst-dressed, and so on). Our seemingly paradoxical fixation makes sense, though, when you understand appearance as a form of nonverbal communication. Our brain’s visual cortex, the processing center for what we see, is huge; clearly it evolved as a central component of our brain for good reasons: survival and aesthetics. We notice not only the unkempt fellow standing too close to our car but also the attractive woman behind the perfume counter. We are constantly observing how other people look, and we make decisions about who we want to affiliate with based on what we see—to such a degree that when the tabloids and celebrity magazines tout the latest fashions, many seek immediately to mirror “the new look.”

Our predilection for aesthetics and beauty is actually hardwired in us. Every culture has an appreciation for beauty, health, youth, aesthetics, and symmetry that can be explained only as an evolutionary necessity. Even babies, we now know from research, have an appreciation for beauty. Beautiful symmetrical faces make babies smile, and their pupils dilate in a subconscious effort to take in more of what they like (not unlike the first time I saw Ann-Margret at the Deauville Beach Resort in Miami Beach when I was thirteen—she took my breath away, and I am confident my pupils were fully dilated).

We also appreciate the commanding impact of sheer physical presence. That’s why club bouncers are large, imposing figures. We have a biological affinity for height, which explains why our leaders tend to be taller than the average population.

The profit aspect of appearances has also been well studied and is referred to as the “beauty dividend.” Economists find that people who are good looking tend to earn more money, as they tend to get hired and promoted more frequently. But the researchers also found that the companies benefited, too, as the presence of a good-looking workforce generated more revenue. The beauty dividend is something that advertisers have known for a very long time, which is why you see such beautiful faces associated with the most successful beauty products or just about anything advertised.

Our focus on appearances may not be fair, but it’s human, and if you want to become a nonverbal master, you must attend to appearances—yours and others’—something we will be talking about in chapter 5 as we explore managing our appearance.

* * *


Peter the Great, czar of Russia from 1682 to 1725, during his multiyear “Great Embassy” tour of the West, realized that Russia was backward in both customs and thinking. He intuited that in order to change how the Russians saw themselves vis-à-vis the West, he had to change his people inside and out. He began with his boyars (a term for Russian nobility), who would set the example for the rest. He required that the men shave their long beards and shorten their long hair (picture a Greek Orthodox priest to get an idea of the Russian costume of the time). He also demanded that they exchange their long cloaks for more Western clothes, such as pants. Having worked in the dockyards of Western Europe, he knew that pants were more functional, and he wanted Russians to be as innovative and productive as their Western counterparts. Just in case anyone didn’t “get it,” a model of the ideal attire, known as the “German look,” was posted on Moscow’s city gates, and anyone failing to meet the new dress code was fined. Soon, it was too expensive not to follow the czar’s dictum. Resistance, even among his elites, was met with a visit to the prison and a shave. They got the hint.

Thus, Peter the Great began to change his people by first changing their attire and their looks. When Russians began to see themselves differently, they began to think differently. Within five years, visitors from Europe were astonished to see how much the Russians had changed not just in their attire, but also in their thinking. This was what Peter the Great needed to begin his quest for Western influence and respect for Russia. He knew that the West had two great symbols of power: great navies and great cities. Building on his people’s new thinking, he pursued both feverishly. He built a great navy (today, the second largest in the world) and moved the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg. This city served as the center of government and culture for 200 years. In one generation, Russia went from obscurity to being a player on the global stage, a testament to Czar Pyotr Alexeyevich Romanov’s forward thinking and recognition that in order to achieve great things, you must think differently, and to do that, you must change how people see themselves—quite literally.

* * *


How we speak can also change how we’re perceived and how effectively we communicate. You may not have thought about how the spoken word relates to nonverbal communication, but there is a correlation. It has to do not so much with what we say, but with how we say it. Speech is made up of words but also of characteristics (paralinguistics) such as our attitude, inflection, volume, speed, cadence, emphasis, hesitations, pauses—and even when we speak and when we are silent.

A loudmouth and a fast talker stand out negatively not because of what they say but how they say it. Conversely, we appreciate the reassuring quality of the considerate and deliberative talker, but feel impatient with someone who talks too slowly. These are just a few examples of the nonverbals of speech, but as you’ll discover, there are other aspects of communication beyond words that can enhance or potentiate communications.

* * *


Quick, who was Edward Everett? Don’t feel bad if you don’t know. He was a past president of Harvard University, U.S. envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Britain, and one of the most eminent American orators. Three years before he died, he was asked to give the most important speech of his life, at a most important and solemn occasion. The purpose of this event was to pay tribute to an episode of profound suffering and sacrifice that had no equal in our nation’s history, and to place it in the context of the terrible and epic struggle in which citizens were at that time engaged. Edward Everett spoke for just over two hours (2:08, to be exact) to an audience that had been gathering for days. His speech, by all accounts, met every expectation of this gifted orator. Unfortunately, as with his name, no one remembers one iota, not one sound bite, from that speech.

When Everett was done, the next speaker was introduced, and his remarks we do remember. He spoke for just under three minutes and reduced the most complex of subjects, and the sacrifice of thousands, to just 272 words—a mere ten brief sentences. He spoke so briefly that the photographers present could not ready their equipment in time; so we have no pictorial record of his speech. But his words live and resonate with us. He began with the most improbable of openings, which forced his audience to think: “Four score and seven years ago…”

Those 272 words, not the previous two hours’ worth, are the ones that captured the moment. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery is known throughout the world for its simplicity and its exquisite ability to communicate the great price paid by so many for the concept of a unified democracy. His speech was singularly brilliant, made so by a sharp mind legally trained to influence juries, or in this case, his attentive listeners and a troubled nation. Lincoln well understood that more is not always better; that people appreciate simplicity and that brevity can intensify a message which will be long etched our minds.

* * *


Two essential factors in understanding your audience are empathy and being an active listener. The Chinese character for “listening” is actually rather complex; it contains the characters for “ear,” “eyes,” “heart,” and “undivided attention.” There’s a huge difference between listening and listening empathetically.

Think of someone in whom you feel comfortable confiding. He or she is probably an empathetic listener. The research is well established that physicians are less likely to be sued if they engage in demonstrated empathetic listening and comforting displays (for example, touching). Stockbrokers who can listen empathetically to their clients are less likely to be harangued when an investment tanks or a bull market turns bear. The manager who can listen empathetically to an employee who has personal or work issues can enhance that employee’s loyalty simply by listening, even if there is nothing he can do to help the situation.


Hand in hand with active listening is verbal mirroring, based on the work of renowned psychologist and author Carl Rogers (1902–1987). Verbal mirroring is a simple yet remarkably powerful therapeutic technique to quickly establish a connection with someone. I found it extremely valuable in the FBI to establish empathetic channels of communication.

Rogers believed in anchoring any inquiry around the psyche of the person in question, thereby building a more effective therapeutic relationship. He achieved this simply by listening to what his patients said and then using that information, precisely as stated, to respond to the patient. If his patient said “my home,” Rogers would mirror the patient by also using the word “home,” not house. If the patient said “my child,” Rogers, too, would say “child,” not kid, not daughter. Verbal mirroring is a powerful tool in professions where establishing rapport is key, such as medicine, psychology, sales, finance, and governance.

Unfortunately, most people are linguistically self-centered and use their own language to anchor a conversation. In order to be maximally effective, you must use the other person’s language; in doing so, you mirror what is in their minds and what is linguistically—even psychologically—comforting. You are at once in synchrony.

I’m in my fifties, and when I was growing up, we had “problems,” not “issues.” When someone asks, “Do you have any issues with this?” that does not resonate with me as well as “Do you have any problems with this?” To me, “issues” has little traction, and I suspect it is the same for many of my generation and earlier.

This inability to mirror language preferences is something I frequently encounter in my seminars with businesspeople who assume their clients understand or use the same terms of art as they. Not necessarily so. You must listen carefully. If the client says, “How many bucks will this cost?” don’t answer by talking about “price points.” If you do, you’ll be talking, but not communicating effectively, and certainly not communicating empathetically. If a client says he’s “scared about the economy,” let him know you understand he’s “scared” don’t reply, “I can see you are concerned.” He isn’t “concerned,” he’s “scared”! When you use others’ words (that is, other-centered rather than self-centered) you are saying that you empathize fully. The other person subconsciously feels understood at a deeper level and tends to be more responsive.

I learned about the importance of establishing a common language early in my career when I had to deal with a federal fugitive. When I arrested him just outside of Kingman, Arizona, he began to talk to me about his life. As we drove to the nearest magistrate, I used all the terms he used: “awkward,” “embarrassed,” “worried,” “a good Christian.” I told him I understood how embarrassed he was and that it was awkward to be arrested and that he was worried about what his mother might think because he was a good Christian. As a result, he grew to trust me in the short span of a car ride to Phoenix. He revealed things to me that previous investigators had missed, including other victims. These confessions took place not because I was clever, but because I understood the power of verbal mirroring.

So listen to your clients, patients, employees, and business associates for the terms they use, and use them to your advantage. Obviously, you can also do this with loved ones. As you will see, you’ll be perceived as being a more empathetic and better listener.


Think about your workplace. Whose office is a mess? Who habitually arrives late? Who wastes time in meetings? Who is perpetually working his smartphone while others are speaking? Who never gets back to you? Who is lazy, always making excuses for not doing his or her work? Who are the habitual socializers (what one frustrated and overworked employee confided to me are “oxygen thieves”)?

I’ll bet you know just who these people are. So does everyone else you work with—except for these people themselves. They’re oblivious to the negative effects their actions are having on their image. They may be skilled in many other ways, but there are other equally skilled people in today’s supercompetitive employment pool who can keep their offices neat, who get to work on time, who prepare for meetings, who respect their colleagues, and who work hard for their salary. There’s a correlation between etiquette and good nonverbals in that both deal with the behaviors that make people comfortable and facilitate positive outcomes. Neatness, punctuality, preparation, attentiveness, and hard work are a just few of the many nonverbals of behavior that make unforgettable impressions in business settings.

Bottom line: people notice and form opinions of you based on your behavior. And in a work setting, they notice everything: what time you arrive, how many cigarette breaks you take, how much time you spend on the phone talking to friends, how often you take sick days, the quality of your work, whether you kiss up to the boss, and whether you are a whiner or a hard worker. If you think others don’t notice, you are in deep denial. All of your negative actions leave a deep residual impression that will work against you and your employer.

Not only do people within the organization notice how you behave, but outsiders will also note how you and your staff behave. For example, hospitals and health care facilities are now mandated to survey their patients upon release (known as the “Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems”). Out of twenty-one questions, fully two-thirds deal with nonverbal communications, such as: Was the doctor attentive? Did the staff listen to your requests? Did care providers respond quickly? And so on. I’ll explain in later chapters how you can distinguish yourself and your business from the pack by learning the nonverbal behaviors that put people at ease and showcase you at your best. Self-presentation is now key; especially with the primacy of the Internet. It was slightly serious when college professors began to be rated online; now companies can be devastated by bloggers’ postings deriding poor service. The power of poor ratings to undermine sales is one reason fights so vigorously to give good service.


Why do we choose one bank over another, when the prime lending rate is the same for all? Our selection is based on services offered, of course, but also on factors such as “curbside appeal,” advertising, perceptions, and how we are treated—all of which are nonverbals. The most successful businesses understand the silent influence of aesthetics, from the design of the lobby to the furnishings of the CEO’s office. A stunning eighteen variants of white paint are used on the facade of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, and the building is constantly being scrubbed and repainted. Why? Because that curbside appeal assures a high occupancy rate; after all, there is no shortage of hotels in Vegas.

Not only does environmental appearance affect profits, but it even affects whether we behave well or poorly. Research has recently proven the broken windows theory: that the disorderly appearance of an area increases the incidence of crime and antisocial behavior in that area. After spray painting and abandoning property in an otherwise good area, researchers found a significant increase in property-related crimes. The bottom line, something all police officers know: When people act as if they don’t care, then criminals assume that it’s okay to act out antisocially.

When you begin to view your workplace through the nonverbal lens, as we’ll do in chapters 6 and 7, you will gain many insights about the effects of elements both small and large that influence the workplace.


Humility, dignity, confidence, arrogance, surliness, timidity: Many people don’t realize that the intangibles we associate with character are often most powerfully expressed nonverbally. What’s the first impression that comes to mind when you think of Mahatma Gandhi? It is an image—a nonverbal—of him garbed in a simple loincloth. This slight man, by exercising restraint, passive civil resistance, and humility, overcame British rule. No blue suit, no power ties, no private jets, no limos, no entourage.

I tell young businesspeople that if they want to be effective, try being more humble. Arrogance can ruin a business reputation. I have yet to meet anyone who likes someone who is pompous and arrogant. Narcissism garners no sympathy, as former New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer found after he got caught up in a prostitution ring; people turned on him mercilessly because of his history of “arrogance.”

* * *


The nation is currently knee deep in a recession triggered by the mortgage loan crisis of 2008. One of the side effects is the U.S. car industry being brought to the brink of bankruptcy. The chairmen of the Big Three—Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler—went to Washington, D.C., to plead their case before Congress for $25 billion in taxpayer assistance. With millions of employees’ livelihoods hanging in the balance, they chose to travel to the nation’s capital on their company jets. Their nonverbal blunder earned them the scorn of Congress, the president, the unions, the press, and the average American worker. “There’s a delicious irony,” said one congressman, “in seeing private luxury jets flying into Washington, D.C., and people coming off of them with tin cups in their hands.” That was gentle compared to what other senators said. It was incomprehensible that otherwise intelligent, well-educated individuals could fumble so deeply and visibly.

As the rest of the nation was bracing for the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, these men appeared to have no idea what these nonverbals would communicate. Not only did they arrive without a plan (they just wanted working capital), but they arrived with such an attitude that they found no friends in Washington or among the American public. Here was a perception management fiasco of billion-dollar proportions that will be studied for years to come as a “what not to do” case in business classes across America.

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During the presidential campaign of 2008, I was asked to appear several times on The Early Show (CBS) to analyze the candidates’ nonverbals at their national convention speeches and at the debates. What struck me most strongly was this: After all the rallies, stump speeches, ad campaigns, and debates are over, no one really remembers what the candidates said. But we do remember who looked poised, who looked experienced, who winked like a college cheerleader, who looked competent, who looked “presidential.” Mostly we remember the nonverbals. Every four years, we are reminded of the power of nonverbal communications, as those who compete to become our chief executive will be remembered in part for what they say, but mostly for how they perform on the national stage, as a test of how they will perform on the world stage.

NONVERBALS REACH far and wide into our lives. Your nonverbals form an aggregate impression of what you represent. Those who recognize this will have access to a powerful level of influence that others do not. Trust, comfort, cooperation, affinity, productivity, and influence are all vitally dependent on nonverbals. To neglect their power is to court mediocrity—or worse, failure. In the next chapter, you’ll learn just how deeply rooted are our needs for comfort and trust, driving our behavior in every context imaginable.



I CARRY a collection of photographs on my travels to remind me of those I hold dear. One of my favorites is a photo of my daughter and me when she was fourteen months old. She is nestled in my arms, over my heart. Our heads are almost touching, and we are both drowsy and contented.

In contrast, consider what we saw during the frightening weeks of the bank crisis and the near collapse of the global economy in the fall of 2008. Cameras trained on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange provided a visual textbook of the nonverbals of fear and anguish displayed in real time: eyes tightly closed or the entire face blocked with the hands to ward off the appalling figures cascading across computer screens; arms protectively hugging the body; vulnerable lips turned inward and mouths contorted into the upside-down U of extreme distress; hands seeking to soothe by stroking the mouth and chin; palms clasped as if in prayer; nails being bitten; cheeks puffed out as air was forcefully expelled to relieve tension. These are the very images of discomfort.

Comfort and discomfort—pleasure and pain. This dyad comprises the essential polarity of life. We are at all times experiencing one or the other, and our bodies react with a stream of chemical responses that govern our moods and shape our behaviors. The comfort/discomfort response is innate in all of us and is fundamental to our survival. Because our brains are elegantly hardwired to react this way, observing this dynamic in others can be a useful way of gauging what they are thinking, feeling, or intending.


I developed this paradigm for nonverbals after reading hundreds of books and articles and trying to determine the simplest way to teach FBI agents what I knew about assessing nonverbal behavior. The material I studied was fascinating, but it was also pedantic. The subject was divided into categories such as “feelings,” “complementing,” “regulating,” “ambiguous,” and “accenting behaviors.” And because nonverbal communication reaches across so many disciplines (biology, neurology, sociology, psychology, anthropology), putting the information together for practitioners like me was quite difficult. While this was how I had learned about nonverbal communication, it was not how I wanted to teach it, nor apply it in the real world of counterintelligence.

In addition to drawing on the existing academic research (mostly studies done on students in university settings), I took it upon myself to draw on the ample opportunities afforded me in the FBI and test the research where it mattered most: sitting opposite a spy or a terrorist. Moreover, the urgency of my work in national security matters compelled me to become extremely efficient at nonverbal analysis. There were too many cases to solve and no time or money to waste on “analysis paralysis.” Spies and criminals act in real time; there’s no time to deliberate, no commercial breaks, no time-outs, and no rewind; consequently, we had to come up with a way to accurately and quickly analyze behavior so that appropriate action could be taken.

In sum, the process had to be streamlined, to be taught quickly to both counterintelligence officers and law enforcement personnel; practical, to be put to immediate use; yet rigorous enough to stand up to both scientific and judicial scrutiny. I found that my students were quick to grasp the simplicity of the comfort/discomfort paradigm, which has now been taught to thousands of students around the globe.

Very simply, it works like this: when you observe a behavior, ask yourself, “Does it represent comfort or discomfort?” This question is easy to comprehend. If I were to mention courtship behaviors, you might think of holding hands and gazing into the other person’s eyes, closeness, touching, walking in step (known as body echoing or isopraxis, from the Greek iso, meaning same, and praxis, meaning behavior), tilted heads, genuine smiles, and so on.

In contrast, what do we see in someone who feels defensive, as would be the case with people trying to cover their criminal actions or guilty knowledge? We would see the opposite behaviors: distancing actions such as leaning away or withdrawing the hands and feet; stiff posture and movements; compressed, unsmiling lips; furtive looking about; and restlessness or tension.

I began to teach nonverbals in this way, finding that once we anchor observations around this paradigm (comfort/discomfort), behaviors become more transparent. In many respects, our reactions to the world around us really are very binary, in the same way that our brain is binary when it comes to protecting our survival.

The sudden appearance of a snake poised to strike or a snarling Doberman, for example, must be processed instantly: it’s either a threat or it’s not. The brain conducts no lengthy deliberation, which frees us to respond instantly. From an evolutionary standpoint, there was no benefit for us as a species to ponder threats at length. So we developed a very effective means of determining whether something threatened us or caused us discomfort. Our reaction is no different in the twenty-first century than it was 20,000 years ago, even for lesser things: if we walk into a room that’s too hot, we react immediately, just as we do if someone stands too close to us. Our negative reaction is instantaneous and absolutely accurate in reflecting our inner state. How we feel (comfort or discomfort) is reflected, moment by moment, in our behaviors: we will have a big smile or our shoulders will slump.

To help my students, and to further validate this paradigm, I began to keep a list of words and phrases that naturally fall within the domains of comfort and discomfort (you will probably immediately come up with a few on your own). It’s astonishing to see how many of our emotions and behaviors fit within these two categories. Below is a small sampling:


calmness: anxiety

confidence: apprehension

clear thinking: clouded thinking

closeness: distancing

enjoyment: contrariness

fluid speech: speech error

friendliness: unfriendliness

happiness: depression

openness: occlusion

touching: withdrawal

joy: anger

patience: impatience

peacefulness: nervousness

calm: fear

receptiveness: obduracy

relaxation: tension

respect: indifference

security: insecurity

tenderness: sternness

trust: doubt

truthfulness: lies

warmth: coldness

responsiveness: hesitation

poise: ranting

Although not exhaustive by any means, this selection provides insight into how many of our behaviors, attitudes, and emotions fall into these two categories.


From the day we’re born, we are transmitting information about how we feel. We are either fed (comfortable) or hungry (uncomfortable); wet or dry; content or irritable. Later in life, we are in a constant state of flux between comfort and discomfort: we are either nervous or secure, confident or bewildered, or any one of an almost limitless variety of shadings on the comfort/discomfort scale. Think about it—you know when you’ve had a good day: when there is the absence of discomfort.

Comfort encompasses touching, trust, proximity, and understanding. How wonderful these qualities are for relationships. What comes under discomfort? Things like distance, defensiveness, resistance, and concealment. These are not good for family, for business, or in any kind of setting.

This cycling between comfort and discomfort begins the minute we wake up. We get out of bed and our back hurts or it feels fine; the shower is too hot or too cold; we can find our sandals or they have disappeared; the coffee is too strong or it’s just right; and on and on. At the office, either the document is perfect or the third paragraph needs to be changed; either it’s a good deal they’re offering or it’s not; Frank is fun to be around, or he ruins my day. And so it goes. Every day, hundreds of times each day, we move between these opposing states, and our bodies communicate how we feel each and every instant.


Which side of the Comfort/Discomfort Paradigm is conducive to effective leadership, nurturing business clients, effective selling, and dealing satisfactorily with human resource issues? I’m sure you immediately appreciate how essential it is to cultivate comfort in business settings, because the effects of these behaviors are so profound. Issues of discomfort must always be addressed and comfort restored before productive work can be pursued. Nonverbal intelligence—the ability to read others—will help you detect and address discomfort even if others never verbalize it, often before they’re consciously aware of it. In fact, if you’re in a stressful business situation and draw a blank on everything you’ve learned about nonverbal intelligence, just ask yourself, “Is this behavior consistent with comfort or discomfort?” If you do that, most of the time you’ll be able to get things back on track.

When I was in the FBI, we spent an inordinate amount of time with interviewees establishing rapport (comfort) because experience has long taught us that people will cooperate less when there is a high degree of tension, distrust, or animosity (discomfort). Incidentally, discomfort affects memory adversely, which is why when you’re stressed you can’t remember where you put your keys. I can assure you, no one ever confessed to me because they were upset with me or were belligerent. Confessions in real life, unlike those you see on television crime dramas, take place when rapport has been established between the interviewer and the interviewee.


Not only will nonverbals help you establish comfort in others, but they’ll also help you communicate more effectively. Ever notice that great speakers and strong leaders speak with such comfort? They exude confidence, and that can be achieved only through comfort displays. No matter how stressful or contentious the situation, the leader who appears unfazed (that is, who displays comfort) is the person to whom we flock.


Our brain constantly alerts us to our state of comfort or discomfort, causing us to distance ourselves from what threatens us and draw close to what sustains us. This highly developed survival mechanism helps us escape danger and form the cooperative bonds that have enabled our species to survive.

The part of the brain that drives our survival response is known as the limbic brain. Located deep within the brain, there are a number of ancient structures comprised in part of the corpus callosum (which interconnects left and right hemispheres of the brain), the amygdala (which reacts to anything that can hurt us), the hippocampus (where emotional memories and experiences are stored), the thalamus (which distills sensory information like a CPU), and the hypothalamus (which regulates homeostasis).

Like virus protection for your computer, your limbic brain is always running in the background, regardless of what your neo-cortex (the part of the brain responsible for conscious thought) is up to. You might be deeply engrossed in finishing a report, but when someone enters your space from behind, you jerk upright at the intrusion, instantly diverted from your task. You might be striding across the street, mentally composing a presentation or a grocery list, and leap sideways when a car swerves unexpectedly toward you. You might be sitting and talking to someone while your toddler plays in the wading pool nearby, yet you lunge to catch her just before she falls and hits her face. This is our limbic brain ready to protect us and those we care for. It’s interesting to note that in instances such as these, we humans have “cat-like reflexes,” whereas the rest of the time, when we have to think about doing something, most other animals’ reaction times would beat ours hands down.


When we perceive danger, our limbic system triggers one of three neurological responses that have stood the test of millennia. In What Every Body Is Saying, I called these the “three F’s of nonverbals”: we freeze, flee, or fight.


Most of us have heard the phrase “fight or flight,” in reference to threats, but in fact there’s a triad of responses, and “freeze” is our first and preferred response. Why? One word: efficacy. Imagine you’re an early hominid minding your business on the African savanna, when suddenly you spot a saber-toothed tiger lurking in the shadows. You freeze. This is “limbic common sense”: better to remain motionless and hope the predator doesn’t notice you than to move and trigger the chase-trip-bite response for which the big cats are known. All mammals have an orientation reflex to movement, and the one sure way to defy it is to remain still. The freeze response also allows us to conserve energy and assess our environment for alternatives. We would not have survived or evolved as a species if this reaction had not been worked out through evolutionary trial and error.

Although the suburbs and skyscrapers we live and work in today are far removed from the African savanna, old limbic habits die hard. The freeze response is still our first line of defense and is seen in many nonverbals: the employee who sits with hands locked in her lap and legs locked at the ankles during a poor performance review; the politician who smiles but grips the arms of his chair when asked a tough question; the student gazing at the professor with a deer-in-the-headlights expression because he has not read the assignment; the perpetrator who is flash-frozen in his chair while being interviewed and claims he knows nothing of the crime. In all these cases, the freeze response has kicked in and it shows in the language of the body.

When violence erupts, or when there’s a loud noise, we often see people suddenly hold very still, as though in shock. This is the freeze response at work. This response is so sensitive that even when we hear bad news, we will freeze for an instant as we contemplate the tragedy.


If freezing doesn’t dispel the threat, flight is the next choice. We’ve all seen nature shows depicting the remarkable response of a peacefully grazing herd attacked by one hungry cheetah: a hundred heads snap up (freeze); a heartbeat later, the herd is on the run.

In modern life, we can’t always leave scenes that make us uncomfortable, but that doesn’t stop the limbic system from trying by compelling us to distance ourselves from anything negative. As you’ll learn in the next chapter, our “honest” legs and feet offer revealing nonverbals of our desire for distance: Our feet angle away when we’re ready to end a conversation; jurors turn their legs toward exits when they don’t like a witness; we swivel in our conference room chairs away from people who make inappropriate remarks; and we naturally stand obliquely to someone we dislike. It is our limbic way of creating distance from that which is disagreeable.

Similarly our torso will lean away from those with whom we are at odds, or we will turn slightly. We ventrally deny (turn our chest away) those who irk us (remember Princess Di and Prince Charles in their final year of marriage?), ultimately turning our back on them if it’s really bad. Or we distance ourselves by creating barriers (purse suddenly placed on lap, buttoning our jacket, locking the car door, looking away), including shielding our eyes by lowering our eyelids or covering them with our fingers. These are modern adaptations that help us to distance ourselves from others.


When our back is literally or metaphorically to the wall, and freezing or fleeing aren’t options, we fight. Fighting is the most “expensive” option of the three F’s, as it drains energy, puts us at physical risk, and pits our strength directly against the predator’s, which may not assure our success.

In modern “civilized” society, we have transformed the fight response into things such as passive aggression (saying we’ll do the job and then not finishing it), arguing and ranting, throwing objects at walls, stomping our feet, crashing cars into living rooms, and putting firecrackers in mailboxes—to name just a few examples from this week’s headlines.

Because we have laws against violence toward others, most of us have turned our aggression inward (punching our own hands, throwing objects to the ground, biting our lip so hard it bleeds), or we do it by proxy (nasty letters, letting our dog run in the neighbor’s yard) or through body displays: Picture two men yelling at each other with their chests puffed out; the toxic boss who belittles you, leaning forward with his hands braced on his desk; the irate airline passenger violating the clerk’s space by leaning far over the counter; the baseball team manager whose jutting chin and in-your-face behavior lets the umpire know what he thinks of the last call. Arguing, name calling, blustering, having a fit—these are modern ways of fighting, since judges frown upon outright combat. And yet fighting, the punching kind, still takes place.

Nonverbals can help here also, indicating when a fight is imminent. Tightening the jaw, making a fist, thrusting out the chest, removing clothing (especially glasses, hats, or coats), and flaring the nostrils (hyperoxygenation) are often precursors to going kinetic (fighting). While we don’t fight as often as we did, say, during the Middle Ages, we have adapted to fight in a different way, in a modern way—but it is still a limbic response.


The comfort/discomfort responses wired by nature are refined by nurturing. From the moment we’re born, our interactions with others train our brain’s chemical and electrical responses, which in turn affect our emotions and behaviors in an exquisite feedback loop that literally shapes who we become.

We see the earliest expression of the comfort/discomfort paradigm in the interaction between mother and baby: the baby expresses discomfort (for example, crying at being hungry or wet) and the mother tenderly restores the baby’s comfort. Here we learn our first emotional lessons. By expressing discomfort, the baby garners attention via the mother’s comforting response. The mother learns to be attentive to the child’s nonverbals, realizing that if she attends to and deals with displays of discomfort, the child is soon soothed. The child learns to trust in the caring response.

On a physiological level, nurturing behaviors release a cascade of chemicals including oxytocin, which contributes to social and interpersonal bonding. In fact, the infant’s chief survival activity—suckling—stimulates the release of oxytocin in both mother and child. Thus we’re chemically primed to both seek and give comfort as the very basis of life. As we grow older, oxytocin becomes even more important in building bonds such as those of courtship and marriage, as well as in business. Research shows that when we have healthy business relationships, where there is mutual respect and appropriate human touch, we trust more and are more willing to part with our money.


Mirroring—matching each other’s movements and postures—is our most powerful interpersonal comfort display. Once again, we see it first between parent and infant. Researchers have captured this beautiful expression of harmony on film. When seen in slow motion, mirroring (also known as isopraxis, postural echoing, or synchrony) looks like a dance: The baby smiles; the mother smiles; the baby coos; the mother vocalizes similarly; the baby tilts its head; so does the mother. This is the beginning of empathetic communication, something that will serve us well in courtship and in business in years to come.

Just as we have a preference for comfort, so we have a preference for synchrony. In fact, when a baby cries in a nursery, other babies will cry in synchrony. When a friend receives bad news and looks downtrodden, we respond likewise, demonstrating our empathy by displaying identical behaviors. This is why at a funeral everyone appears to have the same facial expression, as well as why we all cheer similarly when the team scores a touchdown. Synchrony both fosters and demonstrates social harmony.

* * *


It is interesting to note that the Secret Service looks for the face in the crowd that is out of synchrony with everyone else’s, a good indicator that someone may be formulating something different from the group—perhaps even something criminal. After John W. Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan, witnesses commented to investigators on how Hinckley’s appearance, demeanor, and countenance looked odd. His appearance was out of synchrony with everyone else, who was elated to see the president up close. The same thing happened when Arthur Bremer tried to kill Governor George C. Wallace; Bremer too stood out in the crowd by his “odd” look, which was later revealed in news photographs.

* * *

We find synchrony with strangers as well as with those whom we know. For instance, while I was writing this chapter, I was asked to appear on an early-morning TV show. In the green room, I struck up a conversation with a fellow guest, a very nice person. We were getting along really well. Because this chapter was on my mind and, admittedly, just to see what would happen, I decided to change our comfort paradigm by changing how I was sitting. We were sitting across from each other with our legs slightly apart, hands in our laps. I suddenly shifted around when someone came into the room and lifted my left leg over my knee so that it appeared to be a barrier, while my feet pointed toward the door. The man suddenly straightened and changed his position to mirror mine. Conversation resumed with hesitation, only after he adjusted his posture.

My companion had no conscious awareness of having mirrored me. By now you know why: the limbic system operates in parallel time. Our default preferences for comfort and discomfort come from our brain’s hardwiring, our life experiences, and our cultural conditioning. Moment to moment, we move through this spectrum from comfort to discomfort and back again, our limbic system placing every experience somewhere along this spectrum, shaping our responses, always attempting to return us to comfort.


Cultural preferences, it should be pointed out, also shape but do not override our limbic responses, which is why limbic responses are universal. These, too, are instilled from infancy onward, and they are so pervasive and subtle that whole books are devoted to cross-cultural awareness.

For example, where you grow up will determine how close you will stand next to others; which way you will face in an elevator (in North America we face the doors and stare at the floor numbers; in South America people turn and face each other); how often and where you touch others in public; and how long you can stare at someone. Personal space is culturally influenced: Latin Americans may feel uncomfortable if someone gets within eight inches of them; here in North America that zone starts at two feet. Sensitivity to others’ personal space affects how you are perceived; this will be discussed later in the book. Nurturing and socialization, too, influence our comfort levels in this and many other interactions. When it comes to body space, culture will determine the distance, but your limbic system will determine whether or not you are comfortable.

IN THE end, when you are with others, your assessment task is straightforward: If there is comfort, you’ll see isopraxis or mirroring, accompanied by other comfort displays. If there’s discomfort, you will see those clearly, too. And if that discomfort is aggravated, one of three F’s of nonverbals (freeze, flight, fight—or rigidity, distancing, acrimony) will manifest. For business, comfort is key, as you’ll see in the next chapter. When there is comfort, communication is more effective, we become more persuasive, and transactions come about more smoothly.

Others may talk about personality types, thinking styles, and emotional intelligence. All of these have their place, but in my decades of experience in life-or-death situations, espionage work, and counterintelligence, the comfort/discomfort paradigm, expressed nonverbally, is instantly detectable in real time and is acutely reliable in revealing what we feel, think, or intend. It is the indispensable tool for everyday business, and it’s free.



HERE WE look at how each part of the body communicates nonverbally. You’ll also learn the basic vocabulary of nonverbals. Once you grasp these essentials, it’s as if you suddenly understand a language that until now was vaguely comprehensible. As you walk down the street, sit in a meeting, converse with your boss, wait in line at a store, or watch a televised press conference or a talk show, a new world is revealed to you. Seemingly random movements by colleagues, neighbors, and even our national leaders become organized into a stream of information that is rich and fluent.


The following are the main terms experts use when assessing nonverbals. If you’d like a resource for the complete nonverbal vocabulary, refer to my previous book What Every Body Is Saying.


When I interviewed criminal suspects at the FBI, the last thing I wanted was to intimidate them or put them on the defensive. On the contrary: I wanted to put them at ease; make sure they had something to drink; see to their comfort. And while they got comfortable, I observed their every move, from their posture as they approached me to their eye blink rate as we sat together. Why? Because in order to know how an individual exhibits discomfort, you must first observe how they behave when comfortable. Once you establish a person’s comfort behaviors as a baseline, you’ll watch for departures from the baseline as signs of discomfort. For example, it’s often assumed that crossed arms signal defensiveness. Not so, if a person characteristically stands this way. I have a friend who often crosses his arms pensively during conversation. It’s when he abruptly changes his position that I attune to possible discomfort.


All nonverbals must be understood in context. Expressions of stress in someone whose daughter is ill or whose job is on the line are to be expected. The specter of losing a child or of being fired adds context, explaining nonverbals of anxiety or discomfort. Context must be considered in less extreme situations, too: observe the stress on the faces of people at the airport—air travel is stressful, with canceled flights and surly flight attendants. Being questioned by a police officer can also cause stress; just the fact that the officer is wearing a uniform and a badge can cause stress, so we must consider the human factor as part of context. Family makes us comfortable; strangers make us uncomfortable. You can see this dynamic in the office: you feel comfortable with your workmates and, ideally, your boss; they are “family.” But when the CEO visits from out of town, everyone is uptight around this high-status stranger.


Emphasis is nonverbal punctuation: it is our body’s way of making an exclamation point. When we point repeatedly at someone in anger or raise our arms in triumph after a touchdown, we’re making an exclamation through our body’s emphatic nonverbal gestures. Emphasis attaches emotion to our messages, making them memorable.

In business, it is through emphasis that we demarcate what is important and noteworthy. When we fail to emphasize, talk often becomes mere chatter. When we’re unable to recall something that was said, it’s often because the message was delivered without emphasis. Messages that have emotion attached tend to last longer. For this purpose, nonverbals are invaluable. Emphasis can light a fire in us; this is what coaches do to excite their athletes to perform exceptionally.


“Things are looking up” is an expression of optimism that has literal parallels in nonverbals. When people are feeling good, they’re quite literally up: their nonverbals move skyward, in effect defying gravity. You’ll see eyebrows up, chin up, thumbs up, and even toes up. I frequently see these behaviors during breaks at my lectures when people check their phone messages: if it’s good news, toes go up. In the boardroom, interlaced hands with thumbs sticking up also reflect positive thoughts.


Haptics is the study of how we touch things and of how things feel. Through analysis of haptics, engineers figure out how to make that new cell phone screen or computer keyboard ever more responsive to your touch. Haptics also encompasses how we touch each other. A mother’s gentle touch on her baby’s face is a form of haptics. I recently saw a child cup her father’s chin, a beautiful gesture of love.

How we touch each other is always significant, even in business, as you’ll discover when we discuss greetings in chapter 7. In business, research tells us, trust and empathy are engendered through touch. The more touching there is, the more empathetic the communication. Restaurant servers who touch the arm of their customers will receive bigger tips.


Often people’s bodies reveal their intentions long before they verbalize their wishes. These intention cues are powerful indicators and should be heeded whenever possible. If you’re having a conversation with your boss and he turns his torso slightly away from you, or if you see that his lead foot is pointing toward an exit, he’s sending an intention cue that he would like to wrap up the discussion. Don’t take it personally; subconsciously your boss is simply saying, “I have to leave.” Whatever their reasons, when people exhibit these cues, they’re seeking space and time. They will appreciate it when you gracefully disengage.


Kinesics is the study of body movement, in particular of our extremities. Some people confuse kinesics with nonverbals; but nonverbals encompass so much more: facial expressions, tone of voice, eye behaviors, self-touching, clothing, and personal accoutrements, to name a few. This term was popular in 1970s and 1980s, and several books were written with the term in the title (for example, Principles of Kinesic Interview and Interrogation); now it finds little usage except among researchers.


Microgestures or microexpressions (terms coined by the renowned researcher Dr. Paul Ekman) are fleeting nonverbals that can be very revealing. Because their speed and timing defy conscious control, they tend to be true and honest. Often associated with negative feelings or discomfort, they give us a clear window into others’ feelings. There are many microgestures, but one we often see in business is a quick squinting or tensing of the lower eyelids. Subtle as this movement is, it is truly indicative of discomfort. I’ve seen this betraying microgesture often in attorneys while reviewing a contract, at the very moment when they read an objectionable paragraph.


Pacifying behaviors are actions that soothe us and attempt to restore comfort from a state of discomfort. Any self-touching, rubbing, or cradling behavior has obvious aims to calm—such as when people play with their wedding band or necklace when waiting to hear a medical diagnosis. We may pacify by touching or covering a vulnerable or exposed point or area (rubbing the neck, cupping the chin, fiddling with an earring or an earlobe). We pacify ourselves in multiple ways, all day long. We rub our forehead when mulling over a problem; we adjust our tie or smooth our hair before we meet the new boss; we fold our arms protectively around our bodies as we congregate to whisper about a coworker’s abrupt dismissal. We engage in pacifying behaviors when we are slightly insecure or nervous as well as when we are afraid.

Pacifiers are often referred to in the literature as “adaptors.” We’ll use the term “pacifiers” throughout this book because I find most people relate better to it and because it describes precisely what is going on: pacifiers are the brain’s way of saying to the body, “Please calm me down or soothe me.”

You’ll see pacifying behaviors in evidence when someone is stressed, insecure, frightened, trying to calm down, attempting to get focused, or feeling fatigued. By recognizing pacifiers, we can assist others, and even ourselves, to ease negative emotions.


Proxemics is the study of interpersonal distances and how we use space. Proxemics is influenced by hierarchy (social and economic), culture, circumstances, and our personal comfort level. When we feel our “space” is violated, we become aroused limbically. Think about a time when someone stood uncomfortably close to you at an ATM, in line at a store, or on an elevator. I suspect you found it uncomfortable at best and that it significantly disrupted your concentration at worst. Whether you’re seating people around a table or greeting someone from another culture, attending to proxemics is an important yet often overlooked element in influencing others, whether to establish comfort, convey authority, or acknowledge status.


As mentioned in chapter 2, synchrony is nature’s way of physically expressing harmony. In business we say we are on the same page or in sync. In courtship we walk slowly through the park with the one we love. Synchrony of the body expresses unity of mind and heart. It enriches life by transmitting to others that we are one with them.

Examples of synchrony abound, and it’s interesting to see how highly we prize it. In sports, we marvel at synchronized diving and synchronized swimming. The world was mesmerized and awed by thousands of drummers playing in unison at the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Consider the stirring effect of the marching band, or the solemn beauty of the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery or at Buckingham Palace. This is also why we wear uniforms: visual synchrony draws us together and makes one out of many. We even see synchrony in weddings where the bridesmaids wear the same dress, demonstrating their unity. Synchrony in attire (business suits) or in behavior (walking at the same pace as our boss) creates harmony.

When we are out of synchrony (sync), there is discord or dissonance; at a subconscious level it undermines how we feel and destabilizes effective communication and interpersonal harmony, both in business and with friends.


Through territorial displays, we communicate our spatial needs, and how we view ourselves socially and even emotionally. In every culture, the higher-status individual is accorded greater space, is apportioned larger property, and claims greater territory. When Christopher Columbus went to plead his case before Queen Isabella to fund his voyage to the Americas, he never got closer than a few yards from the monarch’s throne. When the conquistadores arrived in what is now Mexico, they found identical territorial requirements: physical distance was also accorded to royalty in the New World.

In our world today, territorial displays are everywhere, from the royal box at Wimbledon to the number of cars in the president’s motorcade to the rush-hour subway passenger taking up two seats with outspread legs and arms. In business, territorial displays can take the form of a corner office, a large desk, or an arm draped over two chairs. The higher our status (real or perceived), the more space we need (or claim).


You may be surprised to learn that the face is at times the last place to look when trying to discern what someone else is thinking or feeling. We’re socialized from childhood to control our facial expressions to gain affection, protection, and rewards. That doesn’t mean the face doesn’t show our feelings, but it does mean that the entire body sends messages that may contradict what we see in the face. The master of nonverbal intelligence understands this and pays equal attention to the nonverbal messages being expressed by every part of the body, as we’ll discuss in this section. I’ll also explain the nonverbal clues you can pick up by observing how people manipulate their clothes and accessories.


When it comes to feelings and intentions, the feet are very honest; thus I always discuss them first. From prehistoric times, the feet and legs have ensured our survival, helping us flee predators or fight them by kicking. Without them, our species would not have been able to hunt, harvest, migrate, mate, or dance. They tell us when a person is feeling confident, flirtatious, happy, nervous, threatened, shy, or wants to leave—and even which way they want to go.

Jiggling Legs and Feet

We’ve all seen it and done it: at school, in a meeting, on a date. The torso may be still, but those legs are bouncing; those toes are tapping. What does it mean? This is where context is critical. Foot or leg jiggling in someone who has been sitting still signifies discomfort of some kind. It could be impatience or need to move things along. Consider wrapping up the discussion or suggesting a break so everyone can stretch their legs. Even baseball fans get a seventh inning stretch.

Jiggling that starts during a conversation may signal discomfort with the topic, especially if you also see tightening of the jaw muscles. Take the temperature; consider what may have caused the change.

Alternatively, jiggling can manifest in response to good news—I call it “happy feet.” In my work with professional poker players, I’ve seen many examples of “happy feet” under the table when a winning hand is dealt, while the player’s face remains impassive. When we’re happy, we can’t seem to resist dancing or jumping up and down, as I recently saw Serena Williams do after winning a championship tennis tournament. She was literally jumping for joy.

Some people are jittery by nature. These movements are their baseline. Discomfort in these individuals manifests in changes in the rate of movement or if it suddenly stops (freeze) or intensifies (flight).

If jiggling becomes kicking—the foot kicking up and down—it indicates a very negative reaction to whatever is happening, to the point of wanting to kick it away. Also note that repetitive flexing of the foot sideways at the ankle is indicative of high stress, irritability, or impatience.

Repetitive motions are often soothing or pacifying, but they can turn into nervous tics or become pathological when they are obsessive. Repetitive hand washing is a psychologically soothing behavior, but when engaged in compulsively, it is a disabling illness.

“Pointing” Feet

If a colleague shifts his stance so one or both feet point away from you (see figure 1), this is a powerful intention cue that he would like to leave. Perhaps the discussion is making him uncomfortable, or he’s late for a meeting. Bottom line: tactfully end the conversation. I’ve noticed that when workers address their managers, but their feet are turned away (they turn slightly at the hips), it suggests that something is at issue. Either they have to leave or they would rather not be present.

fig. 1

When it’s time to go, one foot will point away in the direction of travel. Look for this when conversing; it’s an accurate “I have to leave” intention signal.

Gravity-Defying Feet

As mentioned earlier, gravity-defying behaviors strongly signal contentment or joy. Watch your boss take an important phone call—if the deal is closed, you may see him strut out of the office with a bounce in his step. People on the phone will often point the toes of one foot in the air when they’re enjoying their conversation or are in a particularly good mood.

Books on nonverbal communications rarely mention the feet, yet there is so much information there about what is going on in the brain. While I was stationed in New York, a former classmate asked me to view a video of some mob-connected guys. One thing that stood out was the extra little bounce in their step when they got paid off. After a while we could tell who was having a good day just from his walk.

The Starter’s Position

The “starter’s position” (see figure 2) is a gravity-defying posture in which a seated person moves one foot forward, the other back, with weight toward the balls of the feet. We assume this position when we’re very interested in what is in front of us (“Tell me more, I like what you’re saying!”). Conversely, it’s often how we signal we are ready to go. If you’re talking to someone who is senior to you, when they assume the starter’s position, either ask if there is anything more or tactfully terminate the meeting, as they probably have somewhere else to go.

Leg Splay

Leg splay is a territorial display. It can mean “I am in charge here” or “This is my turf; I am not afraid.” Our limbic system prompts a splayed stance when we need to look bigger. You often see this behavior with managers; I certainly see it with police officers, who tend to splay their legs as a sign of authority and dominance. Sitting or standing with legs splayed is a strong confidence display signaling authority, dominance, or threat, depending on the context. To help defuse a tense situation, check to see if there is leg splay going on. One quick way to help lessen tensions is by bringing your legs closer together, reducing your territorial claim.

fig. 2

Clasping of the knees and feet in the starter’s position indicates that the person is ready to leave.

Crossed Legs

Standing with crossed legs signifies comfort and relaxation. You can’t flee or fight from this position, so your limbic system forbids it under duress. We see crossed legs among coworkers brainstorming ideas or when two friends stand deep in conversation, legs crossed at the ankles. You can foster comfort by mirroring others’ leg-crossing behavior.

If you’re seated side by side, the direction of your companion’s leg cross can be telling. If you’re getting along well, the person’s top leg will point toward you. If the conversation is causing a negative reaction, the legs will be crossed (or recrossed) so the thigh becomes a barrier between you (see figures 3 and 4). If you haven’t noticed this before, watch people who are getting along and notice how they will shift their legs to enhance communication.

fig. 3

Look for the leg crossover as a body barrier, especially immediately after something negative is discussed.

fig. 4

Shifting of the knee away to remove any barriers between two people is a sign of openness and comfort.

Foot Lock

Locking the feet by tightly crossing the ankles or withdrawing them by wrapping the ankles around the legs of a chair are freeze behaviors indicating concern or anxiety. When foot lock suddenly occurs during a conversation, it is likely that something negative has taken place. Many women have been taught to sit with ankles crossed, but prolonged, tight ankle crossing or other restricted leg movements signal strong caution. This action is most telling when someone suddenly locks his or her ankles in response to a question.

Leg Cleanse

Leg cleansing, or rubbing the thighs with the hands (see figure 5) is a pacifying behavior seen in many settings: A party guest may leg-cleanse as he sits and scans the area for someone to talk to. An employee receiving a poor performance review may leg-cleanse to soothe anxiety. A manager trying to solve a budget problem may leg-cleanse to maintain focus and calm. People under tremendous stress or when confronted with devastating information will often leg-cleanse repeatedly, not realizing how frequently or vigorously they are doing this.


Picture this: You’re crossing the street when a car runs the red light and roars toward you. You freeze. There’s no time to run. You brace for the hit.

fig. 5

Leg cleansing (palms rubbing across the lap) serves to pacify us when we are anxious or stressed.

As you read this, what does your body “want” to do? Perhaps you feel your torso pulling away, hunching over, pivoting to present your back in a reflexive attempt to protect your vulnerable front. That is your limbic system in action.

The torso is literally our “soft underbelly”—a highly vulnerable area containing our vital organs, including our heart, lungs, stomach, and genitals. All animals guard this area: if you tickle a cat’s belly, in effect mimicking an attacking predator, it will curl up and rake its back claws up and down, seeking to protect its belly while attempting to disembowel the “enemy.”

Compared to other mammals, humans are unusually exposed because we walk erect; thus our torso or ventral (front) movements are strongly governed by our limbic system and very indicative of our comfort level.

Ventral Fronting and Ventral Denial

When I travel, I never tire of watching people greet loved ones: they lean forward, arms open wide, torso completely exposed, before meeting in a warm embrace. It’s a perfect example of what I call “ventral fronting”: when we feel positive about what’s going on, we turn our torso toward the source of our good feelings, literally opening ourselves in a display of vulnerability and trust. Ventral fronting is also a simple yet powerful way to show respect: if you’ve ever tried to converse with someone who will not face you, you know how insulting it feels. This is why we have all heard someone say, “Don’t turn your back on me!”

Which brings us to “ventral denial”: the act of turning away from something that makes us uncomfortable. It may be quite subtle—what I call “blading,” or turning by degrees as an encounter becomes less and less to our liking—demonstrating how vigilantly our limbic system protects our torso. I coined these terms to show how important our ventral orientation is to good relationships.

The swivel chairs ubiquitous in conference rooms and offices allow us to make and observe rapid shifts in ventral exposure as we react to each other moment to moment. Watch a film of a meeting at twice the speed and you will see how accurate ventral fronting and denial are at communicating how we feel. If you want to demonstrate interest in what your boss is saying in a meeting, don’t just turn your head toward her; front your torso and lean slightly forward.

Torso Lean, Shield, and Bow

It’s striking to see how reliably we lean toward what interests us and away from what repels us. Spend some time at a cocktail party, a family gathering, or a meeting observing this dance-like isopraxis—originating from our earliest experiences as infants interacting with a responsive parent—as we gravitate toward or away from a stimulus.

Torso shielding tells us much in real time about others’ comfort level. It may be as obvious as arms suddenly crossed in front of the chest (the tighter the finger grip on the arms, the greater the discomfort) or as subtle as a man adjusting his tie in a lingering way that causes his arm to shield his chest. Jacket buttoning may be a torso shield or it may be a sign of respect for a person or an occasion; context should guide you here. Men will adjust their shirt cuffs or manipulate their watches as a form of shielding and to reduce anxiety. The latest trend is to look at your cell phone or smartphone; it makes you appear busy and it is a shielding behavior.

It’s customary in Asian cultures to bow as a gesture of respect. Although Westerners generally feel uncomfortable bowing, it has a long history as a sign of deference even in Western society (royal courts). In our increasingly international economy, you will gain an advantage if you become comfortable with bowing by bending the torso slightly forward when dealing with those of Asian cultures. At lunch recently in a New York City restaurant, I observed a woman enter and greet her companion, an Asian woman already at the table, with a warm handshake and a natural inclination of her torso and head—a quick, sincere bow that clearly made a favorable impression, as her lunch date immediately turned ventrally toward her, smiling and talking, as they both sat down. Acknowledging other people’s culture is a powerful sign of respect.

Shrugs and Splays

If you ask your shipping manager to explain why the cargo didn’t arrive on time and he gives a half shrug and says, “I don’t know,” with a little probing, you’ll probably find that he knows more than he let on. In a true shrug, both shoulders rise quickly and strongly in a gravity-defying gesture that signals confidence in the response (see figures 6 and 7).

Splaying out with torso and arms, especially when combined with leg splays (see figures 8 and 9) needs to be understood in context. It usually indicates comfort, and there’s nothing wrong with splaying during relaxed conversation with your peers, but splaying out is also a strong territorial or dominance display and must be used with caution in business. Generally speaking, only people with high authority may splay out in business situations, as social conventions dictate that territory be ceded to those of higher status. At all times, and particularly if you’re a new employee, keep not only your wits about you, but also your elbows, arms, legs, and torso respectfully upright and facing in the proper direction: toward your boss.

fig. 6

Partial shoulder shrugs indicate lack of commitment or insecurities.

fig. 7

Full shoulder shrugs are used to communicate, “I don’t know.” Look for both shoulders to rise; when only one side rises, the sender of the message is dubious at best.

fig. 8

Splaying out is a territorial display that is acceptable in your own space, but not when in someone else’s territory (such as in the boss’s office or during a job interview).

fig. 9

Arms spread out over chairs or even over other people communicates that you are feeling comfortable and confident.


The next time you pass a construction site, look at the backhoe and the bulldozer and notice the array of hinges, cables, pulleys, and levers required to re-create, in gross form, the movements we flawlessly execute every time we lift a briefcase, put away groceries, play a musical instrument, or cradle a child—and you will begin to get an idea of the complexity, versatility, and beauty of the human arm.

Our arms and hands were once our front legs and feet, responsible for protection as well as ambulation. They are very honest limbically, particularly as they’re charged with protecting our vulnerable torso. Ten minutes of watching a football game affords a view of some of the innumerable defensive and offensive movements the arms and hands are capable of, from blocks, shoves, and grabs to Herculean lifts and throws. You’ll also see the gravity-defying, territory-grabbing fist pumps and high fives that celebrate touchdowns and the withdrawn freeze behaviors of slumped shoulders and limited arm movements that accompany defeat.

Our hands and fingers, extending from our arms as an elegant system for bringing the external world into our grasp, also are highly expressive of our internal state: the featherlight touch of a fingertip can convey curiosity, awe, or adoration. Given the huge communicative range of our arms, hands, and fingers, I always suggest spending time studying these movements, developing an understanding of others’ baseline nonverbals before attempting interpretation.

Culture plays a large role in how we use our hands and arms. Travel throughout the Mediterranean countries and you’ll see what I mean. Hands are very expressive, and there are an almost infinite number of gestures and emblems that have meaning to the locals. Nevertheless, limbic responses will be the same.

Confidence and Dominance Displays of the Arms

Arms akimbo, in which the hands are planted firmly at the waist, thumbs to the back, elbows to the sides, is a clear dominance display—which is why it is commonly seen in law enforcement, military, security personnel…and parents: my mother used to greet me like that when I came home late. It sends the message: “I have issues” or “I will not back down.”

Women can counter the subtle nonverbal dominance exerted over them by men by using arms akimbo as necessity dictates, as this is a powerful display. Make sure the thumbs are at the back of the waist; if they’re positioned in front, the pose is more questioning than dominant (see figures 10 and 11).

Think of “hooding” (see figure 12) as arms akimbo above the neck: we interlock our fingers behind our head, often leaning back as we do so. We see this behavior everywhere from casual social gatherings to office conversations. Like splays, hooding is a confidence and territorial display: consider the cobra that hoods to appear larger and more dominant. While it’s fine to do this with peers, it should not be done in front of the boss; only the boss gets to hood. In fact, chances are that if you are hooding when the boss comes in, you will subconsciously and almost immediately stop.

fig. 10

Arms akimbo is a territorial display, typically used to indicate there are issues. Note the position of the thumbs in this image.

fig. 11

By placing the thumbs forward, a less authoritative, more inquisitive posture is presented as compared to the previous image. This is a less officious posture, which can help to lessen tensions when dealing with others.

fig. 12

By placing interlaced hands behind the head, you are sending a powerful signal of comfort and dominance. This display is usually reserved, however, for the senior person at a meeting.

fig. 13

The planting of fingers spread apart firmly on a surface is an unmistakable territorial display of confidence and authority.

Similar to hooding are territorial displays on surfaces such as a table or desk. The next time someone subjects you to the dominance pose—arms outspread, fingertips splayed on the table (see figure 13)—scan your body for your reactions. This pose is so simple, yet it is highly meaningful and communicates a spectrum of messages, depending on context and other nonverbals in evidence. At its most benign, it is a confidence display: “I know what I’m doing.” It is also a territorial display, as outspread arms encroach on others’ space: “I’m in charge here.” It is a dominance display: “Listen up.” Finally, when coupled with torso lean, it’s a threatening display, making a person loom larger and stronger.

Some people splay out with their possessions, spreading their papers, water bottles, notebooks, and electronic devices on the meeting table. Here again, evaluate this behavior in context: Does it reflect comfort with familiar surroundings, does it signal authority, or is it an attempt to create an impression of power? Most people dislike even modest encroachments on their “table turf.” Mind your space and possessions as well as those of others. Don’t ever set your items on someone’s desk without first asking for permission, and whatever you do, don’t sit on someone’s desk.

Arms That Withdraw

If a person’s arms are withdrawn—usually with hands clasped behind the back—it expresses a wish for distance: Often referred to as the “regal stance,” this message means, “Don’t get close; don’t touch me,” or could be used to say, “I outrank you.” We often see this when royalty walks among commoners, or in college professors pacing the classroom. Rarely do we see it among blue-collar workers.

This nonverbal may also indicate that the person is processing information and is distracted in thought. Keep a respectful distance and look for signs indicating that you may approach. If they are not there, let the person be. Always respect the need for space and isolation if someone signals the wish to be alone.

The Hands: First Impressions Count

For survival purposes, we orient toward movement (orientation reflex). Because the clever human hand has the ability to enhance life (feeding, carrying, cradling) or to inflict mortal injury (punching, gouging, killing), we have evolved to keep a close eye on the highly mobile hands. Because we key off the hands for our security, our first impressions of someone’s hands influence our opinion of their owner.

Keep your hands clean. We have a primeval need to ally ourselves with others who are healthy and likely to thrive. Our hands should demonstrate our well-being: they should be clean (men: that includes under the fingernails), showing no evidence of nervous picking at the skin or cuticles, and no ragged or bitten nails, which people associate with insecurity.

Good hand grooming is particularly important in professions related to health (doctors and other health professionals), food (restaurant servers), and finance (banking, asset management). Salespeople should be aware of their hands’ prominence when showing merchandise. A jeweler I knew always kept his hands nicely yet unobtrusively groomed, realizing that they served as a frame for the expensive items he was showing his customers. Nothing is more disgusting, according to repeated surveys, than men with long fingernails. Men’s fingernails should be short and unpolished.

If you are a woman who enjoys manicures, keep nail length modest: they are nails, not talons. Excessively long nails have no place in business. This is not just my sentiment; focus groups reveal just how poorly long nails are perceived by both men and women.

Keep your hands visible. Remember, we’re limbically programmed to assess the intentions of the hands. Security personnel have honed this awareness to a high pitch: even today, years after retiring from the FBI, I still check out the hands of people coming near me. As law enforcement officers well know, it is only the hands that can hurt you. (Incidentally, if you get pulled over by the police, immediately roll down your window and place your hands palm up on top of the steering wheel; officers really appreciate that and it may save you from getting a ticket.)

I tell executives to allow their hands to work for them. Keep them calm when circumstances dictate (for example, when showing empathy), but for the most part, employ them. People who don’t use their hands or who hide them are not as well received as those who do. The most persuasive public speakers are trained to use their hands to grab attention, emphasize important points, and infuse their messages with memorable emotion.

If you are going to manage people or sell a product, learn to use your arms and hands as emblems for your message, as frames to bracket thoughts, as batons to carry cadence, as cushions that show empathy, as hallmarks of strength, and where needed as billboards of humility.

In private settings, mirror your companion’s level of hand movement to establish comfort and trust. Remember, synchrony is harmony. Also note where touch is appropriate, as there are many times in a business setting where touch is absolutely appropriate: to emphasize a point, to get attention, to interject, to assist someone to a podium, to congratulate. If it’s appropriate and enhances communication, it is proper.

One other note about the arms and hands: be careful about pointing. People do not like to be pointed at, and in some cultures, pointing is considered extremely offensive—so when in doubt, don’t point. A wiser way is to point with the full hand in the vertical or, better yet, the palm-up position: it gets the same attention, yet it is perceived more warmly.

High-Confidence Hand Movements

Steepling—touching together the outspread fingertips (see figure 14)—is an extremely strong confidence display. Lawyers, judges, college professors, and company executives frequently steeple (whether by temperament or by training) to indicate confidence in their statements, thinking, or position. Steepling is done subconsciously, but it is universal and very significant. Steepling shows that you are at ease with yourself, with your opinions, and with your thoughts.

There is a very good reason for steepling: it magnifies your message. If you conduct seminars, speak before groups, or are making a presentation, steeple where appropriate to let others know you are confident about what you’re saying. Years ago someone prattled that public speakers should not steeple. Wash that from your thoughts. We look for this behavior to tell us when someone really believes in what he or she is saying.

Incidentally, I find that steepling is underutilized by women, who could use it to cultivate parity with their male colleagues. When witnesses steeple, jurors tend to have greater confidence in their testimony. In a way, steepling is the opposite of wringing your hands, which is a way of saying “I have doubts” or “I have no confidence.”

fig. 14

Steepling demonstrates confidence and focus. It is one of the most powerful displays we can use to convince others of our confidence.

Thumbs are at their best when they’re “up” or “out.” Interlaced hands with thumbs up (see figure 15) show confidence. Notice how often doctors or high-status individuals talk with their thumbs sticking out of their pockets. When we hide our thumbs (try it: place your thumbs in your pockets and let your fingers hang to the side), the message is much different. We look insecure (see figure 16). Don’t hide your thumbs when applying for jobs or when in a leadership position; it undermines your credibility. In meetings, watch the hands of people at the table. The thumbs will often hide under the other digits when people feel insecure (see figure 17).

Low-Confidence, Pacifying Hand Movements

A person may exhibit low confidence or relieve stress by using a variety of hand-rubbing movements, including rubbing the palms together or rubbing the fingers of one hand against the palm of the other (see figure 18). The speed and pressure of these movements is governed by the degree of limbic arousal. The fingers may intertwine while rubbing, resulting in hand-wringing—something we all recognize as demonstrating deep, almost prayerful concern (see figure 19).

fig. 15

Thumbs up, as with other gravity-defying gestures, demonstrates in real time that we are confident at that moment.

fig. 16

Avoid having thumbs in the pockets; it makes you look very insecure.

fig. 17

Seen during the ebb and flow of a conversation, thumbs down indicates lack of confidence and/or lack of emphasis.

The most extreme form of stress relief or self-soothing I have found is when people stroke their hands back and forth with interspersed and straightened fingers (see figure 20). This behavior is something usually seen only when someone is experiencing deep emotional stress or insecurity. I find it extremely accurate in revealing tension waiting to be released. The message is, “I have grave concerns or doubt.”

Watch for changes in hand movement as indicative of limbic shifts; for example, if a person’s hands go from being relaxed and calm to engaging in rubbing or wringing. Conversely, if the hands “freeze,” suddenly stop moving, become restricted in motion, or are withdrawn to hide in the lap, these responses show low confidence or discomfort with what is going on.

When conducting interviews during my FBI days, I looked for hands that disappeared from view—especially when interviewees would sit on them. Restraining the hands is a good indicator of high discomfort and is something we often see in people who are lying or got caught doing something wrong. Sitting on the hands is often comforting to the insecure because it forces the shoulders up toward the ears, which is a protective display of low confidence and insecurity.

fig. 18

Anxiety and nervousness are relieved by stroking our fingers across the palm or by rubbing our hands to