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FROM THE ALABAMA LAWYER - Do You Speak Body Language: Mastering the Art of Nonverbal Communication

By Jan Hargrave

What are your thoughts when your client asks, “Do you really think that a person like me could commit such a horrible crime?” Is this projective sentence a simple statement, or is it an evasive response that she’s using as a defense mechanism? According to research on nonverbal communication, this question, and the answer, are quite complicated.

The basic elements in any face-to-face human communication are words, tone of voice, and body language. The first element, the words, known as verbal communication, comprise seven percent of the message when communicating information. The last two categories, tone of voice and body language, known as nonverbal communication, make up 93 percent of the intent that a communicator communicates. When applying all of these psychological statistics on “silent messages” into the context of legal communication, stay mindful that while your intellectual content may be delivered entirely verbally, your nonverbal cues are more than 10 times as important in getting your audience to accurately perceive the messages that you are creating in your mind and speaking with your voice.

Your lips say, “Yes, yes, yes,” but your eyes say, “No, no, no.” Body language covers an infinite range of facial and body movements, including the countless ways in which you smile, you walk, you manipulate your eyes, and you move your hands and arms. Whether it’s the “no” that a shake of the head conveys, the “I’m not interested,” or the “keep talking, I’m listening” that a slight side tilt of the head implies, we draw messages from decoding body language.

At times nonverbal messages are conveyed through deliberate, conscious gestures; other times, a person’s body language will “talk” without him even realizing it. It’s common knowledge that people who stand erect are noticeably more confident and more comfortable than those who slouch or shift their body weight from one foot to another. But conscious or not, our body language gestures help us to portray a wide range of feelings, including confidence, enthusiasm, boredom, amusement, impatience, fatigue, concentration, interest, puzzlement, and embarrassment.

Three Cs of Nonverbal Communication

An article discussing nonverbal communication cannot be complete without first emphasizing the three fundamental Cs of body language. For accuracy in decoding an individual’s nonverbal behaviors, meticulous attention must be collected as to the context (setting) in which a specific gesture appears, congruence of specific gestures with the individual’s spoken words, and the appearance of several gestures (clusters of gestures) within a family of gestures should be noted for achieving accurate conclusions.

1. Context: note the environment, setting, or surrounding in which a person displays each specific gesture. A person who crosses his arms over his midsection as he walks outdoors on a chilly winter evening is doing so because he is cold. A completely different message is conveyed when your client crosses his arms over his midsection as he sits across from you in a business meeting.
2. Congruence: to produce effective and meaningful messages, the words, the sounds, and the body need to support one another; they need to be in harmony. Congruence of words with gestures is paramount to creating an aura of genuineness of a person.
3. Clusters of Gestures: it is a mistake to interpret a solitary gesture in isolation from other gestures or other circumstances around it. Observing and interpreting gesture clusters, rather than basing data on one single observed gesture by itself, is crucial to an accurate interpretation of an individual’s body language.

Three Steps to Increased Nonverbal Reading Power

Reading an individual’s body language is not the only goal in increasing nonverbal reading power. Understanding your own body language, and its impact on others, is of pivotal importance. Awareness of your own behaviors and the behaviors of others – expertise which is usually gained in phases, with time and practice – leads to success in people-reading skills. Competence in the following three stages of awareness and skill are necessary in achieving accurate nonverbal conclusions.

Awareness of the Other Person:
Briefly scan the client’s five major nonverbal communication channels (body angle, face, arms, hands, and legs). Do they demonstrate openness and receptiveness, or do they demonstrate defensiveness and boredom. Make a quick note of these overall general gesture clusters, and they will alert you as to whether you proceed as originally intended or redirect your approach entirely.

Awareness of Self:
Your own nonverbal movements and expressions can make or break an encounter. Ask yourself, “How can I communicate to display confidence in myself?” “How does the other person see me?” “How can I avoid communicating nervous or negative nonverbal signals?” Once you acknowledge your own nonverbal behaviors, and how you use them to interact with others, you become more consciously aware of your impact and habits during conversations. Evaluating and knowing when to present yourself in a dominant mode or when to retreat in any given situation is an integral step in mastering nonverbal communication.

Management of Self and Others:
Management and awareness of your client’s body language and your own body language allows you to guide the conversation for a more positive outcome. For example, if you notice that your client is displaying negative, defensive body language gestures during your discussion, counteract his negative gestures by only displaying open, positive nonverbal gestures. Optimistically, the client will begin to mirror your deliberate, open, positive gestures, and the conversation will redirect itself into a more favorable outcome. Getting the client to relax and become more communicative aids him in revealing what’s actually troubling him. Once management of self and of another person’s nonverbal signals becomes second nature to you, you have fully absorbed the concept of “nonverbal people reading.”

Baseline Behaviors:
Baseline behaviors are the natural, normal movements that an individual utilizes when he is comfortable speaking or listening. Recognizing and recording a person’s baseline gestures are imperative to later assessing his levels of discomfort, stress, or deception when he’s asked a particular topic. Begin the client interview with soft, easy questions to help him feel at ease. By first asking simple, straightforward questions, you are able to observe and gain information on his nonverbal behaviors when he’s participating in a relatively comfortable conversation. When the individual is later faced with tough questions that might cause him discomfort or stress, you are better equipped to identify any observable deviations from his normal initial baseline behaviors. These behavioral gesture deviations reveal the areas of discomfort for the client, and they show specific areas where persistent further questioning should occur to get to the true story.

Body Language Basics


Upon greeting a person, eye contact is the strongest of the nonverbal gestures. In most cases direct eye contact indicates that a person is intently listening. It’s definitely a clear way to show interest in another person and it’s a good test of honesty. If someone cannot intermittently look another person dead in the eye while telling his story, he is probably not playing straight. When the eyes are in congruence with other parts of the face (smiling eyes, smiling mouth), communication becomes increasingly unambiguous. When there is no synchronization between the eyes and other the facial expressions, ambiguous messages are sent. Pleasure widens the eyes and is usually accompanied by a smile. Surprise sends the eyebrows skyward and widens the eye gaze.
Despair and sadness hood the eyes, make the mouth droop, and often cause the entire body to slump. Any excessive eye-blocking behavior (blinks, squints, eyelids delayed in opening, or compressed eyelids) represents discomfort and signals that the person has received disturbing news or is uttering unpleasant information.

Like the eyes, the smile is remarkably varied. The authentically happy smile involves the entire face. It flashes both upper and lower teeth, is accompanied by open eyes (crinkles and all) and relaxed brows and is a strong indication that the person is friendly and willing to communicate. An insincere smile, also known as the “false smile,” is accomplished when the upper lip is drawn tightly across the face and there’s minimal engagement of the eyes. Frowns are visible when the corners of the mouth turn downward. When decoding facial nonverbal communication remain aware that as stress increases, lips tighten, and at times actually disappear.

Hand Movements:
Hand movements, highly expressive of our internal state, are another area where there is common understanding of the action. Shake your fist, and everyone realizes that you’re angry. Rub your palms together, and you’re probably anticipating something good. Rub your palms and the back of your hands, and you’re probably just cold. Pointing your finger toward the exit will suggest that you are signaling a direction but pointing your finger directly at someone will usually specify that you are making an accusation.
Pacifying hand movements (hand-rubbing, hand-scratching, handwringing) are indicative of a person who is experiencing low confidence, nervousness, or fright. Finger-steepling (outstretched fingertips touching together) is opposite of wringing hands and demonstrates confidence and focus. Confident people tend to keep their hands visible and utilize gestures that are smooth and deliberate. For our own safety purposes, we are trained to keep a close eye on the hands of others; therefore, to establish comfort and trust, always keep your hands visible. Make certain that you engage your hands. Use them to demonstrate, to persuade, and to make your messages more memorable.
A person who brings his hand up to his mouth while talking is conveying an unconscious admission of doubt and uncertainty. He is either attempting to conceal information or he is doubting something that he’s hearing. A hand placed to the vulnerable throat or neck area is common when a person is feeling insecure, confused, or threatened.
A back-and-forth chin stroke is typical of a person who is in a reflective, meditative state. It’s an evaluative touch that represents a person who is deep in thought and typically appraising facts, numbers, or suggestions.

One of the most clearly recognized expressions of body language is the handshake. There’s more to a handshake than a firm grip and a dry palm.
A person can deliver three messages with his handshake – cooperation, domination, or submission.
The “I’m-equal-with-you grip” is accomplished by shaking hands with the same pressure as your companion and by keeping the hands in a vertical position during the handshake.
The “take-charge grip” is accomplished when your palm faces down or is downward relative to the other person’s hand. To convey a willingness to give in, a person should offer his hand with his palm facing upward. This “give-in upward grip” lets another person know that you are eager to act on his orders and that you are prepared to help in any way that you can.

Anchoring – touching another person on his forearm during the handshake – is most acceptable in our culture. It represents a person who is signaling that he is fully present in the conversation and willing to spend time getting better acquainted. Always be the first one to extend your hand in greeting. Add this anchoring gesture to a friendly hello, a nice smile, and your name, and you have accomplished the first steps to opening positive channels of communication.

Openness vs. Defensiveness:
Open posture is demonstrated by keeping your arms uncrossed and placing your body within proper communicating distance of the other person. Open posture sends out clear signals of confidence, receptivity, and concern. A person who crosses his arms in front of his body and places his hands in a fist position is signaling that he is opposed to or not interested in what he’s hearing. His crossed arms across his midsection serve as a partial barricade protecting him from receiving someone else’s information.
The only allowable midsection arm-cross, which should only be used sporadically during a discussion, is when a person’s hands and fingers are visible over his crossed arms. This hands-and-fingers-visible arm-cross position is commonly referred to as a “coach’s position” or a “resting position.” A slight forward body lean, displaying attentiveness, is another component of an individual’s seated open posture. Contrastingly, a person who leans back in his chair and interlaces his hands behind his head is signaling powerful signs of judgment, dominance, and skepticism.

Square, even-placed shoulders imply alertness, strength, and confidence. Unevenness of shoulders exhibits indecisiveness of person. High, even-placed shoulder shrugs convey doubt, whereas a single shoulder shrug suggests deception and a misrepresentation.

Legs and Feet:
Feet speak loudly. They turn in when a person is expressing shyness, they jiggle when someone is happy, and they point toward the exit of the room when a person wants to flee a situation.
Feet shout out when a person is feeling confident, happy, nervous, shy, or threatened, but since they are the furthest part of the body from the face and brain, they are often overlooked when decoding body language. Professional behavioralists label the feet as most honest part of the body and bring special attention to them in their nonverbal assessments. Crossing your leg toward your client during a discussion gives the impression that you are including him in your conversation. Crossing your leg away from your client might give him the message that you want to quickly end the conversation and exit the room. Notice the person who, while seated, tightly crosses his ankles or locks his feet around the legs of his chair. These “leg freeze” behaviors reveal his level of stress, concern, or anxiety over what’s being discussed.

Deceptive Body Language
People lie with their words, but you can detect deception by realizing that the human body and its many signals don’t know how to lie.
The untruthful person’s mindset about a questioner’s topics, considering he knows that he does possess knowledge (which he must hide), causes him to reveal this stress in particular nonverbal gestures. Luckily for body language analysists, a deceptive individual will monitor and try to control his words and face (the areas he knows others will focus upon), but neglect to control his voice and body. Falsifying with words is much easier than falsifying with facial expressions. Words can be rehearsed, facial expressions cannot.

When relaying a story, not only is the timing of the facial expressions or emotion important, so is the type of emotion. An obvious incongruence between emotion and speech (smiling while relating a story pertaining to another person’s death) will designate the speaker’s extreme discomfort and deceptiveness. Extremely crooked facial expressions, ill-timed facial expressions, mismatched facial expressions, and expressions that last too long are all likely to be deception clues. Inspect for deceptiveness by attentively looking for displacement gestures and any sudden significant change in an individual’s baseline behaviors. Discomfort is released by a variety of displacement gestures:

• Hands that constantly touch the face, the nose, the eye, the ear
• Hands that disappear under or between the thighs
• Rubbing hands, wringing hands, fingers interlacing
• Eye blinking, eye blocks, touching the eye
• Lip compression, lip licking
• Clothing adjustments, fiddling with watch, necklace, earrings
• Torso faces away from you, hunched shoulders, half-shoulder shrugs
• Crossed arms with hidden hands and fingers.
If, during a discussion, you observe signs of displacement or discomfort, do not address it immediately. The best approach is to note the fact in your mind and continue with the conversation, constantly trying to extract more information.
Later in the conversation, to reverify your initial findings, circle back to the topic that caused the person any discomfort. Ask your question a second time. If discomfort manifests again and again when discussing a particular topic, you can be certain that this area needs further probing and investigation.

In answer to the initial question that I asked at the beginning of this article, “Do you really think that a person like me could commit such a horrible crime?”, this evasive, projective response is a psychological defense mechanism in which a person voices his own fears while attributing those fears to someone else. In other words, your client is being deceptive and possibly has some knowledge of the crime being discussed. Dig deeper – she’ll reveal everything!
This article gives you the groundwork and some of the rules for beginning your journey to successful people-reading skills. You’ve already been playing the game of body language unconsciously all of your life. Now, equipped with these new skills, you can begin playing it consciously.