How to Read Body Language, According to an Intelligence Officer
I spent the last half of my military career as an intelligence officer. No, I wasn’t doing anything you’d see in the movies (although I guess that depends on the movie). Most of my work was in analysis and data.
That said, human intelligence was always a factor. On deployment, I could meet with a few dozen individuals a day. Knowing what to look for and how to read someone — especially across different cultures and with an interpreter between you — was critical.
In this article, I want to discuss five things I picked up along the way. I still use them today, in everyday conversations. I use them in my coaching, when I’m hearing pitches from startups, and when I’m talking to my family. Although these days, I’m not looking for a lie or to test someone’s intentions. I’m looking for a connection. I’m trying to listen more deeply and hear what’s being said beyond the words.
Pay Attention to the Ends of the Body
I’m talking about the fingers and the toes. The very ends of our human form. This is where our nervous energy leaves the body. It’s easier for us to control our posture and our bigger muscles. But our digits give us away.
How we hold our hands is a big clue to our feelings. Fidgeting is an easy one to spot, but more important is what we do with our fingers. Are they interlaced, perhaps indicating a need for protection or stability? Or is each hand perched on the fingertips of the other, showing confidence and sincerity? Are we hiding our palms in a defensive posture or showing them with vulnerability?
The feet matter, too. It’s easy to fidget with our feet because they’re so far from our core. We forget what we do with our feet and our toes. Look for flat, confident feet and look for reserved, cautious feet that are retreating.
Look at the Face
Similarly, it’s hard for us to control the microexpressions on our faces. I pay special attention to the mouth and nose area. We focus on engaging with each other with our eyes, and they can be difficult to read. Everyone has a different approach. If someone diverts their gaze, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re intimidated or dishonest.
But we have less control over our mouths. Pursed lips, wry smiles, thoughtful juttings of the jaw — each gesture is a tiny clue about how a message is landing or what someone is thinking. Look for a mouth opening or closing as a signal of the individual being open or closed. Look for a tongue fidgeting on the cheek to show discomfort or nervousness.
Together with the ends of the body, I call these the three F’s: fingers, feet, and face.
Watch for Changes
More important than any single expression, though, is the change. It almost doesn’t matter how someone’s fingers, feet, and face show up. It matters more about how they change with a question or with a thought.
Said differently, it doesn’t really matter if someone is crossing their arms. We may look at this and think they’re being defensive, but we may well be wrong. What matters more is if they uncross their arms and open up. Or if they suddenly cross their arms and close down. It’s the change that matters.
Leaning back, leaning forward, looking away. Rising or falling tone or volume. Pay attention. Look for what changes over the course of a conversation.
Take Your Time
In some ways, quantity matters more than quality. The benefit that I had in my conversations and interviews was that they were long and spread out. Or they were over multiple days. This gave me a baseline for the other person and also just more opportunities to notice things.
Joe Navarro talks about how the most important part of his job interviewing suspects with the FBI was time. The body language mattered, but just having enough time for someone to slip up mattered more. It was a long game.
Don’t Overthink It
There’s risk in putting too much weight on body language. If we’re always looking for crossed arms or touching of the nose or shoes pointed away from us, we’re likely to misinterpret something. Even the more reliable fingers, feet, and face aren’t really that reliable.
The most reliable thing is that each of us is born with a supercomputer of relationship building and meaning-making. We (most of us) have a deep well of intuition for understanding one another.
If you find yourself wondering, just ask. This isn’t the military and you’re not an interrogator. Focus on listening, not just on building assumptions.
Originally published in Mind Cafe