The Insider’s Guide to Reading People

Guide to Reading People

Body Language. We all do it. We all witness it. I’m sure I”m telling you nothing new when I say that more than 80% of our communication is non-verbal. The stats vary among sources, but we can agree on one thing: Most of your communication is via body language. We usually just fail to pay any attention to it. There is an abundance of communications courses out there. How many of them really focus on interpreting non-verbal body language, though?

Back a few years ago, I took some time off consulting to help Lawrence build his insurance practice. I was instantly dropped into the world of insurance and investments sales. Here, swim. I knew nothing, absolutely nothing about selling anything, let alone insurance. So I decided to edu-ma-cate myself. I took intensive courses in sales from top authorities like Tom Hopkins. I read a plethora of books on sales and marketing: “getting to yes” techniques, closing techniques, you name it. Anything for this introverted accountant/IT geek to close the deal. Guess what, those sales and communications skills… those closing skills have stayed with me throughout the years. When I returned to the wonderful world of consulting, I felt that I gained superhuman abilities in being able to read people, to sell my ideas, and convey my messages. I came back with an advantage. You see, in the realm of IT and accounting, no one but no one in their right mind would ever even consider picking up a sales book, let alone take an intensive course on sales skills.

Of course, I still have a lot to learn… but here are some of the nuggets that resulted in the thousands of dollars of sales intel, particularly in the area of reading people’s non-verbal cues. I guarantee you once you learn the language of the body, you’ll be able to pick up on things that you’ve never noticed before.

Oh.. one more thing… the perspective I’m taking is that of business and the professional arena. There is a whole whack of non-verbal cues used in the dating scene and some more that are culturally unique…These are all out of scope for today.  Today, I’m focused on equipping you with a sampling of body language interpretations for the business world.

Ok.. here we go.


Crossed Arms

This is no-brainer. I’m sure you’ve seen this one. Walk into a meeting and you’ll probably see at least half the room with their arms folded. Often they just don’t know what to do with their arms. It seems most comfortable to fold the arms in front and just stand there. It’s comfortable, though, because it feels safe. Folded or crossed arms scream a closed off stance. It creates a barrier protecting the person from the rest of the world.

I’ve seen this in action and it is actually pretty fascinating. I would start my sales pitch about me, my experience in the industry, and the company that I represented. As I was gradually progressed into the various problems that people face now in the insurance industry, I could so easily detect how well I was connecting to the person. Sometimes, almost immediately, the person would sit back in the chair and cross his arms. Uh oh, I knew I was losing him.

Seeing crossed arms was a huge cue to me. It told me that I was likely talking too much. Telling, instead of involving the person. There was a very likely possibility that I’m boring the heck out of the guy. He became disinterested.

The field of sales training is a multi-billion dollar industry, because there are so many different techniques and nuances to the entire sales cycle, overcoming objections, and closing the deal. Since this post is about non-verbal language, I’ll save the techniques for coming back from the abyss of losing pitches in a future blog post.

Here’s the thing, though… the temperature of the room will greatly affect the reason why a person might be crossing their arms… especially for women. cold womanWomen generally get colder much more easily than men do.. and hence might be more inclined to fold their arms more frequently. So it might not be that they’re being closed off, but they’re simply freezing. The moral of the story is that you need to read multiple non-verbal cues together. Not one individual cue can indicate what the person feels completely.

Other versions of this same close off stance include the following:

Holding the forearms, or hugging the ribcage

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One arm across the front (more frequently seen on women)

one arm across chest

Crossed Legs, Ankles Crossed


The Fig Leaf Stance

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All of these likely communicate some form of closed-off-ness. (pretend that’s a thing if it isn’t.) By the way, this image is actually an exception to the rule: Obama uses the Fig-Leaf stance here to show respect and deference to a major religious leader. There are always exceptions to every rule. This is one of them.

Again, the natural question is how do you come back from this. You feel the blood drain from your face mid-presentation when your audience suddenly simultaneously cross their arms and leans back… (cliff-hanger)

Stay tuned for that subsequent post.


The Handshake

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In my first year of University, the Faculty of Business hosted a week long self-development seminar. This is where I learned to write a resume, eat at a formal business lunch, dress professionally and shake a hand. I remember when I took the lesson on hand shaking.

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It was taught by a PR professional.. and the instruction (particularly for females), was to dig right into the hook of the hand (thumb and index finger), and shake as firmly as you can. This single-handedly shaped the millions of first impressions I’ve made for the next 20 years. But now, having shaken more hands than I can keep track, in the 20 years that I’ve been in the world of business, I actually don’t try to shake as hard as possibly can anymore.

First of all, since I started weight training 15 years ago, my grip has significantly increased. Hence I don’t feel I have to try that hard to deliver a firm handshake. Second, I learned some surprising things about the firm handshake.

Of course, the firm handshake still prevails in the business world. The worst possible handshakes are still the dead-fish style.

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There could be a multitude of very good reasons for why a person delivered a softy (arthritis, weak muscle tone…) But, that dead fish handshake communicates weakness and submissiveness in the world of commerce that has been dominated by testoterone and ego for the last 500 years.


The Winning Handshake

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Want to deliver a handshake that conveys confidence and an intent for an equal, amiable relationship? Meet your partner’s hand with equal firmness. No one tries out grip the other. In fact, while the death grip handshakes (the one I was taught) signifies confidence, it also could mask insecurity, and deceit, as puts it. In other words, a firm handshake does not necessarily indicate a trustworthy person. This is quite the opposite of the original intent for the handshake.


The Origin of the Handshake

There are various different stories of how our modern handshake came to be a part of modern society. The ancient Greek recorded that handshakes were used as a symbol of peace, demonstrating that there were no weapons held by either party. “Pleased to meet you. Don’t worry, I’m not going to stab you in the eye today.”

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Per, The Romans one-upped this gesture, by locking forearms, to indicate to each other that they weren’t hiding any daggers up their sleeve.

One additional tidbit to note is that for most cultures, the tradition is to shake with the right hand, instead of the left. The reason is because back in the days before toilet paper was invented…before washing hands was even a thing, people used their left hands to wipe their ass. Fair enough, I can appreciate how it wouldn’t be super friendly to shake your new friend’s hand with your ass-wiping hand. I agree with this tradition.

(Thank you, again for that little gem.) Ok. Enough about handshakes. Moving on.


Hand Supporting Chin, Leaning Forward

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This is the winner folks. If you’re delivering your pitch, and your audience gradually leans forward, hand supporting the chin, eyes focused on you, you’ve got it. This is the signal that says “I’m hooked on your every word. I’m interested. Tell me more. I’m drinking it in.”

Leil Lowndes spoke of this at length in her book How to Talk to Anyone. I highly recommend this book, and refer back to it time and time again. She discusses many clever little hacks to convey confidence and read what others are trying to tell you through their body language.

Moreover, if you’re getting smiles, with a slow head-nod, you’ve hit the jackpot of interest. Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! They’ll likely start to ask ‘buying’ questions, meaning that they’re eating what you’re feeding them. They’re drinking the Kool-Aid. In Part 2, we’ll talk about how to close the deal.. and not to blow it, wasting all the goodwill you’ve built thus far.


Eye Contact

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In all of the material that I went through in putting this post together, all of them.. all of them spoke about eye contact. This should give you a very good indication that eye contact is perhaps the single, most important non-verbal cue. If those eyeballs aren’t following you, you lost them. Seems obvious to me. If you’re in the middle of the slide deck and your audience’s eyes start wandering to the window, what does that tell you? They’re obviously no longer paying attention to you, obviously!

At one of my previous client’s, it was somehow inexplicably part of one team’s culture that everyone brought their laptops into meetings. This, in my opinion, is the rudest thing you can possibly do. Well, no. The rude part isn’t in the fact that they bring their laptops. The rude part is that all meeting their eyes would be glued to their screens. They wouldn’t even bother even extending the courtesy to look up at you! They claim to be listening, but I might as well have been talking to myself. What was the point to get everyone together? I might has well have emailed them. Unbelievable. Incidentally, if you’re new to the business world, I want to tell you that this is atypical. And truly rude. Don’t do this! Eye contact is the first thing people look for, and the easiest way to tell if someone is listening to you or not. Also… they will remember how you made them feel during meetings and hence will lose respect for you because of it.


Some Less Obvious Cues

Head Nodding

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This could be obvious.. or less obvious. The obvious one is the slow head nod, which would indicate interest and agreement in what you’re saying. Then again, in the case of Stanley, who knows what’s going through his head? He could be thinking about what he’s going to barbecue for dinner, or his crossword puzzle… Here is a prime example where one non-verbal cue isn’t nearly enough to come to a reliable indication of what the person is thinking.


The Furrowed Brow

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This could go a few ways. A furrowed brow could indicate confusion… that this guy isn’t really following what you’re saying. It could also be that see what you’re presenting.. so he’s not really furrowing his brow in confusion, but squinting in an attempt to see the details. Or.. he could be thinking hard as he concentrates on the ideas that you’re presenting, slowly evaluating them, and trying to validate what you’re saying.


Head Tilt

Beatrice head tilt

Usually when my dog does this, she’s definitely heard something that completely holds her interest… another dog’s bark on TV, the crinkle of a cheese wrap… For humans, it’s rather similar, but a bit more complex. A slight head tilt to the side usually indicates that the person is interested. Good news. Go into more detail then.

But a sudden head tilt down is one of criticism, or disapproval. Couple that with the crossed arms and lean back, you’re done. Dead in the water. You better bring up something magical next to come back from this one.


Let’s Apply this to You

I could go on and on about non-verbal cues. The purpose of this post is to equip you with some of the most salient cues to read people’s body language. But knowing what to look for in other people, how do you use body language to convey confidence? How do you look larger than life? How do you create an open channel indicating that you are receptive to communication? Stay tuned for next week’s post.


  • Ella Tam

    Reply Reply July 7, 2016

    Very interesting topic. I enjoy reading your articles, lively but to the point. I particularly like your picture illustrations. Keep up the good work.

    • Cat Lam

      Reply Reply July 7, 2016

      Thank you so much, Ella! I really enjoy reading your comments! Thanks for sharing a few minutes with me via this post!

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