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Body Language Explained: Negative Non-Verbal Communication

Updated on December 24, 2019
Michael-Duncan profile image

Michael is an avid content writer and researcher on various topical subjects, including personal development and wellbeing.

1. Deceptive Body Language

Understanding deceptive body language can help you know the difference between when someone is being truthful and honest with you or just taking you for a ride. Bear in mind that there are a lot of people who are excellent at disguising deception, all the way from confidence tricksters to corporate salespersons.

Signs of Deceptive Body Language

So what are the telltale signs of deceptive body language? Well, first of all, check for manifestations of anxiety. These common cues include twitching of the body, tension, sweating, sudden movements, rubbing the back of the neck or other body parts, accelerated speech, change in voice intonation, chewing on the inside of one's mouth, fidgeting or shoving hands into one's pockets.

There is another aspect to this which we could call counter body language. When someone is lying, there will often be attempts to cover up their deception by trying to control their body language so as not to betray themselves. Such efforts will typically come in the form of forced smiles or exaggerated hand gesturing which will appear odd, jerky or clumsy.

Their speech may become inconsistent and hesitant as they try to slow down and think carefully about what they need to say next. Often, they will speak distractedly without real eye contact. In case they are in a standing position, they will start shifting their body weight from one foot to the other unnaturally.

Those who work in law enforcement are trained to understand body language as this is essential to their work. This training includes knowledge of how the body responds when different parts of the brain are involved in thinking.

Eye Movement

An example of this is eye movement. The direction to which one looks when answering a question can help determine whether the person is telling the truth or lying. Generally, if someone shifts their gaze to the right when responding to a question, you may need to heed closely what they are saying.

This is because according to studies, the impression is that one looks to the right when using the left side of their brain which is the logic and analytical side. Conversely, one looks to the left when using the right side of their brain, which is the emotional and creative side.

So when someone lies, they will tend to use the logic and analytical left part of their brain in order to conjure up the lie. This causes their eyes to turn to the right.

However, this is not an exact science, as there are schools of thought which either support and oppose this theory. So don't quickly jump into a conclusion that someone is lying purely based on the direction they were looking at as they spoke to you. You may need to take into account other signs as well (verbal and non-verbal) before you form a conclusive opinion.

Another point to bear in mind is the meaning of different eye movements. Whenever a person tries to recall a memory, they use the right side of the brain. This causes the eyes to shift their gaze to the left. If the memory is visual (involving images), the eyes will move upwards.

If the memory is emotional, the person will tend to shift their gaze downwards. When someone shifts their gaze from right to left, it does not mean they are afraid. They are just trying to remember or process memories that are auditory in nature.

2. Aggressive Body Language

Learning to detect aggressive body language on time could help you protect yourself or others from harm, by reacting quickly before a situation escalates and spirals out of control.

You do not have to wait until there is a physical assault in order to recognize danger, there are signs which when detected early enough can give you an opportunity to either defend yourself or deescalate the situation. As the saying goes - to be forewarned is to be forearmed.

For those working in places where they are continually in close contact with people (for example law enforcement, debt collectors, prison workers, social workers, caregivers), knowing how to detect signs of aggressive body language can save lives.

Facial signals that can indicate the possibility of a threat include frowning, sneering, jaw-clenching, lip-pursing and the reddening of the face. This could also be manifested when someone stares down at you with a squint, or jerks his head or body toward you as they approach. If they set their face directly in front of yours, they are obviously challenging you into a confrontation.

A shift in posture where the person stabilizes himself by positioning their feet, tensing their muscles and clenching their fists is an indication that they are gearing up for an attack.

Aggressive body language can also be detected when an individual crosses your personal space or infringes upon your emotional or mental boundaries. Invading your personal space and/or touching you irrespective of your feelings is an indication of some power being exerted over you.

The intent is usually to make you uncomfortable enough to react, thereby giving them the opportunity to make the first move. Sometimes, the aggressive behaviour may not even be directed to you as a person, but to objects nearby through actions such as slamming one's fist on a wall or table, head-butting, kicking or shadow boxing.

3. Dominant Body Language

Dominant body language can be likened to aggressive body language, but to a lesser degree in terms of the emotions involved. The motive here is to project power over another person, but more so in an authoritative manner rather than an aggressive manner.

One way this is achieved, especially by men, is by trying to make one's body seem larger than it actually is. Sometimes, they will tuck their hands under their biceps when their cross their arms as they attempt to push them out so as to project a seemingly larger appearance.

Both men and women tend to stand with hands akimbo or hold their hips with their elbows extended widely, with their chin up and chest protruded. Mothers can sometimes adopt this stance when dealing with a rebellious child.

Dominant body language is also exemplified in interrogation rooms. A detective will often make the suspect sit while he, the detective, stands over the suspect as a way of asserting himself over the latter.

Alternatively, the detective may pace about the room, which is a form of territorial marking. He may also come up behind the suspect or lean over their shoulder when talking to them rather than sit with them at the table on the same eye level.

The invasion of the suspect's personal space is intended to make the latter feel uncomfortable. The feeling of being towered over and being talked down to is meant to convey dominance over the person and command over the territory. This communicates that the suspect is in the detective's jurisdiction and rules, so things must now play out according to the detective's terms.

Dominance can also be expressed by the detective placing a file or folder before himself without revealing its contents to the suspect. This serves to keep the latter wondering what evidence the detective has against him.

Another way to achieve dominance is by use of recording devices during the course of the interrogation. The practice makes it clear to the suspect that any word they utter will be recorded for future reference.

A detective may also use facial expressions to control, taunt or dominate. This includes stare-downs, yawning, rolling of the eyes when the suspect speaks, squinting while staring down or smirking at the responses made by the suspect.

4. Closed Body Language

Often when people communicate with each other, whether it is with a family member, relative, friend or co-worker, there is something they think about as they communicate. They wonder whether what they are saying is really sinking in, if the other person is truly open to what they have to say, or if they have switched off completely.

Understanding the Causes

Again, closed body language is not always negative or unjustified. There are contexts in which the response comes automatically due to the communicator or the topic itself rather than the listener.

An example here is where the listener switches off because they cannot relate at all to the subject matter, or because the speaker is not engaging. It may also be that the listener finds the speaker confrontational or feels threatened in some way. In the latter case, closed body language becomes more of a defensive reaction on the part of the listener.

Sometimes the closed body language may have nothing to do with you or what you are communicating. I once hired a team of international students to work on a project. It was an excellent team, but each time I communicated with them I observed one female, in particular, with really closed body language. This was quite obvious despite her attempts to control herself.

I started sensing that it was even a struggle for her to be at the same level with the others. After I got to know each of them better, I came to find out that she had had a difficult life in the country where she came from in South America and this had to do with exploitation. As a result, her experiences had impacted her perception, and therefore it was difficult for her to engage in the same way her fellow students were able to especially with male authority.

I learnt an important lesson then: how important it is to avoid automatically attributing closed body language to ourselves or what we say to others. Before blaming ourselves for lack of competence and social skills, it is better to have the patience and empathy to examine the real underlying cause of the response we are getting, and then act accordingly.

In a lot of cases, the underlying causes could be much deeper than meets the eye. People may simply just be exhausted, under the weather, or going through a difficult phase in their own personal lives.

Signs of Closed Body Language

It is not always easy to tell if someone is really focusing on what you are telling them based on their verbal expressions and other responses alone. One sign that what you are saying is falling upon deaf ears is the level of their gaze. If movements, noises and other changes in the environment constantly have them distracted as you communicate, it is a clear sign they are not with you. This is irrespective of how often they keep confirming that they are all ears!

Frigid hands and feet, as well as twitching eyes, also indicate you do not hold the attention of your audience. Slouching is another clear visible sign, and a more extreme case is where the listener actually begins to nod off. Yawning does not always mean the person is not paying attention, as this can result from a lack of oxygen in the room. Contrary to what a lot of people assume, it should not be viewed as an indication of boredom in of itself.

Other examples of closed body language include tightly folded arms, self-hugging, tight crossing or intertwining of legs, curling up in a ball position and/or rocking. On the other hand, the person might simple stare fixedly downwards, at their feet, an object or at a wall. Note that some of these poses can either be self-preservative or defensive.

Closed body language is a sign that you are no longer in the same room as far as your audience is concerned, despite the fact that you could be standing right before them. Teenagers express this form of body language a lot. Whatever the reasons for closed body language, the bottom line is that no meaningful communication is taking place unless the underlying causes are identified and dealt with.

Dealing with Closed Body Language

The way to curb closed body language is to ensure that as a speaker, you leverage positive body language yourself in the course of your talk or presentation. Use both facial and hand gestures to enable you to drive home the points you are trying to communicate and to stir up the visual and auditory senses of your audience.

Avoid creating a long-winded monologue that drags on and on, as this is a guaranteed way for you to completely lose your audience. Brevity is key, and you need to ensure that your speech sticks to the main points without explaining them over and over again in different ways each time.

Asking questions is a good way to draw the audience into participating and also for you to gauge the level of attention. Armed with this understanding, you will be able to know how best to change your delivery and approach in order to make it as effective as possible.

People also exhibit these closed signs if they are attempting to conceal an expression on their part from the speaker. Perhaps something has happened and they are beginning to tear up, their face is flushed, or they are having another involuntary expression which is makes them too shy or embarrassed.

If they are closing up due to fear, a simple gesture of kindness or understanding can turn the situation around. Often, offering someone an object to hold such as a drink (or a toy if it is a child), can help them come out of that situation and begin to open up.

5. Defensive Body Language

An individual will tend to express defensive body language if they sense an emotional or physical threat coming at them, or if they feel that their personal space is being invaded without their consent. The indication that someone is defensive is that they switch from a normal demeanour to a self-protective one.

A good example of this is when someone is under an open attack. They tend to either cower or roll into a ball, assuming a posture to protect their vital organs. The body will react in the same way (though on a much lesser scale) if someone feels threatened by words that are being spoken to them.

I was in a meeting once together with hundreds of others listening to a guest speaker who had been invited over from a neighbouring country. In the course of his speech, he gave examples of how some people had been rounded up and tortured under an oppressive regime, and this included pregnant women.

I won't recount the details here, as they are rather gory. But I did look around the audience to see how the message was impacting them. One lady was twitching in her seat, bending her head, closing her eyes and eventually started supporting her head and her stomach with her hands. She was actually pregnant herself.

The harrowing event being recounted by the speaker was sufficient to elicit a visible defensive reaction from her, despite the fact that there was no physical threat of any kind.

Reaction to Perceived Threat

It is interesting how the emotional and mental dynamics work in the expression of body language. You can walk into a movie theatre and observe signs of defensive body language in the audience, despite the fact that they are only witnessing images on a screen and no one present is in any actual danger.

When a threat is perceived by men, their natural reaction is to harden their muscles, which serves the purpose of bracing them to deal with the imminent danger or to ward off an attack if needed. On the other hand, women carrying handbags or purses will visibly react uneasily by gripping the strap tighter and drawing the bag closer to the body.

People sometimes exhibit defensive body language by placing a barrier between themselves and the source of their perceived threat, be it a person or a situation. They may place a physical object in front of them, rearrange the furniture or items on their desk so that there is some kind of obstruction between them and the perceived threat.

Alternatively, a person could simply become rigid or stiff and remain in this same position even where there are other ways to deal with the situation. They will avoid making any move or draw attention to themselves. Others will take the opposite course and start checking around as if for a route of escape or altogether pick up their belongings and leave the room.

People react to perceived threats in different ways and not all will switch only to defensive mode immediately. Many will typically respond in a combination of ways, and these may include for example, submissive or aggressive body language.

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