The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” – Peter Drucker

As interviews go, this one was perfect. Too perfect, in fact. The interview subject answered each question perfectly, providing responses that were quick and seemingly spontaneous. Every word was perfectly suited to the context – every sentence smooth and deliberate.

The body language was just as perfect. The subject looked straight ahead the entire time, smiling broadly and signaling an excitedness with their hands that was impossible to miss. They leaned forward into every question, maintaining eye contact while exhibiting an exuberant positivity. Everything about the interview was perfect.

But I didn’t hire them. In the end, I channeled advice my father had offered decades earlier: when something seems too good to be true, it’s because it is too good to be true.

Everything about the interview was perfect: the responses, the emotion, the body language. The verbal and non-verbal cues were perfectly orchestrated, and the subject’s body language gave no indication of anything other than genuine interest. But none of it was genuine, and the eyes gave it away. They never looked anywhere but straight ahead, despite interview questions that should have induced eye movement.

It was a very well-rehearsed performance. But it was a performance, not an actual interview.

Speaking Without Words

The use of complex movements and gestures predates spoken language among humans, a natural evolution among a strongly social species. Formal study of gesture began with the ancient Greeks and Romans, both of whom considered such movements to be a necessary element of rhetoric. During the Middle Ages, The Sachsenspiegel, a foundational legal text of the Holy Roman Empire compiled between 1220 and 1235, included illustrations of the gestures in use in legal and political circles.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the study of human gestures and language matured and coalesced, with cross-cultural research supporting the idea that many aspects of non-verbal communication are universal in nature. But it was the work of anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell that informed most of our modern understanding. Birdwhistell, who coined the term “body language,” pioneered the field of kinesics, the study and interpretation of body movements as symbolic or metaphorical in social interaction.

Why does it matter?

The research of Albert Mehrabian, a contemporary of Birdwhistell who studied body language in the 1950s, revealed that human messaging was composed of 7 percent verbal (words), 38 percent vocal (voice tone and inflection), and 55 percent nonverbal communication. Allan and Barbara Pease – whose 1978 book, Body Language, is considered the definitive guide to the modern study of nonberbal communication – estimated that body language accounted for between 60 and 80 percent of the impact in typical business negotiations.

In short, body language matters. If you’re not paying close attention to all of the nonverbal signals, you’re missing most of the conversation.

The Ten Commandments

No one appreciates this more than Joe Navarro. A former FBI special agent and founding member of the bureau’s Behavioral Analysis Program, Navarro approaches the subject from a decidedly practical perspective, bringing 25 years of professional experience in the field to bear. In his 2008 book, What Every Body is Saying, Navarro describes what he considers the keys to understanding and interpreting body language, the Ten Commandments of Nonverbal Communication.

1. Be a competent observer.

Careful, concerted observation is as vital to understanding communication as active listening. To understand everything that’s being (and not being) said, you have to listen with your eyes, ears, and mind.

2. Observe in context.

Context is inseparable from non-verbal communication. Depending on the circumstances, people should exhibit certain body language consistent with the context.

3. Recognize universal nonverbal behaviors.

There are a number of universal forms of nonverbal communication that capture everything from eye movement to lip positioning. The better you can recognize these behaviors, the more able you will be to translate their meaning.

4. Recognize idiosyncratic nonverbal behaviors.

While universal behaviors are relatively easy to identify, each individual will also exhibit unique, often idiosyncratic behavioral patterns. Recognizing and decoding these require more time and familiarity with an individual but are equally important to interpreting communication.

5. Establish baseline behaviors.

As you become more familiar with an individual, you can differentiate behaviors based on your understanding of their baseline patterns. A clear recognition of the baseline provides insight into subtle changes in behavior that might otherwise be missed.

6. Observe cluster “tells.”

As you become better at recognizing and decoding nonverbal behavior, you should develop an enhanced ability to recognize multiple signals, or clusters of behaviors. These signals combine to provide a clearer understanding of the nonverbal message being conveyed.

7. Observe behavioral changes.

Sudden changes in behavior, even subtle ones, signal changes in thoughts, emotions, interest, or intent. They reveal how an individual is processing information and can help you to predict the ebb and flow of a conversation.

8. Recognize false or misleading nonverbal signals.

Subtle differences in nonverbal signals are key to differentiating between authentic and misleading cues. This necessitates not just concerted observation but practiced judgment.

9. Distinguish between comfort and discomfort.

Recognizing and distinguishing between signs of comfort and discomfort are essential to understanding what someone is really saying.

10. Be a subtle observer.

Intrusive observation – staring at someone for nonverbal cues – will make the subject uncomfortable and change the calculus of the interaction. Be subtle and unobtrusive.

As you learn and apply Navarro’s 10 Commandments, listen closely to your intuition. At a subconscious level, your limbic brain – which drives the survival responses hard wired into your brain through evolution – already recognizes and interprets nonverbal behavior. What you have to learn to do is connect the thinking side of the brain – the neocortex – to the limbic brain, so you can logically process and analyze nonverbal behavior. That, Navarro notes, is the Holy Grail of body language.


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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.