Nonverbal Communication: Silent Messages

February 1, 2007

Scott Jenkins learned the value of reading body language as a medical services specialist for the U.S. Air Force from 1980 to 1987. Back then, Jenkins’ ability to pinpoint non verbal gestures, facial expressions, and movements associated with physical pain and emotions, such as fear, anger, and trust, was critical to helping him assess a person’s pain and determine the extent of injuries.

When Jenkins joined Century 21 Team Garcia in Waldorf, Md., in 2001 as a sales associate, he again put his skill at reading body language to good use this time to network, negotiate, and build rapport with home buyers and sellers.

“Body language [communicates] a subconscious statement when you don’t want to say anything. The body can’t help what it says,” Jenkins says. “It gives away clues; all we have to do is learn to read them.”

Jan Hargrave, CEO of Jan Hargrave and Associates, a Houston-based consulting firm, and author of Let Me See Your Body Talk (Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., 1994), agrees: Because the body often communicates a message that’s different from the spoken word, understanding this silent language is a critical tool for successful sales practitioners.

Look for subtle signs

Understanding body language isn’t rocket science, Hargrave says. Most people recognize the worry of a furrowed brow, the indifference of a slouch, the confidence of direct eye contact, the bored drone of fingers drumming a table’s edge, the sincerity of placing your right hand over your heart, the quizzical interest of a tilted head, and the openness of a broad smile.

But as any good poker player knows, some signs are less obvious.

  • The seller who runs an index finger behind or beside her left ear when weighing an answer may be telling you she’s doubtful.
  • The clench-fisted buyer might be nervous.
  • The client who walks into the office and unbuttons and removes his coat may sense an agreement is near.
  • The man fiddling with his pocket change may have finances on his mind.
  • The buyer who repeatedly touches her necklace or makes other unnecessary gestures could be uncomfortable.
  • The sales associate who draws his fingertips together at chest level, in a steeple gesture, and props his feet on the desk is likely super confident.
  • The home buyer who brings her hand to her face, puts her chin in her palm, extends her index finger along her cheek, and lets the remaining fingers rest below her mouth may be seriously evaluating your proposal.

To ferret out the true meaning of a signal, Michael K. Lynch, a salesperson and an active police lieutenant in southern New Jersey, whose police work requires him to read people, says practitioners should look for repeated patterns and clusters of negative or positive behaviors. Lynch, with Pat McKenna, REALTORS®, in Marlton, N.J., recommends repeating the same question several different times using different words. With each repetition, note the gestures that accompany the person’s responses. Try to discern a pattern. And be sure to view body language in its totality.

“If a client gives good eye contact, leans forward, and then makes a finger steeple, it probably indicates he feels good about your method of thinking,” Hargrave explains. “But if the steeple is linked with a series of negative gestures, such as the person looking at his watch and crossing his arms, it probably indicates that the person feels confident about saying no.”

Pay close attention to the initial handshake, too. The firmness reveals information about a person’s level of confidence. And the final position of the hands before they’re released is equally telling. “The person whose palm ultimately faces the ground is the controller,” Hargrave explains.

Movement isn’t the body’s only messenger. Hargrave says facial features can provide additional insight about the consumer. People with arched eyebrows often have a dramatic flare, she says. Full lips indicate generosity of time and money. A heavy crease between the eyes signals a precise nature.

Take control of the situation

There are ways you can counteract another person’s body language. For example, if you’re shaking hands with a controller, Hargrave says you can restore balance by turning your hand so that the handshake is equal, with the thumbs pointed to the sky and the little fingers pointed to the ground.

Because a closed or defensive client, one who keeps his legs and arms crossed, will have a hard time moving beyond his self-imposed barrier and become receptive to your ideas, Hargrave says it’s important to gain trust and break down the physical barriers within about 30 minutes of first meeting the person.

To do that, Robert A. Ferrari, ABR®, CRS®, owner of Ferrari Pacific Realty Corp. in Kailua Kona, Hawaii, says you should amplify your physical dialogue with palm exposed hand gestures, animated facial expressions, and an open stance. To go further, hand the client a cup of coffee or a brochure, talk slowly, and keep the more intrusive questions on hold until the person’s subconscious emotions respond and the person’s body begins to uncoil and open up an indication he’s becoming receptive to what you’re saying.

The ability to calm clients’ and prospects’ fears or to look confident when you’re nervous might come in handy on occasion, but Lynch says your confidence with clients should be based on skills and service, not gimmicks.

“Focus on influencing the perceptions and attitudes of clients and prospects in combination with proven service and sales strategies,” he says.


I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts.
--John Locke, English empiricist philosopher (1632–1704).

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