A Commando's Guide to Body Language: Nonverbal Analysis

Nonverbal Analysis of the Picture Used in an Article About Empathy


What do you see in the image below?


Take a look at the image below and try to read the scene. What emotion(s) do you see being displayed? Do you think it accurately shows empathy?


The article from entreprenuer.com associated with this image is about the necessity of empathy in a leader. As important as the skill to be empathetic is, the ability to accurately interpret body language signals holds just as much weight.


During any interaction, there are always three conversations:


1. verbal – the actual words used

2. paralanguage – the tone, pitch & pauses that provide nuance to the words

3. nonverbal signals – the subconscious gestures fueled by internal thoughts, emotions, & attitude

Most nonverbal cues pass by unnoticed (or worse, are misinterpreted) and void of a conscious appraisal. At a glance, you could be forgiven for mistaking this image for representing an empathetic listener. If we dig a little deeper, we’ll discover the truth of what is actually being communicated. The image selected for this article is an excellent example of misinterpretation or nonconscious consideration.

A note before I break the body language down; this single image is a snapshot frozen in time and we are not privy to:


· The context

· The baseline behavioral norms for each person

· The direction from the photographer

· What may have been said before (or at the moment) this photograph was taken

I am assessing solely on the evidence shown in this image, at this exact moment. To that end, the signals displayed here provide a treasure trove of information that could be used if recognized in real-time. The list below is a break down of each person’s body language with their potential meanings.


Subject 1: The Listener


· Mild inner brow contraction causing vertical lines

o minor frustration/anger

· Partial upper eyelid lowering

o boredom/fatigue/contempt

· Lowered eye contact looking directly at the speaker's mouth

o one of many hints the listener likely wants the speaker to stop talking

· Lowered eye contact

o this is a beta signal used because the listener doesn’t want the speaker (alpha) to see his frustration

· Lowered eye contact

o the listener doesn’t want to encourage the speaker by maintaining eye contact

o eye contact can be interpreted as a sign of interest in the person or topic

· Index finger covering the lips

o another clue that the listener wishes the speaker would stop talking

· Mild chin support/resting/near hand*

o the amount of ‘resting’ displayed will often directly correlate to the level of boredom or fatigue being felt

· Mild chin resting on the thumb*

o this position results in the thumb being hidden/withdrawn from the speaker, another beta signal

· Leaning into the resting arm*

o in context to the other gestural clusters this represents fatigue, boredom, and distancing

· Resting arm forms a barrier between himself and the speaker*

o gestural blocking

*It is very likely that the arm blocking and hand position covering the mouth is the real (subconscious) reason for the listener to be sitting in this manner. This conclusion is based on the fact that he is only partially resting his head in his hand, & not in a way congruent with actual fatigue.

Subject 2: Speaker


· Closed fist

o alpha, his closed hand in this context shows this likely isn’t a two-way conversational street

o The speaker doesn’t expect, nor want, a response at this time

· Closed fist

o during conversations this gesture is nearly always negative (either towards the listener or concerning the topic discussed) and speaks volumes about the frustration/anger present

· Closed fist

o the higher the gesture, the more dominant (alpha) the signal

· Thumb atop index finger

o alpha, this gesture is often used during practiced/coached speeches in place of pointing

· Pointing is aggressive/rude

o in this instance, pointing is substituted for a fist/thumb configuration providing another clue to the alpha mindset of the individual speaking

If you would like to test these observations, use the closed fist gesture in front of your boss the next time you have a meeting. Take note of how you feel using the signal & how your boss responds (I’m joking – don’t do it).

Possible contextual/situational reasons for this exchange:


· A superior admonishing an employee

· An acquaintance/employee defending a poor action/decision (and the listener isn’t buying it)

· A job interview that is not going well

· The first meeting between contemporaries & one feels superior to the other

Were you able to spot these signals the first time around, or do you now see a different scene taking place? Applying the skill of reading body language cues in real-time can make you a better leader, parent, spouse, friend, or colleague.

Challenge your friends by having them break down this image, and see what they notice!


A Commando's Guide to Body Language



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