What Every BODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading

One of the first things I noticed was that students or teachers who genuinely liked me would raise (or arch) their eyebrows when they first saw me walk into the room. On the other hand, those individuals who weren’t too friendly toward me would squint their eyes slightly when I appeared—a behavior that once observed is never forgotten.

Nonverbal behaviors comprise approximately 60 to 65 percent of all interpersonal communication and, during lovemaking, can constitute 100 percent of communication between partners.

“Eye-blocking” is a nonverbal behavior that can occur when we feel threatened and/or don’t like what we see. Squinting (as in the case with my classmates, described above) and closing or shielding our eyes are actions that have evolved to protect the brain from “seeing” undesirable images and to communicate our disdain toward others.

Nonverbal communication can also reveal a person’s true thoughts, feelings, and intentions. For this reason, nonverbal behaviors are sometimes referred to as tells

Commandment 1: Be a competent observer of your environment.

Whenever I walk into my apartment, I take a deep breath. If things don’t smell “normal” I become concerned. One time I detected the slight odor of lingering cigarette smoke when I returned home from a trip. My nose alerted me to possible danger well before my eyes could scan my apartment. It turned out that the apartment maintenance man had been by to fix a leaky pipe, and the smoke on his clothes and skin were still lingering in the air several hours later. Fortunately, he was a welcome intruder, but there could just as easily have been a burglar lurking in the next room. The point is, by using all my senses, I was better able to assess my environment and contribute to my own safety and well-being.

Commandment 2: Observing in context is key to understanding nonverbal behavior.

Commandment 3: Learn to recognize and decode nonverbal behaviors that are universal.

Commandment 4: Learn to recognize and decode idiosyncratic nonverbal behaviors.

Commandment 5: When you interact with others, try to establish their baseline behaviors.

Commandment 6: Always try to watch people for multiple tells—behaviors that occur in clusters or in succession.

Commandment 7: It’s important to look for changes in a person’s behavior that can signal changes in thoughts, emotions, interest, or intent.

Commandment 8: Learning to detect false or misleading nonverbal signals is also critical.

Commandment 9: Knowing how to distinguish between comfort and discomfort will help you to focus on the most important behaviors for decoding nonverbal communications.

Commandment 10: When observing others, be subtle about it.

Officer McFadden’s detailed observations became the basis for a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision known to every police officer in the United States. Since 1968, this ruling has allowed police officers to stop and frisk individuals without a warrant when their behaviors telegraph their intention to commit a crime.

Back in 1952, a pioneering scientist named Paul MacLean began to speak of the human brain as a triune brain consisting of a “reptilian (stem) brain,” “mammalian (limbic) brain,” and “human (neocortex) brain” (see diagram of the limbic brain). In this book, we will be concentrating on the limbic system of the brain (the part MacLean called the mammalian brain), because it plays the largest role in the expression of our nonverbal behavior.

In order to ensure our survival, the brain’s very elegant response to distress or threats, has taken three forms: freeze, flight, and fight. Like other animal species whose limbic brains protected them in this manner, humans possessing these limbic reactions survived to propagate because these behaviors were already hardwired into our nervous system.

In reality, the way animals, including humans, react to danger occurs in the following order: freeze, flight, fight. If the reaction really were fight or flight, most of us would be bruised, battered, and exhausted much of the time.

For instance, when being chastised, most people hold very still. The same behavior is observed when an individual is being questioned about matters that he or she perceives could get them into trouble. The person will freeze in his chair as if in an “ejector seat”

Consistent with the need to freeze when confronted by a threat, people being questioned about a crime will often fix their feet in a position of security (interlocked behind the chair legs) and hold that position for an inordinate period of time. When I see this type of behavior, it tells me something is wrong; this is a limbic response that needs to be further explored.

Interestingly and sadly, abused children often manifest these freezing limbic behaviors. In the presence of an abusive parent or adult, their arms will go dormant at their sides and they avoid eye contact as though that helps them not to be seen. In a way, they are hiding in the open, which is a tool of survival for these helpless kids.

The “turtle effect” (shoulders rise toward the ears) is often seen when people are humbled or suddenly lose confidence.

People lean away from each other subconsciously when they disagree or feel uncomfortable around each other.

Eye blocking is a very powerful display of consternation, disbelief, or disagreement.

Behaviors that signal discomfort (e.g., leaning away, a frown, and crossed or tense arms) are usually followed by the brain enlisting the hands to pacify… As a specific example, if every time I ask a subject, “Do you know Mr. Hillman?” he responds, “No,” but then immediately touches his neck or mouth, I know he is pacifying to that specific question

Neck touching and/or stroking is one of the most significant and frequent pacifying behaviors we use in responding to stress. When women pacify using the neck, they often do so by covering or touching their suprasternal notch with their hand

Pacifying behaviors take many forms. When stressed, we might soothe our necks with a gentle massage, stroke our faces, or play with our hair. This is done automatically. Our brains send out the message, “Please pacify me now,” and our hands respond immediately, providing an action that will help make us comfortable again.

Covering of the neck dimple pacifies insecurities, emotional discomfort, fear, or concerns in real time. Playing with a necklace often serves the same purpose.

Rubbing of the forehead is usually a good indicator that a person is struggling with something or is undergoing slight to severe discomfort.

Cheek or face touching is a way to pacify when nervous, irritated, or concerned.

Exhaling with puffed out cheeks is a great way to release stress and to pacify. Notice how often people do this after a near mishap.

For our purposes, any touching of the face, head, neck, shoulder, arm, hand, or leg in response to a negative stimulus (e.g., a difficult question, an embarrassing situation, or stress as a result of something heard, seen, or thought) is a pacifying behavior. These stroking behaviors don’t help us to solve problems; rather, they help us to remain calm while we do. In other words, they soothe us. Men prefer to touch their faces. Women prefer to touch their necks, clothing, jewelry, arms, and hair.

Men adjust their ties to deal with insecurities or discomfort. It also covers the suprasternal notch.

Neck touching and/or stroking is one of the most significant and frequent pacifying behaviors we use in responding to stress.

Touching or stroking the face is a frequent human pacifying response to stress. Motions such as rubbing the forehead; touching, rubbing, or licking the lip(s); pulling or massaging the earlobe with thumb and forefinger; stroking the face or beard; and playing with the hair all can serve to pacify an individual when confronting a stressful situation.

Whistling can be a pacifying behavior. Some people whistle to calm themselves when they are walking in a strange area of a city or down a dark, deserted corridor or road. Some people even talk to themselves in an attempt to pacify during times of stress. I have a friend (as I am sure we all do) who can talk a mile a minute when nervous or upset. Some behaviors combine tactile and auditory pacification, such as the tapping of a pencil or the drumming of fingers.

Sometimes we see individuals under stress yawning excessively. Yawning not only is a form of “taking a deep breath,” but during stress, as the mouth gets dry, a yawn can put pressure on the salivary glands.

Leg cleansing is one pacification behavior that often goes unnoticed because it frequently occurs under a desk or table. In this calming or pacifying activity, a person places the hand (or hands) palm down on top of the leg (or legs), and then slides them down the thighs toward the knee (see figure 16). Some individuals will do the “leg cleanser” only once, but often it is done repeatedly or the leg merely is massaged.

This behavior involves a person (usually a male) putting his fingers between his shirt collar and neck and pulling the fabric away from his skin (see figure 17). This ventilating action is often a reaction to stress and is a good indicator that the person is unhappy with something he is thinking about or experiencing in his environment. A woman may perform this nonverbal activity more subtly by merely ventilating the front of her blouse or by tossing the back of her hair up in the air to ventilate her neck.

When facing stressful circumstances, some individuals will pacify by crossing their arms and rubbing their hands against their shoulders, as if experiencing a chill. Watching a person employ this pacifying behavior is reminiscent of the way a mother hugs a young child.

In order to gain knowledge about a person through nonverbal pacifiers, there are a few guidelines you need to follow:

  1. Recognize pacifying behaviors when they occur. I have provided you with all of the major pacifiers. As you make a concerted effort to spot these body signals, they will become increasingly easy to recognize in interactions with other people.
  2. Establish a pacifying baseline for an individual. That way you can note any increase and/or intensity in that person’s pacifying behaviors and react accordingly.
  3. When you see a person make a pacifying gesture, stop and ask yourself, “What caused him to do that?” You know the individual feels uneasy about something. Your job, as a collector of nonverbal intelligence, is to find out what that something is.
  4. Understand that pacifying behaviors almost always are used to calm a person after a stressful event occurs. Thus, as a general principle, you can assume that if an individual is engaged in pacifying behavior, some stressful event or stimulus has preceded it and caused it to happen.
  5. The ability to link a pacifying behavior with the specific stressor that caused it can help you better understand the person with whom you are interacting.
  6. In certain circumstances you can actually say or do something to see if it stresses an individual (as reflected in an increase in pacifying behaviors) to better understand his thoughts and intentions.
  7. Note what part of the body a person pacifies. This is significant, because the higher the stress, the greater the amount of facial or neck stroking is involved.
  8. Remember, the greater the stress or discomfort, the greater the likelihood of pacifying behaviors to follow.

Having conducted thousands of interviews for the FBI, I learned to concentrate on the suspect’s feet and legs first, moving upward in my observations until I read the face last. When it comes to honesty, truthfulness decreases as we move from the feet to the head.

Happy feet are feet and legs that wiggle and/or bounce with joy.

You don’t need to look under the table to see happy feet. Just look at a person’s shirt and/or his shoulders. If his feet are wiggling or bouncing, his shirt and shoulders will be vibrating or moving up and down.

Second, moving feet and legs may simply signify impatience. Our feet often jiggle or bounce when we grow impatient or feel the need to move things along.

When two people talk to each other, they normally speak toe to toe. If, however, one of the individuals turns his feet slightly away or repeatedly moves one foot in an outward direction (in an L formation with one foot toward you and one away from you), you can be assured he wants to take leave or wishes he were somewhere else. This type of foot behavior is another example of an intention cue (Givens, 2005, 60–61). The person’s torso may remain facing you out of social diligence, but the feet may more honestly reflect the limbic brain’s need or desire to escape (see figure 18).

Where one foot points and turns away during a conversation, this is a sign the person has to leave, precisely in that direction. This is an intention cue.

Clasping of the knees and shifting of weight on the feet is an intention cue that the person wants to get up and leave.

When we are excited about something or feel very positive about our circumstances, we tend to defy gravity by doing such things as rocking up and down on the balls of our feet, or walking with a bit of a bounce in our step. This is the limbic brain, once again, manifesting itself in our nonverbal behaviors.

When the toes point upward as in this photograph, it usually means the person is in a good mood or is thinking or hearing something positive.

When feet shift from flat footed to the “starter’s position,” this is an intention cue that the person wants to go.

We normally cross our legs when we feel comfortable. The sudden presence of someone we don’t like will cause us to uncross our legs.

When two people are talking and both have crossed their legs, this is an indication that they are very comfortable around each other.

Here’s an interesting feature of leg crossing. We usually do it subconsciously in favor of the person we like the most. In other words, we cross our legs in such a way so that we tilt toward the person we favor. This can provide some interesting revelations during family gatherings.

During courtship, and particularly while seated, a woman will often play with her shoes and dangle them from the tips of her toes when she feels comfortable with her companion.

…when I first meet someone, I typically lean in, give the person a hearty handshake (depending on the appropriate cultural norms in the situation), make good eye contact, and then take a step back and see what happens next. One of three responses is likely to take place:

  1. the person will remain in place, which lets me know he or she is comfortable at that distance;
  2. the individual will take a step back or turn slightly away, which lets me know he or she needs more space or wants to be elsewhere; or
  3. the person will actually take a step closer to me, which means he or she feels comfortable and/or favorable toward me. I take no offense to the individual’s behavior because I am simply using this opportunity to see how he or she really feels about me.

When a person talks to you with feet pointed away, it is a good indication this person wants to be elsewhere. Watch for people who make formal declarations in this position, as this is a form of distancing.

If a person constantly wiggles or bounces his or her feet or leg(s) and suddenly stops, you need to take notice. This usually signifies that the individual is experiencing stress, an emotional change, or feels threatened in some way.

When an individual suddenly turns his toes inward or interlocks his feet, it is a sign that he is insecure, anxious, and/or feels threatened.

A sudden interlocking of the legs may suggest discomfort or insecurity. When people are comfortable, they tend to unlock their ankles.

The sudden locking of ankles around the legs of a chair is part of the freeze response and is indicative of discomfort, anxiety, or concern.

You should always be on the lookout for multiple tells (tell clusters) that point to the same behavioral conclusion. They strengthen the likelihood that your conclusion is correct. In the case of the foot lock, watch for the individual who locks his feet around his chair legs and then moves his hand along his pants leg (as if drying his hand on his trousers).

when an individual is standing next to someone who is being obnoxious or someone he does not like, his torso will lean away from that individual

Not only do we lean away from people who make us uncomfortable, we may also blade away (turn slightly) by degrees from that which does not appeal to us or we grow to dislike.

we immediately and subconsciously begin to turn slightly to the side when someone we dislike approaches us at a party.

People lean toward each other when there is high comfort and agreement. This mirroring or isopraxis starts when we are babies.

A sudden crossing of the arms during a conversation could indicate discomfort.

The question is not whether something is wrong, nor does this posture mean they are blocking the teacher out; arms intertwined across the front is a very comfortable pose for many people. However, when a person suddenly crosses arms and then interlocks them tightly, with a tight hand grip, this is indicative of discomfort.

People who are uncomfortable while being interviewed (e.g., suspects in criminal investigations, children in trouble with their parents, or an employee being questioned for improper conduct) often complain of feeling cold during the interview.

If you have a child who does this every time he or she is in serious trouble, you need to neutralize this behavior immediately by asking your child to sit up and, if that fails, by nonverbally violating his or her space (by sitting next to or standing closely behind him or her). In short order, your child will have a limbic response to your spatial “invasion,” which will cause him or her to sit up. If you allow your child to get away with torso splays during major disagreements, don’t be surprised if he or she loses respect for you over time. And why not? By allowing such displays, you are basically saying, “It’s OK to disrespect me.” When these kids grow up, they may continue to splay out inappropriately in the workplace when they should be sitting up attentively. This is not conducive to longevity on the job, since it sends a strong negative nonverbal message of disrespect for authority.

Splaying out is a territorial display, which is OK in your own home but not in the work place, especially during a job interview.

Watch two people who are angry with each other; they will puff out their chests just like silverback gorillas. Although it may seem almost comical when we see others do it, puffing of the chest should not be ignored, because observation has shown that when people are about to strike someone their chests will puff out.

We use shoulder shrugs to indicate lack of knowledge or doubt. Look for both shoulders to rise; when only one side rises, the message is dubious.

Shoulders rising toward the ears causes the “turtle effect”; weakness, insecurity, and negative emotions are the message.

When excited, we don’t restrict our arm movements; in fact our natural tendency is to defy gravity and raise our arms high above our heads

When we are upset or fearful, we withdraw our arms. In fact, when we are injured, threatened, abused, or worried, our arms come straight to our sides or they close across our chests. This is a survival tactic that helps protect the individual when a real or perceived danger is sensed.

Sometimes called the “regal stance,” arms behind the back mean “don’t draw near.” You see royalty using this behavior to keep people at a distance.

Animal trainers tell me that dogs can’t stand it when humans withdraw their gaze and their arms. In essence, our behavior is telling the dog, “I will not touch you.” If you own a dog, try this experiment. Stand in front of your pet with your outstretched arms and hands in front of you, but not touching him. Then withdraw your arms behind your back and watch what happens. I think you’ll discover the dog will react negatively.

One territorial behavior used to assert dominance and project an image of authority is known as arms akimbo. This nonverbal behavior involves a person extending both arms out in a V pattern with the hands placed (thumbs backward) on the hips.

In this photo the arms are akimbo, but note that the thumbs are forward. This is a more inquisitive, less authoritarian position than in the previous photo, where the thumbs are back in the “there are issues” position.

Interlaced hands behind the head are indicative of comfort and dominance. Usually the senior person at a meeting will pose or “hood” this way.

Fingertips planted spread apart on a surface are a significant territorial display of confidence and authority.

While our faces can be very honest in displaying how we feel, they do not always necessarily represent our true sentiments. This is because we can, to a degree, control our facial expressions and, thus, put on a false front.

Squinting, furrowing of the forehead, and facial contortions are indicative of distress or discomfort.

Try to tilt your head in an elevator full of strangers and leave it that way for the complete duration of the ride. For most people this is extremely difficult to accomplish, because head tilt is a behavior reserved for times when we are truly comfortable—and standing in an elevator surrounded by strangers is certainly not one of those times. Try tilting your head while looking directly at someone in the elevator. You will find that even more difficult, if not impossible.

Head tilt says in a powerful way, “I am comfortable, I am receptive, I am friendly.” It is very difficult to do this around people we don’t like.

We squint to block out light or objectionable things. We squint when we are angry or even when we hear voices, sounds, or music we don’t like.

Squinting can be very brief—1/8 of second—but in real time may reflect a negative thought or emotion.

Eye blocking with the hands is an effective way of saying, “I don’t like what I just heard, saw, or learned.”

A brief touch of the eyes during a conversation may give you a clue to a person’s negative perception of what is being discussed.

A delay in opening of the eyelids upon hearing information or a lengthy closure is indicative of negative emotions or displeasure.

Where the lids compress tightly as in this photo, the person is trying to block out totally some negative news or event.

When we are content, our eyes are relaxed and show little tension.

Here the eyebrows are arched slightly, defying gravity, a sure sign of positive feelings.

Flashbulb eyes can be seen when we are excited to see someone or are full of positive emotions we just can’t hold back.

We look askance at people when we are distrustful or unconvinced, as in this photo.

A real smile appears primarily because of the action of two muscles: the zygomaticus major, which stretches from the corner of the mouth to the cheekbone, and the orbicularis oculi, which surrounds the eye. When working together bilaterally, these draw the corners of the mouth up and crinkle the outer edges of the eyes, causing the crow’s feet of a familiar warm and honest smile

A real smile forces the corners of the mouth up toward the eyes.

This is a fake or “polite smile”: the corners of the mouth move toward the ears and there is little emotion in the eyes.

When the lips disappear, there is usually stress or anxiety driving this behavior.

Note that when the lips are full, usually the person is content.

When there is stress, the lips will begin to disappear and tighten.

Lip compression, reflecting stress or anxiety, may progress to the point where the lips disappear, as in this photo.

When the lips disappear and the corners of the mouth turn down, emotions and confidence are at a low point, while anxiety, stress, and concerns are running high.

We purse our lips or pucker them when we are in disagreement with something or someone, or we are thinking of a possible alternative.

A sneer fleetingly signifies disrespect or disdain. It says “I care little for you or your thoughts.”

Lip licking is a pacifying behavior that tends to soothe and calm us down. You see it in class just before a test.

Tongue jutting is seen when people get caught doing something they shouldn’t, they screw up, or they are getting away with something. It is very brief.

A furrowed forehead is an easy way to assess for discomfort or anxiety. When we are happy and content, you hardly see this behavior.

As discussed previously, the flaring of nostrils is a facial cue that signals that a person is aroused. Lovers can often be seen hovering around each other, their nostrils subtly flaring in excitement and anticipation. Most likely, lovers engage in this subconscious behavior as they absorb each other’s scents of sexual attraction known as pheromones (Givens, 2005, 191–208). Nose flaring is also an intention cue, a potent indicator of the intent to do something physical, and not necessarily sexual. It can be anything from getting ready to climb some steep stairs to preparing to move a bookcase.

We crinkle our noses to indicate dislike or disgust. This is very accurate but at times fleeting. In some cultures it is really pronounced.

When confidence is low or we are concerned for ourselves, the chin will tuck in, forcing the nose down.

When we feel positive, the chin comes out and the nose is high: both signs of comfort and confidence.

When confronted with mixed signals from the face (such as happiness cues along with anxiety signals or pleasure behaviors seen alongside displeasure displays), or if the verbal and nonverbal facial messages are not in agreement, always side with the negative emotion

The negative sentiment will almost always be the more accurate and genuine of the person’s feelings and emotions. For instance, if someone says, “So happy to see you,” with jaws tightened, the statement is false. The tension in the face reveals the true emotion the person is feeling. Why side with the negative emotion? Because our most immediate reaction to an objectionable situation is usually the most accurate; it is only after a moment when we realize that others might see us that we mask that initial response with some facial behavior that is more socially acceptable. So when confronted with both, go with the first emotion observed, especially if it is a negative emotion.

I believe this is the first time a career law enforcement and counterintelligence officer with a considerable background in this field, and who still teaches in the intelligence community, has stepped forward to sound this warning: most people—both laypersons and professionals—are not very good at detecting lies.

The truth is that identifying deceit is so difficult that repeated studies begun in the 1980s show that most of us—including judges, attorneys, clinicians, police officers, FBI agents, politicians, teachers, mothers, fathers, and spouses—are no better than chance (fifty-fifty) when it comes to detecting deception

How you ask the questions (accusingly), how you sit (too close), how you look upon the person (suspiciously), will either support or disrupt their comfort level. It is well established that if you violate people’s space, if you act suspicious, if you look at them the wrong way, or ask questions with a prosecutorial tone, it negatively intrudes on the interview. First and foremost, unmasking liars is not about identifying dishonesty, but rather it is about how you observe and question others in order to detect deception. Then, it is about the collection of nonverbal intelligence. The more you see (clusters of behavior), the more confidence you can have in your observations, and the greater your chances for perceiving when someone is being untruthful.

isopraxis: Both people are mirroring each other and leaning toward each other, showing signs of high comfort.

We show discomfort when we do not like what is happening to us, when we do not like what we are seeing or hearing, or when we are compelled to talk about things we would prefer to keep hidden. We display discomfort first in our physiology, due to arousal of the limbic brain.

When we are uncomfortable with those around us, we tend to distance ourselves from them. This is especially true of individuals trying to deceive us.

When making false statements, liars will rarely touch or engage in other physical contact with you. I found this to be particularly true of informants who had gone bad and were giving false information for money. Since touching is more often performed by the truthful person for

When we do not like something we hear, whether a question or an answer, we often close our eyes as if to block out what was just heard.

During discomfort, the limbic brain takes over, and a person’s face can conversely either flush or lighten in color.

When interviewing suspects during my years with the FBI, I looked for pacifying behaviors to help guide me in my questioning and to assess what was particularly stressful to the interviewee. Although pacifiers alone are not definitive proof of deception (since they can manifest in innocent people who are nervous), they do provide another piece of the puzzle in determining what a person is truly thinking and feeling.

When it comes to body signals that alert us to the possibility of deception, you should be watching for nonverbal behaviors involving synchrony and emphasis.

Synchrony is also important, however, in assessing for deception. Look for synchrony between what is being said verbally and nonverbally, between the circumstances of the moment and what the subject is saying, between events and emotions, and even synchrony of time and space.

When being questioned, a person answering in the affirmative should have congruent head movement that immediately supports what is said; it should not be delayed. Lack of synchrony is exhibited when a person states, “I did not do it,” while her head is nodding in an affirmative motion.

Observing emphasis is important because emphasis is universal when people are being genuine. Emphasis is the limbic brain’s contribution to communication, a way to let others know just how potently we feel. Conversely, when the limbic brain does not back up what we say, we emphasize less or not at all. For the most part, in my experience and that of others, liars do not emphasize

I have noticed that liars will tend to display less steepling. I also look for the white knuckles of the individual who grabs the chair armrest in a fixed manner as though in an “ejector seat.” Unfortunately, for this uncomfortable person, ejection from the discussion is often impossible.

Interestingly, as individuals make declarative statements that are false, they will avoid touching not only other people, but objects such as a podium or table as well. I have never seen or heard a person who is lying yell affirmatively, “I didn’t do it,” while pounding his fist on the table.

People who are being deceptive lack commitment and confidence in what they are saying.

Sitting for long periods in a chair, as though flash frozen in an ejector seat, is evidence of high stress and discomfort.

The palms-up or “rogatory” position usually indicates the person wants to be believed or wants to be accepted. It is not a dominant, confident display.

However, when a person is making a passionate and assertive declaration such as, “You have to believe me, I did not kill her,” those hands should be face down

Statements made palm down are more emphatic and more confident than statements made with hands palm up in the rogatory position.