Things to do instead of obsessing over body language

Body language, properly non-verbal communication, has become something of an obsession. I’ve written a number of posts about the supposed 55-38-7 rule and how it is often used out of context. A number of people have suggested that if I ‘shoot something down in flames’ (however false it is), I still need to suggest an alternative. Well the whole ‘body language’ thing is almost a cult, largely promoted by the evidence-less NLP (neuro-linguistic movement). I’m sure that no one would suggest I provide an alternative to a cult. I will anyway. Don’t join one.

So what are the alternatives to hours spent poring over body language books and attending expensive courses. They are surprisingly simple. Mostly body language devotees are concerned about deceit. Such as, how can I present myself as a genuine person?

There are tips to appearing genuine: (i) Relax; (ii) Be yourself; (iii) Don’t tell lies.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodRelaxation is the basis of confidence. Invest time in relaxation and spend more time on activities where you feel comfortable in your own skin (that don’t involve drinking, talking drugs or binge eating). Body language often happens ‘naturally’. When we try to force it, we look phoney. Over analyzing our every non-verbal signal in minute detail can only have a paralyzing effect. All that happens is that we give out mixed signals which are more likely to be interpreted as deceit. These are all principle keys in my book Unlock your Confidence. I emphasize techniques that unlock our inherent abilities.

A lot of the obsession about body language is the need detect or hide deceit. Detecting deceit in not an easy thing. There are so many factors to take into account. Non-verbal communication needs to be interpreted in clusters. No individual signal is definitive. Context is everything. There is also so much rubbish written about non-verbal communication that we can never protect against someone else’s faulty interpretation. Non-verbal communication is about ‘broad strokes’. Many pop-psychology books just make things up that might look good in a press release and so picked up by newspapers and radio programmes that need to fill space with a bit of whimsy. So take the easier path, invest all that time that you would spend on studying body language on finding ways to relax and control your stress response. This in turn will make it more likely that you are comfortable in your own skin and are able to be yourself.

The original  Albert Mehrabian body language research was concerned with first impressions and also congruence between verbal and non-verbal signals. We have to bear in mind that the original experiments were laboratory based and so lacked a little real-world significance. As systems theorist Peter Checkland commented ‘Life is too quixotic to be modelled’. So, we need to take the non-verbal communications statistics with a dose of scientific scepticism. Unfortunately, self-help writers, television producers and magazine and newspaper editors simply don’t have the time, space or training to do this. Body language is often the favourite bit of ‘science’ to slot into analyses of reality TV. It’s a great lever to shoe-horn in a bit of cod-Freud.

Considering the role of body language in forming first impressions. Relaxation and being yourself are key. These are far more important than having to remember lots of manipulative bod language tricks that invariably look phoney. One important from the Mehrabian research is that we are all pretty good at working out when words and gestures are at odds with one another. The signals are meant to be taken as a whole to give us a general impression. That’s as often as much as we need. If you set about trying to find out if someone is truthful in an encounter, you’re behaviour may become so odd as your eyes flick here there and everywhere that the other person may interpret you as a liar. They in turn react to their perception of your deceit and become more guarded. You interpret this as their deceit because you have neglected to consider the effect your weird behaviour is having.

Confidence doesn’t come from having a set of party tricks and cod-psychology at your disposal, it comes from relaxing, being yourself and putting others at ease. If you get the impression that someone’s words and gestures do not match, then use more words to find out. Get more information. Ask questions.


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Is NLP supported by a body of evidence-based peer reviewed psychological research?


NLP Practitioner Doesn’t Have all the Answers. Shock. Horror.

I was amused at one of the vox pops following one of Derren Brown‘s shows  (on TV) this week. One woman says ‘I’m an NLP practitioner and I don’t know how he does it’. Well that’s not saying much is it? After one to three weeks training and given that there is actually no objective evidence to substantiate the wild claims made by the more zealous, almost cultish, NLP enthusiasts. Despite NLP being hailed as a wonderful ‘communication technology’, it’s quite telling that it’s alleged that its originators only speak to each other through their solicitors.  I doubt that Derren Brown was sh*tting himself knowing there were a few NLPers in the audience, as he’s hardly complimentary about its practice.


Tricks of the Mind

Can only an expert deal with a problem?

According to a man I worked with in a former life, in an insurance company,  the definition of an expert is:

  • ‘X’ is the unknown quantity, and
  • A ‘spurt’ is a drip under pressure

Oh how we laughed. . . the first time! No so, for what seemed like the million repeats.

Repetition is at the heart Laurie Anderson’s song ‘Only an expert can deal with a problem’. So I guess an expert may just be someone who spends a lifetime saying the same things over and over again. When a bit of research was carried out on Oprah viewers, one of most popular definitions of ‘expert’ was ‘some one who has written a book’. This didn’t necessarily mean a well-researched, evidence-based book, but more a personal account of  their problems.

It’s also worth pointing out that when we see or hear an expert on TV or in the media that the selection process is not so stringent as one might think. I once asked a radio producer why he favoured one particular self-appointed media analysist (with a religious emphasis) over the official regulating bodies such as Ofcom or the BBFC? The answer came: because they are easier to get hold off and more willing to talk on local radio. So the expert may not be the best one for the job,  just the closest and most amenable.

(There’s also a lot of truth in Anderson’s song, that only an expert knows how to create a problem too).

Evidence-based psychology has so much to say about the human endeavour but is often not see so ‘sexy’ as pop psychology and ‘experts’ without any ethical code, who can say and do just about anything that makes good TV. It’s wise to be wary of ‘experts’  (X-spurts) who invent syndromes that can be cured by buying a particular product, or experts that claim that they can ‘reprogram’ your mind. Also, beware of experts who claim they can read a celebrities mind just be looking an an intrusive pap-snap. They can’t. Body language needs to be viewed in context and if they are a member of The British Psychological Society (BPS), they are not supposed to be doing it anyway.

Each of us has the answers to our own problems, and it sometimes need a qualified professional to provide the strategies to draw those solutions out of us.  If you decide you need an expert to assist you, make sure you check out their credentials. Do they actually have any qualifications? Where did they get them? If someone has a PhD from some obscure, Internet-based organization, it might not be worth a damn. For instance, in Britain, all PhD theses have to be filed with The British Library. However, that is only from accredited Universities. Also, beware of how experts refer to themselves. A qualification in NLP or hypnotherapy no more entitles them to call them psychologists as owning a steak knife entitles anyone to call themselves a surgeon. (There’s little or no evidence that NLP lives up to the bold claims of it’s more enthusiastic practitioners).

The upshot is, if you need an expert to help you solve your problems, make sure your experts have the qualifications, the tools and the skills for the job, not that they are just the first in the phone book or the closest to you. Don’t be afraid to check them out and ask questions. If you don’t get satisfactory answers, then move on!

Here’s a video of Laurie Anderson performing the hypnotic ‘Only An Expert’ (sung in English with French subtitles):