Body Language Speaks Volumes


Body Language Speaks Volumes

Jan Hargrave demonstrates the body language of a handshake during her presentation.
Jan Hargrave demonstrates the body language of a handshake during her presentation.

Whether sitting down for a tough negotiation or interviewing a potential new hire, most business people would like to be able to know more about their conversational counterpart than just the words coming out of their mouth. Learning to read a person’s body language can give valuable insight into what’s going on behind the verbal exchange.

Body language expert Jan Hargrave says research shows 55 percent of personal communication is non-verbal, while 38 percent comes from voice inflections and only seven percent actually comes from the spoken words. Hargrave presented a workshop on how to interpret body language at the McAllen Chamber of Commerce Business Expo on Sept. 14.

“Being able to understand body language can help you figure out someone else before they figure you out,” Hargrave said. “One gesture doesn’t say it all but understanding a series of gestures tells a story about someone.”

Through her Houston-based consulting firm, Jan Hargrave & Associates, she works with companies like Merrill Lynch, Starbucks, Bank of America, Exxon and others to train employees to become more effective negotiators by understanding body language. Hargrave also works with attorneys on jury selection and witness preparation, and has appeared on national television to give her interpretation of the non-verbal communication of individuals ranging from politicians to criminal suspects. She is also the author of several books on body language.

Body language expert Jan Hargrave shows some of the books she has written on the subject.
Body language expert Jan Hargrave shows some of the books she has written on the subject.

Most personal interactions begin with a handshake, which can be revealing. Hargrave said a firm handshake indicates confidence while a limp handshake may unmask a person who is ill at ease. Controlling individuals often engage in a handshake with downward facing palms. Upward facing palms show some level of submission. A double-clasp handshake is a sign of sincere feelings for another.

Hargrave recalled a famous political handshake between presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney at the opening of a debate. Facing each other with firm handshakes, both men started patting the other on the arm … and patting and patting in a sort of contest of wills. “The one that pats the last is in control of the conversation,” she said.

Maintaining a posture that keeps the upper part of your body open is another way people show confidence and control. Sometimes smaller individuals may try to compensate for their size by making large gestures or increasing their space by spreading out their arms on the table.

“The more open the upper part of a person’s body is a strong negotiating position,” Hargrave said. “Bigger gestures can overcome small statures.”

Most people know that eye contact is important in conversations, but there are times when it can be too much or too little. Hargrave said making direct eye-to-eye contact for about 70 percent of the conversation is appropriate in a business setting. “You cannot stare at somebody the whole time because they will think you are crazy,” she said “And people who look away or keep their eyes closed for too long show they are keeping something from you or it’s a sign of insecurity.”

Of course, everyone wants to know if someone is being honest or not, and Hargrave says there are some dead giveaways to watch for. Erect posture, good eye contact while speaking, gestures with palms upward are all signs of confidence and trustworthiness.

On the flip side, left-hand gestures are typically associated with dishonesty, Hargrave says, as are fake coughs, increased swallowing and increased face touching. Touching or rubbing the nose, usually with the left index finger, is another sign of deceit by the speaker.

“The more people touch their face the more uncomfortable they are in the conversation,” she said. “People will place a hand over the mouth to try to distract you from what’s coming out of their mouth.”

George Cox is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years experience as a newspaper writer and editor. A Corpus Christi native, he started his career as a reporter for The Brownsville Herald after graduating from Sam Houston State University with a degree in journalism. He later worked on newspapers in Laredo and Corpus Christi as well as northern California. George returned to the Valley in 1996 as editor of The Brownsville Herald and in 2001 moved to Harlingen as editor of the Valley Morning Star. He also held the position of editor and general manager for the Coastal Current, a weekly entertainment magazine with Valleywide distribution. George retired from full-time journalism in 2015 to work as a freelance writer and legal document editor. He continues to live in Harlingen where he and his wife Katherine co-founded Rio Grande Valley Therapy Pets, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising public awareness of the benefits of therapy pets and assisting people and their pets to become registered therapy pet teams.