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Body Language 101

Do you remember your first date when you were a kid? How you checked your clothes, your hair, made sure you didn’t smell, then began doubting yourself and checked everything again? Then on the actual date you were hyper-conscious of everything you were doing?

“Are my hands in the right place? Can they hear the shaking in my voice? Oh, God can they hear my heart?! They have to be able to hear it, I can’t hear anything over it!”

We knew that everything we were doing was screaming that we were incredibly nervous. Luckily, our date was also freaking out, so they didn’t have the luxury of observing our body language too closely. I mention this, because I want to impress upon you the fact that you already know what is involved in reading body language, but that you might not consciously think about it. At least, not in your day to day life.

So, why should you think about interpreting body language? You’ve made it this far without overthinking how people are holding their hands, right? Learning this skill can’t be that important, could it? The thing is, when you think about how people are holding themselves, you can get a better understanding of their situation (and what they’re thinking) than if you were just talking to them.

I’ve written before about getting into the minds of people that are putting you off and redirecting them without their even noticing what you’re doing. Simply put, knowledge is power. The more knowledge you have about yourself the more you can infer about someone else.

And that’s the thing, it really does all start with you. I mean, is there someone you spend more time with? (If you answered yes to that, I worry about you.)

Anyway, here is what I would challenge you to do. Every time you cross your arms, I want you to notice how you feel. Are you nervous? Bored? Angry? What about your eyes? What are you thinking when an eyebrow finds it’s way up to your forehead? Is there a difference between your eye-roll and just trying to think of that one song that is right on the tip of your tongue?

Once you’re able to identify your feelings without thinking about it too much, you can start to ask yourself why you feel the way that you feel.

For example, people tend to suck in their lips when they aren’t interested in something, or their shoulders will tense up when they are uncomfortable. These are good indicators that something is unpleasant, but if your paying attention to that, you should also be able to identify what it is that they found unpleasant.

Speaking of paying attention to things, the face gives away the most information, specifically the eyes.

If you watch someone’s eyes–not in a creepy way–you’ll notice little changes throughout their conversation with you and even when they aren’t talking. Flashes of angry fire, the sparkle of nostalgia, the upward turn of sorrow…

That’s really it. Just keep noticing how your body reacts (and how others react) and when you feel an emotional response to something. Once you have a good understanding of yourself, you can start making educated guesses about other people. Is Coors light over here being standoffish because of something you did, or did his dog die today and he just doesn’t want to show weakness?

I’ve found that most people are willing to wear their feelings on their sleeve, so you don’t need to try to hard to know what they are thinking and feeling. That’s not always the case though and if you suspect something else is going on–and you’re right–you just might be able to turn a bad mood into a good one.

Simply put, people can’t control the messages that their body is giving off. Even if they’re trying to hide it, their expressing that they have something to hide. If you couple the fact that people compulsively use their body to speak with your knowledge of how your body reacts to certain situations and feelings, you’ll be able to identify what others are feeling and thinking.

When you apply this to work, you’ll be far more sensitive to what’s going on around you. You’ll notice that guy is getting angry and tense before anything happens. You’ll see that girl bringing her arms in, or rubbing her fingers while trying not to look at the guy sitting next to her. The dude spinning his half-full glass? He is probably anxious to order something.

In an industry where you might not get to talk to people (or at least not for long) the ability to gauge what everyone is thinking without needing to say a word is indispensable. You can test the waters, so-to-speak, of an entire bar in about 15 seconds and know what’s happening before it happens.

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