It’s no secret that the way we carry ourselves is our passport to the world of human interaction. So, if you’ve made it this far in life, you probably have a good idea on how not to behave like a sociopath.
But in an increasingly connected and competitive world, it’s now going to take more than a firm handshake and sustained eye contact to make a lasting impression with investors or employees. While the numbers vary across studies, it’s generally accepted that less than 20 per cent of our communication is verbal, with the rest of our thoughts and feelings being conveyed via voice tonality and body language.
“It only takes about seven seconds for people to judge you based on a first impression, and it’s not only your dressing that they notice but also your mannerisms and even the way you smell,” says Tricia Fan, chief image coach at Fleek Image. “At the same time, a common mistake people make is to overthink things. When you’re worried about whether your conversation topics will sound stupid or if you’re too preoccupied with what to ask next, it can come across as shifty and lacking in confidence.”
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Standing tall, speaking deliberately and taking bigger strides are some of the more obvious cues for confidence but there are subtler ways to convey power. Human beings have so many tells that former FBI agent and supervisor Joe Navarro has written several books on the topic and regularly speaks at lectures and seminars about the importance of non-verbal communication.
In one video, he declares that hand steepling – where the fingertips of both hands are placed together, spread and arched so that the hands look like a church steeple – “is the most powerful behaviour we have on this planet to demonstrate confidence, and that’s why all over the world you see very powerful people using this behaviour,” he says, citing Angela Merkel and Colin Powell as examples. “It’s because you can command a room without talking, just by doing this.”
Navarro also advises leaving your thumbs out if you have your hands in your pockets because it is a high-status display. On the flip side, don’t put only your thumbs into your pockets “unless you want your mother to pack you lunch and pat you on the head”.
Our arms and hands are constantly giving away information. According to Navarro’s The Dictionary of Body Language, our thumb will move away from the index finger when we are feeling confident – something easily observed when one’s hands are on the table. It might also indicate the speaker’s commitment to what they’re saying, so the greater the distance, the stronger the commitment.
This can all be used to read others as well. While it’s true that high-status individuals engage in more eye contact overall, less powerful people tend to make more eye contact with these higher-status individuals while listening but less while speaking. This is especially pronounced in Japan and the Asia-Pacific. Spreading out one’s arms over chairs or a couch is also a territorial display, so take note of who withdraws their arms to their sides when someone of a high (or higher) rank walks in.
Folding one’s arms, however, is not necessarily indicative of deceit or guardedness and it’s something Navarro often debunks as “sheer nonsense. It’s a self-hug. It feels good. That’s why we do it in public more so than in private.”
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The truth is out there
We know what insecurity and lack of confidence look like: fidgeting, hurried speech, non-existent eye contact and so on. But it’s only human to experience anxiety and nervousness from time to time, so leaders may be better served by knowing how to spot a lie instead.
When non-verbal red flags are merely suggestive of an uncomfortable chair, general nerves or even habit, it helps to pay attention to the actual dialogue instead. Former CIA security specialist Susan Carnicero believes the first deceptive behaviour will happen within the first five seconds of a question being asked, and sometimes even while the question is being asked. So if someone’s biting their lip or shaking their leg, see if that was something they were always doing or if it only began with their response.
Carcinero, who helped develop behavioural screening programmes for the US government and authored Spy the Lie and Get the Truth, also advises paying attention to the use of exclusionary qualifiers like “for the most part”, “not really” or “fundamentally” when asked difficult questions. Liars may also try to convince rather than convey by saying things like “I wouldn’t do that” versus “I didn’t do that”. Clear questions should have clear answers and anything to the contrary should raise some alarm bells.
A 2019 peer-reviewed research article led by intelligence crime analyst Brianna L. Verigin revealed that good liars “lean towards telling inconsequential lies, mostly to colleagues and friends, and generally via face-to-face interactions”. Results also showed that self-reported good liars may try to stay as close to the truth as possible to raise credibility. Since reading people is both an art and science, with exceptions to many rules, your main takeaway should be to pay attention both to yourself and to others. If nothing else, being fully present is often the first step to winning people over anyway.