Human beings are genetically programmed to look for facial and behavioral cues and to quickly understand their meaning. We see someone gesture and automatically make a judgment about the intention of that gesture.
And we've been doing this for a long, long time. As a species we knew how to win friends and influence people - or avoid/placate/confront those we couldn't befriend - long before we knew how to use words.
But our ancient ancestors faced threats and challenges very different from those we confront in today's modern society. Life is more complex now, with layers of social restrictions and nuanced meanings adding to the intricacies of our interpersonal dealings. This is especially true in workplace settings, where corporate culture adds it own complexities and unique guidelines for correct behavior.
No matter what the culture at your workplace, the ability to "read" nonverbal signals can provide some significant advantages in the way you deal with people. You can start to gain those advantages by avoiding these five common mistakes people often make when reading body language:
1. They forget to consider the context
Imagine this scene: It's a freezing-cold winter evening with a light snow falling and a north wind blowing. You see a woman sitting on a bench at a bus stop. Her head is down, her eyes are tightly closed and she's hunched over, shivering slightly, and hugging herself.
Now the scene changes . . .
It's the same woman in the same physical position. But instead of sitting outdoors on a bench, she's seated behind her desk in the office next to yours. Her body language is identical - head down, eyes closed, hunched over, shivering, hugging herself. The nonverbal signals are the same but the new setting has altered your perception of those signals. In a flash she's gone from telling you, "I'm really cold!" to "I'm in distress."
Obviously, then, the meaning of nonverbal communication changes as the context changes. We can't begin to understand someone's behavior without considering the circumstances under which the behavior occurred.
2. They try to find meaning in a simple gesture
Nonverbal cues occur in what is called a "gesture cluster" - a group of movements, postures and actions that reinforce a common point. A single gesture can have several meanings or mean nothing at all (sometimes a cigar is just a cigar), but when you couple that single gesture with other nonverbal signals, the meaning becomes clearer.
For example, a person may cross her arms for any number of reasons. But when that action is coupled with a scowl, a headshake, and legs turned away from you, you now have a composite picture and reinforcement to conclude that she is resistant to whatever you just proposed.
3. They are too focused on what's being said
If you only hear what people are saying, you'll miss what they really mean.
A manager I was coaching appeared calm and reasonable as she listed the reasons why she should delegate more responsibility to her staff. But every time she expressed these opinions, she also (almost imperceptibly) shuddered. While her words declared her intention of empowering employees, the quick, involuntary shudder was saying loud and clear, "I really don't want to do this!"
You need to know how a person normally behaves so that you can spot meaningful deviations.
5. They judge body language through the bias of their own culture
When we talk about culture, we're generally talking about a set of shared values that a group of people holds. And while some of a culture's values are taught explicitly, most of them are absorbed subconsciously - at a very early age.
So just remember: Body language cues are undeniable. But to accurately decode them, they need to be understood in context, viewed in clusters, evaluated in relation to what is being said, assessed for consistency, and filtered for cultural influences.