Body Language Rapport and Influence

Body language communicates something, regardless of whether we wish to communicate or not. Living systems cannot not communicate. Without wishing to push the bounds of credibility, I include plants as demonstrators of body language. They wilt when short of water, lose the green in their leaves when short of nutrients and turn brown at the edges when they get too cold. These events can be observed by anyone. Of course there are more obscure bodily communications in the plant world too. Recognition of disease or predators or the need for exotic growing conditions is the realm of the trained plant body language expert, the horticulturist.

People and animals have a wider repertoire of nonverbal communication than plants. We can move from place to place and make faster, more visible gestures. As humans we can modify our gestures consciously, making voluntary movements as well as displaying unconscious breathing shifts, skin tone changes and micro-muscle movements. We use our bodies to convey interest or disinterest, to establish rapport with others or to stop them in their tracks. We learn cultural norms about appropriate body language for people of our gender, age and status in our daily lives and sometimes find our habitual presentations elicit markedly different responses in other parts of the world.

What can Body Language teach us about People?

So what can body language teach us about other people? With sufficient exposure to another culture we can learn to recognise its members by their body language, the way they move and gesture, how close they stand to other people and how much eye contact they make and with whom. We can learn to recognise how any individual, whatever their origin, is thinking by watching their eye movements, breathing and posture as they interact. This will not tell us what they are thinking. The subject matter of someone’s thoughts remains private until they describe it.

If we observe some interesting body language and ask the person what it means to them, we gain reliable information. If we observe the same person doing the same thing in a similar context in future, we can ask them if it means what they told us last time. This combination of observing a particular person and asking them for meaning for our future reference, is called calibration. We calibrate an individual against themselves in a particular context. In this way we can learn our employers’ requirements, our partners’ preferences and our pets’ idiosyncrasies with some degree of accuracy.

There is an urban myth that we can attribute accurate meaning to body language without calibrating the particular person. This is not useful. Unfortunately the myth has been enshrined in print with examples of body language. Did you know that if a woman points her toe at a man during a conversation she is supposed to fancy him? And what about the old chestnut of folded arms meaning that person is ‘closed’? Does a lowered brow and pursed lips really mean someone is annoyed, or could they be thinking, straining or doing something else?

Take sexual attraction for example. People do dilate their pupils, flush and lean forward in conversation when they are attracted to someone. They also do it when they are passionately interested in the subject matter, so don’t assume it is you, it may be something you are discussing. Of course, that level of interest is conducive to rapport. You may find friendship developing out of a common interest.

If you assume someone is annoyed with you when they go red or white and jump up and down waving their arms in the air, you may attract abuse from them. This is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Until you know more from that person, you don’t even know they are annoyed. They might be trying to dislodge an insect from down their front or be desperate to go to the WC, and even if they are angry, you might not be the subject of their wrath. Making assumptions about the meaning of people’s behaviour is called mind reading. We all do it, but some of us have learned to recognise it and use our assumptions to create questions so we can calibrate for the future.

Using Body Language

We can use other people’s body language to help us create rapport with individuals, groups and at parties. Instead of mind reading, if we place our attention on the other person or people, open our peripheral vision and quieten our internal comments we will notice the rhythm of their whole body movements, speech and gestures. If we match these rhythms with our own bodies we will find ourselves being included in what is going on. This is not the same as literal mimicry. Accurate imitation often gets noticed and objected to. The intent is to match the rhythm by making some form of movement in the same rhythm without attracting conscious attention to it. When we feel included we can test the level of rapport by doing something discreetly different and noticing whether the other or others change what they are doing in response. If they do, you can lead them into a different rhythm or influence the discussion more easily.

When entering groups or parties, if we observe with open peripheral vision and internal quietness we may be able to spot the peer group leaders. They are the people with others around them, the ones who’s movements may be slightly ahead of the others and change first. If we want to influence the whole group, these are the people to match. We may want to establish rapport with each peer group leader individually, or simultaneously. We can do it simultaneously if we are within their visual field and matching their rhythm for a few minutes before engaging them. It is possible to change the direction of quite a large gathering by these methods.

Body Language and Vocal Patterns

Strictly speaking, nonverbal vocal patterns are not body language, but they can be used to establish or break rapport as readily as physical movement. If we match the rate or speed of speech, the resonance, tonality and rhythm used by a person, we will create rapport with them. Again, out and out mimicry is not recommended. Most people will catch it happening. It is more comfortable to match voice patterns at the equivalent pitch in our own range than to attempt note for note matching and to match unfamiliar breathing rhythms with some other emphasis.

Suppose we are voice matching on the telephone and now want to finish the call. The level of rapport is such that it has become hard to disengage. We can change any of the elements we have matched but often the other party simply matches us and carries on. In extreme situations no one minds an abrupt end to a telephone call. How often have we used “there’s a call on the other line”, “someone’s at the door” or “the dog has been sick on the carpet” to end a call without breaking rapport? Then there is the last ditch stand. Cut off the call in the middle of your own speech, not theirs. That way they will assume it was an accident. In person we can make our departure quite firmly and with rapport by doing rapport building with the body and departure with voice patterns or vice versa.

And the quickest and simplest way to use body language to establish rapport? Act as if we are totally fascinated by the person or what they are discussing. All the nonverbal signals we could wish for will come on stream by themselves.

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Body Language Mind Reading and Models of the World

Chris tells a story of an Italian Australian woman’s experience on a bus. She was born in Australia to Italian parents and grew up to become a native speaker of English with good Italian. When she went to Italy as an adult, her Italian became fluent. She engaged naturally in Italian cultural behaviour and thought in Italian.

On her return to Aus, she picked up her life and carried on as usual, or so she thought. One day, she caught a bus with three other passengers on it, all sitting in different seats. She sat next to one of these people and then realized they were all looking at her, particularly her neighbour. Then she realized she had been thinking in Italian and using Italian cultural bus behaviour. In Italy, people sit next to each other on buses and fill the bus outwards from the first person, in contrast to English speaking cultures where people take unoccupied seats if possible.

In ordinary life, we might assume the other people on the bus were disturbed or annoyed by someone gratuitously sitting beside one of them. With a florid imagination, we could impute intent to commit a crime. It is very common for people to interpret the behaviour of others. However, interpreting does not guarantee accuracy.

How do we make interpretations?

We live inside our own models of the world with little experience of others’ world views. Unless we are exposed to clear demonstrations of different ways of thinking and different possible meanings, our attention is not drawn to the shortcomings of our own interpretations.

People who travel and live in other countries rapidly discover different cultural meanings for a particular behaviour. One of the most spectacular examples is burping at the end of a meal. Western parents go to great lengths to stop children from doing this and eyebrows would be raised if someone did it at a dinner party. But in some Arab cultures, not to burp is to deny thanks and appreciation to the hostess. In Japan, it is seriously rude to blow one’s nose in public, while in the west, we expect people to blow their noses whenever necessary and find it disgusting to be exposed to someone sniffing.

While travellers cannot avoid discovering different cultural meanings for behaviour, it is harder to arrange for people to discover that we do not know the meaning of any demonstrated behaviour, unless we have observed that individual doing the same thing before or we ask their intention for doing it.

There are cultural beliefs that make it difficult for some people to learn not to act on their interpretations. In previous generations, many women were taught that nurturing was their primary function. In practice it meant trying to anticipate their husbands’ and children’s demands before these were articulated and achieving a high degree of success. Not to do so made them bad wives and mothers in the eyes of their peers and critics. Frequent accuracy with interpretation is often called intuition and is highly prized in some circles as an estimable personal quality.

Psychotherapists used to be trained to interpret their clients’ responses and dreams according to the model used in their philosophy. Even now, people labelled with Asperger’s Syndrome are assumed not to notice other people’s expressions of emotion and are taught to label specific states so they can learn appropriate looking responses.

There is still a strong, cultural encouragement to impose our own world view on others, especially if we think of ourselves as intuitive, empathic or therapeutically literate.

When interpretation does not fit, it may be described as “laying a trip” on someone or in NLP as “mind reading”. Worse, when we become the subject of someone’s trip, they often lay another trip when we object to the first one. For example, I like high quality fresh food and I do not like shortbread. When offered a choice of shortbread or oatcakes at someone’s house, I chose oatcakes. I like them. These were fresh and crunchy with delectable oats in them. My hostess told me how she approved of my taking the healthy option and nothing would persuade her it was a sensual preference. The trip continued: First, I was being polite, then modest, but my desire to convey taste and texture was brushed aside.

How is interpretation possible?

Everyone has a model of the world. Everyone makes internal pictures, sounds and sensations that represent schemata or maps of how things are. We each develop our maps by watching, listening and interacting in the world, refining and adding and changing our ideas. When we encounter something new, we give it special attention; we copy and mimic and ask questions until we think we can do it ourselves.

Recently, scientists have discovered we are hard wired to learn this way. Our brains contain mirror neurons that fire in time with others as they take actions, when we are interested, engaged and not talking to ourselves. Psychological experiments have also demonstrated reliably that intermittent reinforcement of any behaviour is more compelling than constant reinforcement for eliciting more of the same. Gambling slot machine owners rely on this and the same pattern of intermittent success reinforces people’s belief in their interpretive intuition.

If our new knowledge works in practice, we fix it in place and start to interpret from it. If our interpretations work some of the time, we receive intermittent reinforcement; so then we interpret more and trust our own interpretations more. In extreme cases, where interpretation is both encouraged by our culture and reinforced in real time, our maps can become so dominant that they override what is in front of us in our senses.

While it is necessary for our functioning to be able to draw on existing knowledge and imagination from our internal maps, it is equally necessary to attend to input through our senses to keep up to date and in touch with our environment. We need to be able to have completely external experience as well as internal and mixed experience and to distinguish between our observations of the world and our opinions about it. This is where we separate interpretation from what is actually going on in front of us.

Ideally, we would all learn to have any or all internal representations running or to attend completely to the outside or to run different combinations of internal and external attention by choice. This is possible and useful. It is also quite usual in people with advanced New Code of NLP training. This would be a big leap to take all at once, but like eating an elephant, we can learn it one bite at a time. The reward is genuine intuition; based on repeated exposure to behaviour patterns, voice patterns and language patterns verified in real time.

The first task is to enable our mind reader to distinguish between verifiable activity in front of them and their own interpretive internal representations about it. We are not trying to deprive them of continuous internal representations; merely to give them an experience of knowing when they are interpreting. We ask them to describe another person in sensory terms. This means telling us what they can see, hear and feel and nothing else. It precludes words like “happy” “interested” “bored” and “comfortable”, which require the listener to interpret. Sensory terms can be followed like a set of instructions where there is no need to imagine how to do it. Here is an example:

“Susie is sitting on an office chair with her left heel on the floor and her right leg crossed over the left at the ankles. The lace on her left shoe is untied. She is wearing a matched pair of red, egg-shaped earrings and a yellow metal watch. Susie’s focal length is currently about two meters in front of her and she is breathing from her abdomen about 14 times per minute”. Contrast this with an interpretation: “Susie is bored out of her mind and is wondering how soon the next tea break will be, or should she go to the loo now, just to be able to get up and move”.

When we use the exercise above with questions to mind readers, people begin to differentiate their own interpretation from verifiable sensory input. The questions are variations on “How do you know that” and “What is your evidence to support your statement” and “is that a criterion you would use”. The intent is to invite the mind reader to find out if they do ‘know that’ or not and to discover the difference. Outside training, questioning mind reading often takes time and patience. Eventually people do become aware of the difference between mind reading and engaging with someone else.

When we can tell the difference between our own interpretations and evidence based knowledge, we can stop mind reading instantly. Interpretation still happens, but now we recognize it and do not have to act on it. We can use it to cue our next questions. We can verify or update our information, or make offers: For example, in the oatcake story, if my hostess had been with me often enough to be familiar with our distinction, she might ask if I chose oat cakes on health grounds instead of assuming I did.

This is enough to give us the capacity to discover how different our models of the world are from those of other people, and how different other people’s models are from each other’s.

In the next article in this series, we shall find out how to describe emotions in sensory terms and who creates each of our states. We shall find that we have far more choice than most of our cultures assume and discover how the notion of a meaning based “body language” is a misleading concept.

Learn more

Check our 10970NAT Graduate Certificate in Neuro-Linguistic Programming program.

(Note: If you would like to learn more about the New Code of NLP you can get a copy of  our latest Kindle book ‘AEGIS: Patterns for extending your reach in life, work & leisure’ by Jules Collingwood, NLP Trainer. For only $4.99 here).

Learn more about NLP, read our Ultimate NLP Compendium of NLP

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