Why body language is important, part two

Published 10:55 am Tuesday, December 8, 2020

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In March, I wrote a column about how our bodies communicate more than our speech. It is hard to believe. But, it is true. According to Joe Navarro, a former FBI Special Agent with decades of experience researching and observing body language (non-verbal communication) the limbic part of our brain can save or betray us. This is because this part of the brain reacts to the world around us reflexively and instantaneously, in real time, and without thought.

This is an ancient part of the brain that ensured our survival by “freezing” when predators or other danger was poised for attack. The need to run (flight) or sometimes fight are also deeply ingrained into our nervous system; making it difficult to disguise or eliminate. It is like trying to suppress a startle response when we anticipate a loud noise. Limbic behaviors are honest and reliable. They are the true manifestations of our thoughts, feelings, and intentions.

So, why is this important to know?

By studying and practicing how the limbic system works, we can more effectively identify when someone is pleased, afraid, likes something, dislikes something, is uncomfortable, etc. By identifying someone’s limbic responses to questions and circumstances, we can be more capable in negotiations, conflict resolution, conflict itself, and just about every personal encounter that exists

While there is no human power that can provide someone the ability to determine with 100 percent certainty whether someone else is telling the truth, being able to read body language that originates from the limbic system is the best indicator. Polygraph examinations do not come close to this accuracy.

With jury selection, cross –examining witnesses, negotiation with prosecutors, and many other tasks, I have found this information to be critical in the practice of law and in almost every aspect of life.

Here are the four limbic responses and how they control our behavior:

1. Freeze Response – Our ancestors faced the dangers of wild animals, rival tribes, and other life threatening situations. When confronted with a dangerous situation, the limbic part of their brains would make them freeze. Why? Movement creates attention. Predators are highly attracted to movement.

Today, most people do not have to worry about predators attacking them in the wilderness. However, we have not lost our “freeze response.” We can see it happen when a hunter notices that a deer is looking in his direction, someone is caught bluffing, stealing, and sometimes when they are lying.

2. Flight Response – One purpose of the freeze response is to avoid detection by predators or in dangerous situations. The second purpose is to give the threatened individual the opportunity to assess the situation and determine the best course of action. When freezing will not work for long (an animal is too close), the limbic response is to run by using the flight response.

Today, we have adapted the flight response to meet our modern needs. We do this either by blocking or distancing ourselves from the physical presence of undesirable people or things. Blocking behaviors may manifest themselves in the form of closing the eyes, rubbing the eyes, or placing the hands in front of the face.

We may also distance ourselves from someone by leaning away, placing personal items in our lap, or turning our feet toward the nearest exit. Two examples are when a person turns away from a date at dinner and when an individual in negotiations shifts or leans away from his counterpart when he hears an unattractive offer or feels threatened as bargaining continues.

3. Fight Response – This response is the limbic brain’s final tactic for survival through unleashing aggression. We naturally turn fear into rage.

In the modern world, physically attacking someone will oftentimes lead to an arrest which is harmful to everyone involved. Some of us can get aggressive by engaging in a heated argument which is just “fighting” by non-physical means. We also use our posture, eyes, the broadening of the chest, and violating another’s personal space to express aggressiveness.

One of the best reasons for studying these nonverbal behaviors is that they can sometimes warn us when a person intends to harm us physically.

4. Pacifying Behaviors – When there is a limbic response mentioned above, it will be followed by a pacifying behavior. These actions serve to calm us down after we have experienced something unpleasant.

This behavior can be obvious, like chewing a pencil or taking deep breaths. But, the more subtle behaviors are more important to recognize. For instance, when an investigator asks a suspected terrorist if he knows “Mr. Smith” and the suspect responds, “No”, but then immediately touches his neck, mouth, or face, he is pacifying to that question. This does not always mean that he is lying. But, it does mean that he is bothered by the inquiry so much so that he must pacify himself after he hears it.

Mr. Navarro tells us that pacifying indicators are of greater significance and reliability than trying to establish a person’s veracity because they help to identify what subjects trouble or distress a person.

Keep in mind that this column only touches the surface of the importance of body language.

To learn much more, consider purchasing Joe Navarro’s book, What Every Body Is Saying and observing non-verbals in others and becoming aware of your own.