Communicating beyond words

Why body language can be used to stand out, win trust and gain credibility

When you meet someone, you hear their voice, you see their movements, and you make a very quick judgment about them, according to Mark Bowden, a Toronto-based expert in human behaviour and body language.

“This voice in your head that’s been talking about me as I’m talking to you… that voice says something about me and says something about my content,” said Bowden, founder of TRUTHPLANE, a communication training company. 

“This voice in your head is being stimulated, is being produced by a part in your brain that in evolutionary terms is about 500 million years old.”

It’s called the brain stem or the reptilian brain.

“And it’s that part of your brain that makes snap judgments about everybody around you, makes snap judgments about the environment,” he said.

The brain stem is also responsible for fight or flight, also known as the approach-or-avoid response, said Bowden. And, in fact, before fight or flight even emerges, people have the freeze response first.

“It may last a fraction of a second, but you’ll always have the freeze response first,” he said at a recent Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto.

People are designed not to enter into a conflict, and then if they are cornered, they are designed to fight.

“That brain stem is running that whole system and deciding ‘Should we approach the environment based on the signals it’s giving or should we move away?’” he said.

It’s important to understand we are constantly making these judgments, and others are constantly making these judgments about us, said Bowden.

There are four general categories of reactions people tend to have, he said. Firstly, there is the potential decision an individual is a friend and is beneficial.

“If I hit that category, a message is sent almost instantly to a newer part of the brain, the neocortex… saying, ‘Get me all the data that proves Mark is a friend.’”

The brain is not interested in information disproving this, or any extraneous information, he said.

“It just wants confirmation of the assumption it has so it can start making predictions — but predictions based on the assumption. It doesn’t want to change its assumption — it wants its assumption to be proven.”

When you have already made a judgment that someone is a friend, you will begin to cherrypick from what she is saying — searching for only the positives.

On the flip side, if you dislike someone, you begin to practise distortion and deletion, he said.

“And if you have no idea what’s going on, how are you going to confirm the bias? You have this part of the neocortex called the imagination, and it just makes stuff up. So you’ll be making up the best idea of me because you’re confused and you have no idea what’s going on.”

In that case, the individual has triggered a response by Bowden’s non-verbal communication that he is of benefit.

Another potential response to encountering someone new is the feeling she is a predator — a risk. In that case, a message is sent from the brain stem to the neocortex to confirm that assumption.

In cases such as this, people will actually imagine what they think others might say or do in order to fit their own negative assumptions of them.

“People aren’t listening as much as you think,” he said. “So, if we can change that assumption, we change their predictions, and we change what they’re out there looking for or making up about (us).”

People look at many different non-verbal and physical cues while making snap judgments about another person. This is particularly applicable to the fourth category the brain stem sorts people into, which is a potential mate.

The fourth and perhaps most important category concerns a person who is not a potential friend, enemy or sexual partner — he is now a matter of indifference, said Bowden.

“You know you’ve sat in many, many communications listening to somebody, or looking like you’re listening and nodding your head and smiling, and (hearing nothing) because they haven’t triggered for that 500-million-year-old brain the idea that they’re a friend or an enemy or a mate.”

The brain stem has assumed that they are not going to be of any importance to your life.

“You know you’ve done it with other people, and you need to understand that they do it with you,” he said.

On an organizational level, the most useful category to get into when meeting someone new is the “friend” category, said Bowden.

“Depending on your situation, you might buy in completely or opt out completely and distort everything that individual says,” he said.

Simple changes to body language and non-verbal cues can dramatically change the way people are perceived by others, and which category they are placed into. So learning how to adapt and use effective body language and non-verbal communication can make a dramatic difference within organizations.

“This Darwinian idea of survival of the fittest wasn’t about survival of the most fit, the most powerful genetic code. In fact, Darwin said it’s not the most powerful or the most intelligent of the species that survives — it’s the most adaptable to change,” said Bowden.

Survival of the fittest was the organism that could fit the niche, and do nothing extra.

And adapting to fit the environment is something people often do through non-verbal communication and body language, he said.

For instance, in some cases, aggression can actually be helpful — so we do things like taking up way more space or overtly taking up someone else’s territory, said Bowden.

“There’s no bad body language — there’s just a result that you want or you didn’t want.” 

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