You’re Reading Body Language All Wrong. Decode Non-Verbal Cues By Following These 5 Steps.

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Most people think reading body language is as simple as looking at a smile, twitch of the eye or raise of an eyebrow. They know, from experience, that observing a gesture or movement can help them immeasurably assess the intent of the decision-maker across the boardroom table from them. It’s what we’re taught, right?

Actually, it’s wrong.

Picture a vital investor or partner meeting. At the head of the table sits Ms. Johnson, a potential partner whose alliance could elevate your company to new heights. As you lay out your proposal, she briefly touches her necklace. A sign of doubt, you assume. Yet, her posture remains upright, her gaze unbroken, and her lips pressed in contemplation – all signs that she is very determined and has a strong opinion.

This mosaic of gestures – the necklace touch, the steady eyes, the poised posture – is the essence of clusters in body language. Focusing on a singular gesture might have caused a misstep in your interpretation and, thus, your presentation or negotiation strategy. However, understanding the collective message of these cues provides invaluable insights into Ms. Johnson’s mindset. Body language “clusters” are indispensable in business communication.

Individual gestures — when taken out of context — can mislead. However, when multiple nonverbal gestures come together at once or within a short span (and the time frame they appear makes all the difference), they divulge a more comprehensive narrative about a person’s internal dialogue, decision-making process, or sentiment.

For an entrepreneur looking to grow their business, this nuanced understanding can be the difference between sealing a partnership and walking away from a lost opportunity.

Let’s examine ways to read body language in clusters to understand what someone is thinking or feeling more accurately. These insights are derived from my multifaceted career of over 35-plus years spent in thousands of hours of meetings, observing pitches and presenting.

Related: One Negotiation Expert Shares the 4 Body Language Cues Every Entrepreneur Should Recognize

1. Holistic observation

Instead of narrowing your focus to a single gesture, strive to comprehend the person’s overall demeanor. If a colleague looks away but maintains an open stance, their distraction might be external rather than a reflection on the discussion. It’s your job to look beyond the single gesture and see what else is happening with that person (or group of people). Is the gesture in isolation? It rarely is. But that one clue might be the most obvious, so your attention is focused there. You need to be more holistic in your observation and try to unearth whatever other signals are being sent your way.

2. Situational context

A clenched fist in a relaxed setting differs vastly from the same gesture in a heated boardroom discussion — one might indicate anger. In contrast, another may indicate impatience or a desire to interject. Always calibrate your reading to the environment and know any other circumstances driving the behavior. The gesture isn’t isolated from other gestures, but it also isn’t isolated from the environment and the occurring conversation. Make sure to calibrate all these elements as you determine the meaning of the clues.

3. Establish a baseline

Recognize people’s habitual behaviors. A naturally animated person’s gestures may not carry the same weight as those of a reserved individual. Try to discern deviations from their norm (as best you can if you’ve only just met someone), as the most critical messages often lie therein. You can do this at the start of a meeting during the “chitchat” phase. Try to force yourself to notice someone’s behavior when the subject is something other than the meeting’s topic. That’s what will give you insight into their baseline behavior and demeanor.

4. Differentiate between emotion and cognition

Body language clusters can illuminate both feelings and thoughts. Crossed arms with a frown may portray physical discomfort. However, the same crossed arms with a nod could signal agreement despite possible reservations. It’s your job to observe the person (or people) and then try to detect whether the signal they’re sending is an emotional reaction to something just said or if it results from a thought that was triggered. Knowing which one drives body language clues will help you decide how to pivot your presentation to your advantage. The only way to learn is to start silently asking yourself, “are they reacting emotionally or logically?” while in meetings. The mindful awareness alone will help you get better and better at figuring it out.

Related: Body Language Is Powerful — Make Any of These 4 Mistakes, and You’re Silently Sabotaging Your Interactions

5. Engage in deliberate observation

Dedicate time in your interactions to solely observe. In your next important meeting, set aside some brief moments to study collections of non-verbal cues. This intentional practice will help you hone your skill, ensuring it becomes second nature when it matters most. You can even practice this daily – at the coffee shop or grocery store. Observation is a skill that’s honed only when you give it the nurturing it needs and deserves.

For the seasoned entrepreneur, non-verbal communication is replete with insights that can shift your approach to negotiations and presentations. Body language clusters are one of the high-level tools that transform fleeting observations into a deeper understanding of human behavior and decision-making.

As you prepare for key meetings and business interactions, remember that while a single gesture may offer a glimpse into someone’s mind, clusters unveil the complete narrative. It’s within these patterns that the true essence of communication and successful outcomes lie. Consider and practice the concepts above to equip yourself with the first steps needed to notice clusters, and then let every interaction be a testament to the mastery you’re developing.

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