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What Every Body Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent's Guide to Speed-Reading People

13 mins
book summary communication
Shawn L
Builds stuff minimally
Table of Contents

I’m not trying to be a better lie detector. I picked this book to develop a sixth-sense empathy in other people. If one is showing signs of being uncomfortable when I propose a solution, I could address the feeling without asking directly - because people tend to be polite and say everything is okay.


  1. Be a competent observer of your environment.
  2. Observing in context is key to understanding nonverbal behavior.
  3. Learn to recognize and decode nonverbal behaviors that are universal.
  4. Learn to recognize and decode idiosyncratic nonverbal behaviors.
  5. When you interact with others, try to establish their baseline behaviors.
  6. Always try to watch people for multiple tells—behaviors that occur in clusters or in succession.
  7. It’s important to look for changes in a person’s behavior that can signal changes in thoughts, emotions, interest, or intent.
  8. Learning to detect false or misleading nonverbal signals is also critical.
  9. Knowing how to distinguish between comfort and discomfort will help you to focus on the most important behaviors for decoding nonverbal communications.
  10. When observing others, be subtle about it.

When in stress, our brain has 3 responses: freeze, flight, and fight.

Example of freezing: thieves will try to hide their physical presence by restricting their motions or hunching over as if trying to be invisible.


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 (see figure 8).

Neck or neck dimple touching and/or stroking is one of the most significant and frequent pacifying behaviors we use in responding to stress. This area is rich with nerve endings that, when stroked, reduce blood pressure, lower the heart rate, and calm the individual down.

Exhaling with puffed out cheeks is a great way to release stress and to pacify.

Men prefer to touch their faces.

Women prefer to touch their necks, clothing, jewelry, arms, and hair.

If the woman begins to play with her necklace, most likely she is a little nervous.

If she transitions her fingers to her neck dimple (suprasternal notch), chances are there is an issue of concern to her or she feels very insecure. In most instances, if she is using her right hand on her suprasternal notch, she will cup her right elbow with her left hand.

Some people whistle to calm themselves when they are walking in a strange area.

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 when 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. This can be a very significant signal because it occurs so quickly in reaction to a negative event.

The ventilator is when a person (usually a male) putting his fingers between his shirt collar and neck and pulling the fabric away from his skin

Using pacifiers to read people more effectively

Establish a pacifying baseline for an individual.

When you see a person make a pacifying gesture, stop and ask yourself, “What caused him to do that?”

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.


Leg and feet are the most important non-verbal signal. It’s not the face because we often bluff with our face.

A child may be sitting down to eat, but if she wants to go out and play, notice how her feet sway, how they stretch to reach the floor.

Concentrate on one’s leg, moving up and read the face last.

Happy feet

Happy feet are feet and legs that wiggle and/or bounce with joy. When people suddenly display happy feet—particularly if this occurs right after they have heard or seen something of significance - it’s because it has affected them in a positive emotional way.

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.

Feet and torso

Watch their feet and torso behavior. If they move their feet - along with their torsos - to admit you, then the welcome is full and genuine. However, if they don’t move their feet to welcome you but, instead, only swivel at the hips to say hello, then they’d rather be left alone.

Where one foot points and turns away during a conversation, this is a sign the person has to leave.

The Knee Clasp

Take note if a person who is sitting down places both hands on his knees in a knee clasp. This is a very clear sign that in his mind, he is ready to conclude the meeting and take leave.

Gravity-Defying Behaviors of the Feet

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.

The heel of the foot remained on the ground, but the rest of his shoe moved up, so that his toes were pointing skyward.

This can be readily decoded to mean that the man on the phone had just heard something positive.

Leg Splay

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

When people find themselves in confrontational situations, their feet and legs will splay out, not only for greater balance but also to claim greater territory.

If we catch ourselves in a leg-splay posture during a heated exchange and immediately bring our legs together.

Feet/Leg Displays of High Comfort

We also cross our legs in the presence of others when we are confident.

When you cross one leg in front of the other while standing, you reduce your balance significantly. From a safety standpoint, if there were a real threat, you could neither freeze very easily nor run away.

We cross our legs in such a way so that we tilt toward the person we favor.

Feet/Leg Displays During Courtship

Seated leg crosses are also revealing. When people sit side by side, the direction of their leg crosses become significant. If they are on good terms, the top leg crossed over will point toward the other person.

Our Need for Space

When meeting someone new, lean in, give the person a hearty handshake, make good eye contact, and then take a step back and see what happens next.

The feet are the most honest part of the body. If a person needs extra space, give it.

Cooperative vs. Non-cooperative Feet

At custom declaration, look for passengers who point their feet toward the exit while turning to the officer. That signals non-cooperation.

Significant Change in Intensity of Foot and/or Leg Movement

The key factor to consider is at what point do these behaviors start or change.

When a foot suddenly begins to kick, it is usually a good indicator of discomfort

The Foot Lock and Leave

When interviewing suspects in crimes, suspects interlock their feet and ankles when they are under stress.

People who are lying will not move their feet in an interview, seeming frozen, or they interlock their feet in such a way as to restrict movement.

Lack of movement is not in itself indicative of deception; it is indicative of self-restraint and caution, which both nervous and lying individuals utilize to assuage their concerns.

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.

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.

The two, taken together, make it more likely that the person has been uncovered.

When a high-stress question is asked, the respondent will often withdraw his or her feet beneath the chair, which could be seen as a distancing reaction


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


When you are upset, your digestive system no longer has as much blood as it needs for proper digestion.

A child whose parents fight at the dinner table really can’t finish his meal.


When there are serious issues to be discussed, splaying out is a territorial or dominance display.

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.

Shoulder Shrugs

If you see a half shrug, chances are the speaker is not committed to what was just said.

An honest and true response will cause both shoulders to rise sharply and equally.

Weak Shoulder Displays

This is when someone moves his or her body so the shoulders begin to slowly rise toward the ears in a manner that makes the neck seem to disappear.

The key action here is that the shoulders rise slowly.

This signals a lack in confidence and is highly uncomfortable.

Restriction of Arm Movement

If you are a parent, teacher, camp counselor, or school resource officer and you see children severely change or restrain their arm behavior around their parents or other adults, at a minimum it should arouse your interest and promote further observation.

When people place their arms behind their backs, first they are saying, “I am of higher status.” Second, they are transmitting, “Please don’t come near me; I am not to be touched.”

Hooding Effect

This is when a person leans back and interlaces his hands behind his head

This hooding effect makes us larger than life and tells others, “I am in charge here.”


People may regard you with suspicion if they can’t see your hands while you are talking.

Avoid using hand gestures that offend others.

Studies show that people don’t like it when someone points a finger at them.

Self-preening is acceptable, but not when others are talking to you. This is a sign of dismissiveness.

Sweaty palms are not indicative of deception. They are only indicative of stress or, in some cases, a genetic disorder.


Hand steepling may well be the most powerful high-confidence tell.

It involves touching the spread fingertips of both hands, in a gesture similar to “praying hands,”

When our confidence is shaken or doubt has entered our minds, our steepled fingers may interlace as in prayer

Thumb display

Thumbs up is usually a good indication of positive thoughts. This can be very fluid during a conversation.

Thumb sticking out of the pocket is a high-confidence display.

Thumbs in the pocket indicate low status and confidence. People in authority should avoid this display because it sends the wrong message.

Genital Framing

Using the hands to frame the genitals is often seen with young males and females during the courtship years. It is a dominance display.

Frozen Hands

Liars tend to gesture less, touch less, and move their arms and legs less than honest people.

Interlace stroking or rubbing of the hands

A person who is in doubt (a lesser degree of lowered confidence) or under low stress will only slightly rub the palms of his hands together.

If his confidence level continues to fall, watch how suddenly gentle finger-to-palm stroking transitions to more dramatic rubbing of interlaced fingers.

One of the most important observations you can make in relation to the hands is noticing when they go dormant.

When the hands stop illustrating and emphasizing, it is usually a clue to a change in brain activity.


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

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.

A brief touch of the eyes during a effective way of saying, “I don’t like what conversation may give you a clue to a I just heard, saw, or learned.”

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

Contrary to pupil constriction, contentment and positive emotions are indicated by pupil dilation. The brain is essentially saying, “I like what I see; let me see it better!”

When we are content, our eyes are arched slightly.

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

Our blink rate increases when we are aroused, troubled, nervous, or concerned, and it returns to normal when we are relaxed.

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

We crinkle our noses to indicate dislike or disgust.

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


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

The Lip Purse is when the lips disappear and the corners of the mouth turn down. This signals emotions and confidence are at a low point.

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.”

Tongue displays

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.

Detecting Deception

Don’t become suspicious because you’ll affect how a person will respond to you.

The best way to proceed is just to ask for ever-more clarifying details about the matter, such as a simple “I don’t understand” or “Can you explain how that happened again?”

While seated at a table, people who are comfortable with each other will move objects aside so that nothing blocks their view.

By mirroring another person’s behavior, we are subconsciously saying, “I am comfortable with you.”

Signs of Discomfort in an Interaction

If you are attempting to observe discomfort as a potential indicator of deception, the best setting is one that has no objects (such as furniture, tables, desks).

Predators and habitual liars actually engage in greater eye contact than most individuals, and will lock eyes with you.

A person’s voice may crack or may seem inconsistent during deceptive speech; swallowing becomes difficult as the throat becomes dry from stress, so look for hard swallows.

Pacifiers and Discomfort

Expect some pacifying behaviors.

Don’t be so hasty to assume deception when you see someone touching his or her nose.


Look for synchrony between what is being said verbally and nonverbally,

Lack of Emphasis in Hand Behaviors

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

The Rogatory Position

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.

If the statement is made palms up, the individual supplicating to be believed, I would find such a statement highly suspect.

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