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The key to understanding body language

Since writing “What Every Body is Saying,” the question I am most often asked is, “What nonverbal behaviors should I be looking for and are they different at home, at work, or in relationships?” Perhaps this will help to clarify the matter.

Joe Navarro body language expert

Somewhere in our hominid past, as with most animals, we developed the ability to communicate nonverbally and that still remains our primary method of communication, especially when it comes to emotions.  Charles Darwin first and Paul Ekman much later, have written about the universality of emotions in part because, as Joseph Ledoux has pointed out, these and other survival behaviors are governed by our very elegant limbic brain.

The governance of homeostasis, procreation, emotion, spotting and reacting to threats, as well as assuring our survival, are all heavy responsibilities of the limbic system. Limbic reaction are immediate, sure, time-tested, and honest and apply to us all. Limbic reactions are hard wired in us, part of our paleo-circuits which we can see in the limbic behaviors of children who are born blind. Which is why in every culture, we inch towards the edge of the cliff, and don’t bound over to look. Our limbic brain simply does not allow it.

Our needs, feelings, thoughts, and intentions are processed by the limbic brain and expressed in our body language. A baby which doesn’t like a certain food will purse or pucker her lips in Boston and in Borneo.  And babies everywhere delight (eyes dilate) when they see their mothers. These limbic expressions are very simple and binary through a constellation of behaviors that fall under limbically driven comfort / discomfort displays. From the time we are born, we are either: warm or cold, contented or displeased, happy or sad. And we show this through our facial and body gestures, much the same way throughout our lives.

Someone gives us bad news and our lips compress, the bus leaves without us and we are clenching our jaws, rubbing our necks. We are asked to work another weekend and the orbits of our eyes narrow as our chin lowers. These are discomfort displays and we transmit how we feel or what we are thinking, through our bodies, because this is what our limbic brain has perfected over millions of years.

Conversely, when we see someone we really like our eyebrows will arch defying gravity, our facial muscles will relax, and our arms become more pliable (even extended) so we can welcome this person. In the presence of someone we love, we will mirror their behavior (isopraxis), tilt our heads, and blood will flow to our lips making them full, even as our pupils dilate. Once again, our limbic brain communicates through our bodies precisely the true sentiments that we feel and orchestrates accurate corresponding nonverbal displays.

When there is conflict between what is said verbally and what is transmitted nonverbally, the body almost always holds sway. Why? Again because this has been our primary means of communication for millions of years. So when a person says, “Yes I am happy to help this weekend,” and in doing so you see lip biting, stillness in the face, and neck touching, you can be certain there are issues there. What are they? They could be anything: from a personal dislike of you, to a previously scheduled event that conflicts. But what is important, is that in response to the question, “Will you help me this weekend?” there was an authentic limbic response of discomfort on the part of the other individual, which was reflected in the body (discomfort displays) and which was absent in their words.

Whether in business, at home, or in relationships, always focus on the comfort / discomfort paradigm and ask yourself; in response to any question or behavioral cue, am I seeing comfort or discomfort?  By focusing on this it will lead you to explore issues that are concealed, verbally denied, or to verify the validity of sentiments expressed. We are constantly transmitting information as to our thoughts, feelings, and intentions through our limbic responses. Most likely the behaviors you see will fit under one of these two categories (comfort / discomfort) for which we can thank that emotional part of the brain that first aroused Darwin so very long ago: the limbic system.

For additional information please note the following books for reference. 

Darwin, C. (1872). The expression of emotion in man and animals. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts.

Ekman, P. (2003). Emotions revealed: Recognizing faces and feelings to improve communication and emotional life. New York: Times Books.

——— (1991). Telling lies: Clues to deceit in the marketplace, politics, and marriage.        NewYork: W. W. Norton & Co.

de Becker, G. (1997). The gift of fear. New York: Dell Publishing.

LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. 

NewYork: Touchstone.

Navarro, J (2008). What every body is saying: an ex-FBI agent’s guide to speed –reading people. New York: HarperCollins.

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