We interpret body language and emotions through our own lens. What assumptions do we make? Are the assumptions accurate? I learned that many of the common American beliefs about body language are inaccurate.
What we do know is that people who are lying can look you in the face, particularly pathological or habitual liars, according to Clark Freshman, who trains lawyers and negotiators in the science of emotion recognition, and Paul Ekman, author of “Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life.” Looking away or looking up or down is also commonly thought to signal lying. However, looking elsewhere usually indicates a person is thinking.
So, what are the signs that a person is lying? How can we accurately recognize emotions from facial expressions and other body language? The answer is multi-faceted. First, carefully observe the person’s baseline or normal nonverbal communication. For the casual observer, this may not be easy. All assumptions can be correct or incorrect depending on the baseline. So, the general warning is to question assumptions and try not to jump to conclusions. Next, learn to recognize the soft spots and the sweet spots indicated by certain body language. Then, respond to what you see, create a theory, investigate the theory and act to test the theory. The more provocative you become (i.e., when one person becomes hostile or angry), the less information you will receive. This is simply because the person may be responding to the provocative behavior rather than to the subject matter.
In addition, a person who blinks frequently is not necessarily lying. Likewise, scratching a nose or head often means nothing; however covering a face (as athletes do while watching a teammate lose a race), can indicate fear, disappointment, disbelief or despair. However, there are micro-expressions that can show positive or negative emotions. These micro-expressions, such as slightly wincing or wrinkling the nose or mouth may indicate nervousness or dishonesty. Likewise, they can indicate the opposite, depending on the context. Emblems, such as a slightly lifted middle finger, may also be a subconscious negative message, but be aware that these emblems vary significantly across cultures.
So, how useful is this information to a mediator? After watching videos and learning from Clark Freshman for 3 hours on Friday, 6, 2011 at the International Academy of Mediators conference in Napa Valley, I learned that only about 5% of the population accurately reads body language, but professionally trained and experienced mediators with thousands of cases under their belts are exceptionally accurate – not only at lie detection but at accurately perceiving a wide variety of emotions – contempt, disgust, nervousness, happiness, surprise, sadness, anger and fear. Although mediators do not necessarily assess truthfulness, learning to read body language is extraordinarily helpful in moving negotiations through a process that is useful to lawyers and clients and results in a successful settlement.