How to Read People

Size up strangers, understand lovers, and decode body language like a pro.

Reading Body Language: It’s Not Easy, But You Can Improve

Can you learn body language and how?

I've been studying nonverbal communication for over 30 years, with a special emphasis on skill in nonverbal communication. I've seen books and courses that purport to teach you how to read someone's body language "like a book." Well, sorry to inform you that body language - nonverbal communication - is fantastically complex, and there is no dictionary that you can use to translate (or else Frommer's or Rosetta Stone would be selling them). You can, however, get better at reading ("decoding") nonverbal cues, but it's not all that easy, but here's how.

First, what does the research say? There are some published studies, and a handful of dissertations, that have tried to train people in nonverbal communication, and although some show statistically significant improvement, the changes are underwhelming. Most likely the problem is that these trainings are relatively brief - often a single session, or a week-long training - not enough time to see real improvement.

Another problem with these studies is the motivation of the trainees. The typical participants are college students who may be more concerned about fulfilling their experimental credit, or making a few bucks, than actually learning to become a better nonverbal communicator.

So, an investment of time, and proper motivation, are required to develop nonverbal skills, but let me give you my personal experience, and then discuss some of our training results.

When I was a graduate student, working long hours in the nonverbal communication lab, my "job" was editing and coding videos of our participants trying to express emotions, trying to be sincere, or trying to be seductive, using only nonverbal cues. [We would have them do this saying content standard sentences or reciting a portion of the alphabet.]. We also ran studies on deception, where participants were either telling the truth or lying. Over time, and without any intent to develop my own ability to read nonverbal cues (which were pretty pathetic at the time), I found that I was getting better at reading others' body language outside of the lab. I recall going to a crowded bar and being able to predict who was going to "hit on" who, to the amazement of my fellow graduate students.

But here's the issue: I had spent hundreds and hundreds of hours watching nonverbal behavior. I sort of picked it up vicariously, without any intent or motivation. But the improvement was dramatic. [Of course, once I graduated and had my own students to do the video coding, I stopped watching tapes and, unfortunately, returned to my former clueless condition (although I think I did retain some improvement)].

Since that time, we have continued working on developing people's skills in nonverbal communication, and training a broader repertoire of social skills - including verbal speaking skills, an awareness and ability to understand social situations, and social role-playing skill. We have a better understanding of the many elements that go into successful skill in nonverbal (and social) communication.

Here are the key elements needed for successfully developing nonverbal and social skills, based on our research and training programs:

Awareness. It's important to first understand the basics of nonverbal communication and to become attuned to nonverbal cues. Learning to observe is a first step, and becoming aware of how and when you display your feelings and emotions nonverbally is important. We focus on this in training.

Motivation. In order to become better at reading and enacting body language, it takes a great deal of time, effort, and dedication. You have to be highly motivated and want to learn. You need to be able to devote dozens of hours to see any positive change, and hundreds of hours to become an exceptionally skilled nonverbal communicator.

Feedback. We find that one reason that people have difficulty in developing their nonverbal skills is that they don't receive feedback about their existing level of skill at reading and enacting body language, and they don't often get feedback about their accuracy, or about improvement. So, getting this feedback is a critical element of training programs.

Practice. It is critically important that you practice, and practice in both simulated and in real world environments. When we do training, we give homework assignments, so that trainees can apply what they've learned in their own worlds.

So, can nonverbal communication ("body language" - most nonverbal researchers don't like that term because it mislabels and makes folks think it is an actual translatable language) skill can indeed be measured, trained, and improved. Can we turn a somewhat-clueless wallflower into a charismatic dynamo? Probably not. But with time, dedication, and proper training, nonverbal skill can be improved.


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How to Read People