• reading body language

The definitive guide on reading other people’s body language

People are confusing.

What they say is never how they truly feel. They conceal their inner intentions, making social interactions a game of guesswork. How is my team really feeling? Do these investors like me or my pitch? Are my business partners agreeing with what I’m saying? Can I trust my cofounder?

For an entrepreneur, these questions need answers. The game of guesswork is too risky. Minor misunderstandings quickly become full-on breakdowns in professional (and personal) relationships. It’s critical you understand how people are truly feeling. The trick is being able to read their body language.

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Nonverbal behaviors are a window into a person’s innermost feelings, thoughts, attitudes, ideas, and biases. Knowing which of these cues to look out for will allow you to identify how a person is truly feeling, even when they’re trying to hide it. And the more you know about how another person is feeling, the more you’re able to guide your own behaviors. It’s a feedback loop that is critical for building a successful business.

Let’s dive into the work week of a founder and see the types of nonverbal cues that come out in others. People are confusing, yes, but luckily for us they are predictably confusing.

All the information contained in the post is fully backed by leading academic research. Our team of psychology and neuroscience PhDs have sifted through hundreds of papers, selecting the ones of highest quality. You have the fullest confidence in the recommended actions.


1. How to know if someone is interested and engaged in what you’re saying.

Monday: Introducing a new business project plan for Q2. Today you’re sharing with your team a new plan that is drastically different than what they’re used to. You expect only some people will be ready and willing to make the shift. You need one or two leads to be accountable for the project change, forcing you to think carefully about which people are most interested.

The body and face will respond a certain way when a person is interested in something. In many workplace environments, people are afraid to speak up and say whether they’re interested or not in an idea. This self-censorship is especially true for subordinate – executive relationships.

Quick aside: If this is the case, step 1 is to begin to create an environment that encourages speaking up (see Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s posts on how doing so is good for everyone; and the science backing it up).

But until this is in place in your company, which takes lots of conscious effort, it’s crucial that you look out for the subtle nonverbal cues to gauge the level of engagement/interest. Mistaking interest for indifference can be very costly. Be on the lookout for the subtle behaviors that indicate interest and engagement.

i) They will lean forward with their body towards your general direction. But they won’t hold a rigidly held torso position. Instead, their body will be more relaxed and composed.

tim ferriss

source: dailymail.co.uk

ii) They will show signs of positive emotion, including the expression of a real smile (NOT a fake smile; see our other post for how to be able to spot the difference), head nodding “yes”, and eyes slightly open in a “positive surprise” look.

iii) They will show signs of attentiveness both in their body and on their face. This could be an upright posture (no slouching) and more animated gesturing (read our other post to learn all about gesturing and personality styles). Their pupils will be slightly dilated, which is the brain’s way of saying “take in as much of this information as possible!” They might also have a furrowed brow – the activation of the eyebrow muscle.

Careful with this one as the corrugator muscle gets activated during states of both anger and attentiveness. Assuming a person is interested/attentive when in fact they’re angry will not be good for anyone. You need to combine the cues to get a full read of the person’s state. This important piece of advice goes for any of our recommended observations to follow. A famous researcher once said, “no nonverbal cue is an island.” If you look at the corrugator alone, you risk being wrong in your evaluation of the person. Take a combined approach and look at the corrugator plus the other cues. For example:

  • Corrugator + nodding + smiling = positive attentiveness
  • Corrugator + unmoving head + glaring = negative hostility

Looking at the picture below (a still image where you aren’t able to get those other cues), you’ll notice it’s tough to tell if the handsome Michael Fassbender is raging mad at someone or really into what they’re saying. Same corrugator muscle would be active either way. So remember to use the combined approach!

michael fassbender

source: quora.com


2. How to know if someone likes you

Tuesday: Meeting with an investor group. Your team has the opportunity to scale the business and you need to secure the next round of funding. While the meeting is happening, you need to know which individuals are liking you (and your idea). These people will be your champions and be highly encouraging. Address them and let their positive response motivate you to finish strong.

If someone likes you, they will feel good about being around you. That’s a given. A person that likes you will be more inclined to like everything about the interaction. In this pleasant “liking” state, termed the “warm glow effect”, the brain perceives everything in the environment as more positive (even if those other things aren’t all that great).

For example, if you’re proposing a business idea to a group of investors, you’re much more likely to convince them if they like you. A crappy idea plus you being liked will probably fare better than a decent idea plus you being disliked. Remember, humans are confusing!

So step 1 is make sure you’re liked (this is beyond the scope of this post but we’ll return to this important topic in the near future – stay tuned). Step 2 is be able to tell if/when someone likes you. It’s never that easy because we have a knack to hide how we really feel. This is where observing nonverbal cues comes in hand. Look for these things:

i) They will mimic and mirror your body posture and gestures (as well as your wording and vocal tone). This “affiliative mimicry” is a natural process that happens outside conscious awareness and involves the Mirror Neuron System, a set of brain cells that connects people to one another and is believed to form the basis of all human culture.


source: bodylanguagesuccess.com

This mimicking behavior, which is often recognized as the “social glue” that binds people, is associated with a host of positive outcomes including increased liking, rapport, cooperation, and coordinated work efforts. We recommend throwing out a feeler to test it out: While you’re around someone, do some subtle movement like crossing your legs or lightly bouncing your foot. Now look to see if the person mimics your movement.

Bonus: For verbal mimicry, throw out a word while talking that can be pronounced differently, like the word “process.” The “o” can be long or short. Say it one way (either long or short “o”) and see if the other person copies/mimics that style of pronunciation. Do they say it the same way? This might be a signal that they like you.

ii) They will lean in with their body and get closer to you. Researchers have long argued that the distance between people is a direct measure of the amount of liking. To test this one out, you need to be around a person without a physical barrier in between. Desks and tables only get in the way. If you meet in an area with open space you’re much more likely to get a better read of the person and situation.

distance and liking correlation

source: emaze.com

iii) They will show intermittent eye contact when they are speaking and more direct, prolonged eye contact when you are talking.


3.  How to know when conflict or hostility is on the rise

Wednesday: Meetings with your employees. Your budding business has grown from 2 to 20 in just 6 months, and you’ve noticed some pain points in how the team interacts with you. Their behavior suggests they might be feeling a bit hostile and resentful towards you. But you’re not sure – maybe it’s all in your head? You need to know for certain so that the rising conflict can be resolved.  

It’s been said by scientists that “if you closely monitor developing conflict, usually nonverbal cues of conflict appear before verbal ones.”

Most people are pretty bad at knowing when another person might be heading towards the conflict zone. Knowing what nonverbal cues to look out for in your growing team of employees is crucial so that you can respond effectively (ideally in a way that de-escalates the conflict). Many famous serial entrepreneurs and angel investors argue the main reason startups fail is because of team conflict.

It’s as simple as this: Ignore threats of escalating conflict and you risk hurting your chances at success. Look out for these signs.

i) Their movements in the body will look less coordinated and almost jerky (as opposed to fluid and smooth). Similarly, the limbs will move in random movements and at unexpected moments. This happens because the brain’s responses are becoming disinhibited, not just in terms of how they’re feeling (which is angry or upset) but also in terms of the muscles involved in the body’s movements.

ii) Their eyes will have an indirect gaze, revealing a greater portion of the eyes’ sclera (the “whites” of the eyes).

indirect gaze

source: theatlantic.com

iii) Their face will become flush and red looking. The reason this happens is because the branch of the sympathetic nervous system, the “fight-or-flight” system, is preparing the body for an assault or attack. It rushes blood to the areas that need it the most like the face and the limbs. Of course, it’s rare that an actual assault will happen, but the brain operates in ancient caveman mode where assaults and attacks were much more frequent.


4. How to know when someone’s being dishonest (or, how to spot a liar)

Thursday: Meeting with an employee to discuss a negative product launch. You have a sneaking suspicion that your marketing lead made a bad call, which led to a failed launch attempt. You’ve known the person to cover up past mistakes for fear of failing. You want to hear them out and give them the benefit of the doubt, but you also know that they might lie in order to protect themselves.

Research has proven many times over that people are generally quite good at covering up lies when it comes to their actual speech. But it’s in the nonverbal cues where the truth comes out. Remember, most people have little control over their subtle nonverbal behaviors. If you want to spot a liar, look out for the following things.

i) Their body, torso, and limbs will appear more tense and rigid, and with more restricted mobility.

ii) They will show a reduced “blink rate”(we normally blink around 21 bpm, a low blink rate is considered roughly half that, around 7-10 bpm). Studies indicate that criminals who lie during interrogation blink less. Politicians who blink less during speeches are liked less. The reason this happens is because lying is effortful and requires cognitive energy, which means less energy goes to the eye-blinking muscles.

iii) After finished speaking a lie, their blinking will show a “rebound” effect with high blink rates.

Interesting aside, psychopaths are the real exception here. As expert liars, they have better control over their verbal and nonverbal behaviors. And they’re also better than normal folks at noticing when another person is lying. Hence their ability to deceive and manipulate people for their own benefit.

This is important to consider as there are plenty of “executive psychopaths” in the business and entrepreneurial worlds. In fact, one study found that roughly 1 in 5 senior level managers possess clinically significant psychopathic traits, while in the general population it is about one in a hundred.

Mind you, these aren’t the murderous psychopaths we fear in the movies. According to expert Dr. Kevin Dutton, violence is only one of the eight psychopathic traits (others include cold heartedness, blame deflection, and fearlessness; take his Psychopath Challenge). Books have been written on the topic. Check here and here to read more about this fascinating phenomenon. Think you might know someone in the entrepreneurial world who has psychopathic tendencies? Read this checklist to see.


5. How to know if someone is untrustworthy

Friday: Meeting with employees for end-of-week huddle. You’ve noticed an ongoing dispute among some of your team members that is beginning to disrupt the business’ operations. Both sides are pointing fingers and blaming each other to you in private. You know someone can’t be trusted, and you need to get to resolve this right away.

We saved the trickiest one for last. Evaluating trustworthiness is difficult for two reasons.

First, typically trust is developed over a long period of time over the course of an enduring relationship. But this luxury isn’t afforded in the entrepreneurial world. The decisions of an entrepreneur, including whether to go with a potential new investor, happen quickly and often on a gut hunch. And as much as gut hunches may be useful, they’re even more powerful when informed by science.

And second, there isn’t a single one cue that tells you to trust or not to trust. Luckily for us, there is very recent research showing that it’s four cues in combination that signal distrust. Once again, this hits home the point that reading nonverbal behaviors in combination is necessary. When combined, these four cues signal that a person might not be able to be trusted.

i) hand touching
ii) face touching
iii) leaning away
iv) crossing arms

In a series of experiments by Professor David DeSteno, author of The Truth About Trust, it was demonstrated that all four of these had to be present as a signal of distrust. If you’re watching someone touch their hands (without any of other three), your brain doesn’t think anything of it. But when you’re watching someone touch their hands and touch their face, lean away, and cross their arms, then your brain sends strong signals telling you that something is up.

Using a clever form of science, the researchers confirmed their findings by using everyone’s favorite and lovable robot, Nexi. With Nexi they were able to turn on and off all the various combinations listed above, proving that it was indeed the four combo above that signaled distrust.

nexi robot

source: robotic.media.mit.edu

Recap and the final word

Let’s recap what we learned in our work week of reading others’ body language. Observing these cues in your day-to-day interactions is low effort but with high payoff. Working through these observation-based tactics/tools will allow you to understand people’s real inner feelings, a valuable skillset that very few people have.

In a short time, you will be able to:

  • Know when someone is engaged/interested in you or what you’re saying (employees might be hesitant to say they’re not into your idea)
  • Know if someone likes you (it’s rare that a person will openly say, “I like you” or “I despise you”)
  • Know if conflict or hostility is on the rise (resolving conflict means catching it early on, before people begin to even let on how they’re feeling)
  • Know if someone is being dishonest (people always want to come across as honest, but not everyone is)
  • Know if someone isn’t trustworthy (people will gain from being perceived as trustworthy, but the unconscious cues betray their true intention)

Now you can start using all these skills in your day to day interactions and know much more what the other side is thinking or feeling.