I was in a conversation the other day and noticed - some people call it my 'body language' - how I was standing.
I had my arms folded and my legs were also crossed as I stood leaning against the photocopier at work. I was talking to one of the mediators and I was fascinated by a discussion we were having about a course she is doing in Mediation and Conflict Resolution.
But hang on - my arms were folded and my legs were crossed. Doesn't that mean I was being defensive or insular or negative in my response to what was being said? Surely that's what all the body language bibles and gurus say.
So how could it be possible that I was fascinated by this positive, interesting discussion, with this positive, interesting person?
But I was.
Fortunately, Caroline, the mediator I was talking to, is someone who clearly does not assume she knows how I feel and what I am thinking from my 'body language' as she was happy to continue the discussion.
But if she was someone who believed the books and trainings that discuss 'non-verbal communication' she could easily have 'read my body language' and decided that I was bored, or defensive, or negative and didn't want to continue our discussion and so might have brought it to a close by making some excuse and ending it.
And what a pity that would have been.
An interesting connection and sharing of communication would have been terminated and lost, perhaps never to have been recreated, because of one person's assumption based on perceived 'body language' saying that I wasn't interested.
But how often are people swayed by these 'non-verbal' messages. There is a sizeable industry of 'trainers' and 'experts' who claim that body posture, tone of voice, even the colour of the jumper someone is wearing 'tells you something about the person'.
And as a result, many people who believe what they are told about such things, cease to actually communicate and engage with others because they have 'read their body language' and it was 'aggressive' or 'bored' or 'defensive' and so they either don't start to connect with them or they cut the connection.
I was once told by another mediator how he had rushed his daughter into hospital when she had suddenly been taken seriously ill.
He was beside himself with worry, but when he asked the receptionist for news of how she was and other information he was told to 'stop being aggressive' and that he would be asked to leave if he didn't stop.
He was being anything but aggressive, he was worried and nervous and frightened. But he was 'interpreted' as being aggressive.
How difficult that must have been - to not even be able to express your fear and anxiety about a loved one because someone misinterprets your tone of voice and body language.
These are common examples of speaking for others which lead to a breakdown in communication because we feel we don't need to engage with another person and ask them what their thoughts and feelings are because we presume we know already. And sometimes because we've even been trained to think we know.
It is a common feature of neighbour disputes and other disputes that people ascribe emotions, thoughts and characteristics to others without having had a conversation with them.
They are jealous of our home and can't stand to see us happy in it, that's why they keep playing loud music, trying to force us out.
Charles in Accounts is definitely interested in the new Manager position so he's sucking up to the boss, pretending he likes football.
I don't believe that someone who doesn't wear a tie to work can be relied upon to do a good job.
OF COURSE, it is possible that in some circumstances, some of these beliefs actually prove to be true.
But almost always, they don't.
They arise out of speculation, projection and a need to make sense of something, but without taking the risk of actually engaging with the person about whom the assumption is made.
And this is reinforced by the portrayal of communication as a 'science', in which we believe we can generalise about people's feelings and thoughts when they stand in a certain way or speak with a certain tone, or wear a certain coloured jumper etc.
How vast is the wasted opportunity for learning, connection and insight between people that occurs because of these 'facts' that are not facts about 'non-verbal communication', that many have started to believe and incorporate into their every day interactions with others?
How many of our Helping Professionals are misinterpreting and alienating their 'difficult' clients each day through what they have been trained to believe about them from their body language, tone of voice and attire?
"But you've missed the point" some of the body language teachers will say. ...."the reason to learn about body language is to create rapport with the people you work with. So if your client is standing leaning against the door, you move to stand and lean against the wall in the same position. (Adjust your tone of voice etc.) Then you will be in tune with each other.".... (or something similar).
Unfortunately, it does not necessarily follow that this achieves what it claims. When two people are standing in the same posture, it doesn't follow that there will be a connection or rapport between them.
It is also not the case that if two people are standing in notably different postures that they will not have rapport or connection with each other.
It is a seductive idea to think that we can 'know what people are thinking and feeling' without having to actually speak to them and ask them. Sometimes connecting with people by speaking to them can be very threatening and intimidating. It may be someone we have a strong dislike of, or even that we have a strong attraction to.
In the latter example we can fantasise, based on our 'interpretation of their body language' that they feel the same, but it will only count for anything if we actually speak with them.
And the same would be true for those we dislike, though the fantasies will be of a different kind. And we may say that it matters less to us that we have not spoken with them.
Nevertheless, our fantasies about what they think and feel will still remain unverifiable fantasies. In many such circumstances our interpretations will cause us far more distress than the reality.
My further concern about the deliberate and conscious use of 'body language interpretation' is that, sadly, rather than striving to be present with someone we are communicating with, open to hearing their difficulties and concerns, or even their joys and aspirations, in order to offer them a space in which to talk, a sanctuary in which to be listened to, we can become more concerned with standing in the right place, in the right way, adjusting our tone of voice etc.
How can we be genuinely present and listening when we are preoccupied with these things?
Rebecca Z.Shafir describes true listening as being in a 'movie mindset' in her book The Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction:
The movie mindset is opposite to the act-like-you-are-listening approach, in which you mimick a listening posture, nod often, say "Mm-hmm," and maintain eye contact. How can you possibly make all these adjustments and still concentrate on the speaker? It is not that these actions are contrary to what you do when you really listen. But to focus on this list of body language to-dos risks appearing artificial to the speaker. Just like at the movies, when you forget yourself and get into the shoes of the speaker, your body naturally relaxes into listening posture. When you truly listen, you don't need to think about your posture or what you should be doing with your hands. Your gestures and expressions effortlessly reflect your interest. All you have to do is enjoy the adventure!
Not playing the game?
Ultimately, the main use of body language interpretation, seems to be to identify when people are not in tune with us - rather than that we are not engaging with them.
When we haven't been able to achieve rapport, the problem is their body language. We've done it correctly, they haven't.
Body language interpretation becomes a game that may be understood by all those 'in the know', but has little if any relevance to what we actually think or feel when we play it.
And so it is more commonly used to demonise those that have been 'difficult', that don't 'play the game'.
Having been trained in it, anyone who doesn't fit the rules is excluded from genuine attention. By which I mean attention that comes from a place of continued commitment to trying not to judge or preconceive, that is rooted in a disciplined commitment to self-awareness regarding our own prejudices.
This is denied those that we work with when we apply such generalisations and presume we know what they are feeling and thinking from their 'body language', or their 'tone of voice' or even, what they are wearing.
When we spend our energies trying to play this game we are taught is meant to be in place, we are not genuinely trying to engage with the other. And as a result, we both lose connection with each other.
How often do you hear a professional say. "I had a really good interaction with a client today, their body language was so open and we got on really well"?
More often, and in my experience to date, always, body language is used as an additional negative aspect of the description of a 'difficult' other, be they client, partner, colleague, etc.
"I couldn't work with Fred Smith today. He was surly and stubborn and his body language was always defensive. There was no getting through to him."
I wonder how Fred felt and what he was thinking? I wonder if he was asked?
I am not for one second suggesting that we are not affected by our interpretation of the way others appear to us. What I am saying is that we can never know if we are correct or not. And so to seek to let go of our prejudgements rather than formalise them into a set of generalisations and portray it as a 'science', is a more effective way of promoting communication and connection between us.
We stop speaking for others and allow them to speak for themselves.
We can only find out what someone thinks and feels by engaging with them and asking them what they say they are thinking or feeling. Everything else can only be our speculation.
And if we find out how one person was feeling when they stood a certain way, or had a particular tone of voice, that has no relevance whatsoever to how another person might be feeling when they seem to be standing or speaking in a similar way.
In acknowledging this we remain open to accepting the uniqueness of each individual's thoughts, feelings and other responses.
By ignoring this and even actively promoting these generalisations we treat each other as 'concepts' and labels and become disconnected from each other.