When I was pursuing my master’s degree in Criminal Justice, I had decided to take a couple courses before my acceptance into the program to get a head start. One of the classes in which I enrolled was an introduction course to the university’s graduate program. The professor who taught the course served on the admitting committee that determined whether to accept applicants into the master and doctoral degree programs. During my tenure in the course, the professor rarely looked me in the eye. I remembered learning, as a police officer, that your eyes tell your story, your lies, and your inner thoughts. Your eyes, said a kinesics instructor (kinesics is the study of body movements and gestures and how they relate to communication), spoke more than your words. He was right. I knew I wasn’t accepted into the university’s master’s program based on the professor’s body language. Essentially, your body speaks volumes. Her body language told me what she physically didn’t tell me — I wasn’t accepted into a traditional program to which I had applied (I was subsequently accepted into another program for full-time professionals in the criminal justice field).
I used body language in my role as a police officer, too. When I interrogated suspects, especially major crimes, I would document in my reports the suspects’ body language from the time I first met them until the end of the interview. If they were lying, it was obvious — their eyes would avert from my direction, they would look down, their body would be pointed in a direction other than mine, and their vocal tone would be inconsistent. In my report, I would write, “The suspect’s body language was consistent with deception.” Along with other cues and evidence, I would draw a picture of someone who wasn’t truthful, and the evidence backed it up, nearly every time.
This experience in kinesics helped in my personal life, unfortunately for people on which I used my kinesics training. In relationships, intimate and otherwise, I would use kinesics to discover whether someone trusted me, whether they liked me (and how much), and how hard I needed to work to gain their trust. I realized, very early in life, that people will always have preconceived notions about me regardless of what I say, do, or wear. The objective, then, is to find a commonality with people to which they can relate.
I interviewed two male suspects accused of sexual battery. In my head, I asked myself, “How in the hell am I going to relate to someone accused of sexual battery!?” Sometimes, the common thread you have with people can be as simple as one’s gender (and sometimes it’s all you have). I related to them because I was a male, too, and I provided my experiences as a guy as it related to sexual endeavors. It clicked. Additionally, I softened my voice, I slowed my speech, and I lightly touched their shoulders (in different interviews). My stance matched their stances. I laughed and made the interviews collegial — both laughed and seemed much more comfortable than when I first met them (I was well aware of the circumstances, but I was determined to not only gain their trust, but I also wanted to gain confessions from both suspects). When I first approached them, I could tell they were hiding something based on their body language — they were abrupt, their eyes avoided mine, their voices cracked, their feet pointed away from me. By the end, they trusted me — they softened their tones, they shook my hand (one even patted me on the back as he laughed about it), and they smiled.
Manipulating your body language to make others more comfortable takes time, effort, and a lot of patience. I speak professionally and consult people in building trust with their audiences. In this process, I always start with telling people that body language is vital to a person’s brand and success — start here and everything else will follow. Here are a few tips.
One, moderate your tone. Studies have shown that those people with lower tones are much more likely to be seen as more trustworthy. Further, our voice tone gives us away, every single time. I know when someone is nervous. I know when someone is scared. I know when someone is withholding information. And I know when someone is lying — all through their tone. As a police officer, tone was one of the first things I looked for to detect deception.
Two, practice arm placement. Believe it or not, crossing your arms shows that you’re closed off and unreceptive to communication (even on a subconscious level). As a police officer, I rarely crossed my arms when I spoke to victims and suspects — I needed them to trust me to gather the information vital to investigations. In giving speeches, I generally place my arms to my side, only using them when I want to make an important point. Too much arm movement distracts your audience and distracts the brain. One study cited by Toastmasters International found that people that moved their hands more often during lectures noted a 40% reduction in information retention. Further, crossing arms is seen as more negative, promoting distrust.
Three, slow your speech. People who talk more quickly are seen as nervous, lacking self confidence, and it makes your listener work harder than they should, at least cognitively speaking. Slowing your speech allows you to improve your diction, word pronunciation, and pauses allow the listener to comprehend the information. If you’re speaking above 150 words per minute, it’s too fast. Try speaking at around 120 words per minute (or less), especially when public speaking. As a police officer, I responded to hundreds (probably thousands) of emergency calls, where I was more often than not the only calming presence. My level of speech was imperative to calming someone down who had just committed a serious crime or was just a victim of a serious crime. My voice prevented many situations from escalating to violent encounters — my life depended on it.
Four, be cognizant of where your eyes move. This is much easier written than done, but it’s doable. As a public speaker, I need to connect with my audiences else I risk losing credibility and trust. I hold my gaze with different audience members for 2–3 seconds (or more depending on the point I’m making). It allows me to develop personal connections, it cultivates trust with my audience, and it reengages people at different periods during my speeches. If someone’s eyes dart left and right quickly, they may seem neurotic and unpredictable. If someone doesn’t look me (or you) in the eye, I (and you) probably lose interest almost immediately. Hold your gaze, smile, and you’ve got someone’s attention. In the end, people want to be liked, people want to be engaged, and people want attention. The people I interrogated wanted to tell me what they did, so I gave them a reason through my eyes — I gave them the attention they craved.
People use body language as an indicator as to whether they can trust someone else. On a subconscious level, we read body language immediately. On a conscious level, it gives us a brief story about people. And, first impressions can often last months or years. If you seem warm, gracious, and friendly, people will follow you, trust you, and become your benefactors (more often than not). As with anything, caveats remain, so it’s important to take in as much information as possible in order to come to any conclusion — don’t confuse nervousness with deception, for example. In the end, your body language tells a lot about you, probably more than you’d like it to.