Anger and Body Language

Every single one of us has the ability to read the body language of others. Some refer to it as intuition, others call it gut feeling. There is a gender difference: females seem more attuned to the body language of others than are males.

In my experience with reading body language, I have learned two significant facts:

●our intuition or gut feeling is seldom wrong; and

●our tendency is to ignore those signals.

If you have ever had to interview someone for employment, you experienced your intuition or gut feeling.  Did you listen to it or did you go ahead and hire the person anyway.  Later, when it became obvious they were wrong for the job, did you say to yourself, “I knew he or she wouldn’t work out.  I just had that feeling….”  All of that input, I believe, comes from our ability to read another person’s body language.

Research studies indicate that only 7% of the message is delivered through words while 93% is conveyed through body language and tone of voice.  Such studies show that understanding happens:

7% from the word meanings

38% from the tone of voice

55% from the body language

If this is true, then communication is actually the act of the (person watching the speaker) listener, not the speaker.  It also reinforces the importance of monitoring your own body language as well as watching your adversary’s body language throughout a confrontation.

It is often said that true feelings are revealed through body language while the words contain some manufactured acceptable pabulum which is only slightly related to the truth. Take this common exchange:

Husband:      Are you angry with me?

Wife:               No, I’m hurt.

Her body language gave her away. He knows she is angry but she prefers to be manipulatively dishonest and make him feel guilty for something she refuses to identify.

When confronting an adversary, you must make certain that your body language reflects your intent.  Moreover, you want to project strength by taking the confrontation to your opponent. At work, early morning, before the day gets started is the best time.  Picture your adversary seated at his/her desk, drinking coffee.  You walk into his or her office and, standing, deliver your message. Consider the relationship of height and power; you are standing, they are sitting; you are taking the power stance.  If you approach your adversary later in the day, plan the seating arrangements in advance.  Sitting opposite your adversary only reinforces the conflict while sitting side by side delivers the message: we are working on this conflict together.

When confronting in a close relationship, select a time when your adversary is relaxed and not under stress from a day at work or a difficult commute home or a miserable day with the children. Late into the evening is probably the best time. Always sit side-by-side.

Think of yourself as a tall oak tree with roots deep in the ground; unmovable.  Your hands should be at your sides, relaxed, palms opened (no clenched fists.). Your face should reflect a serious demeanor. Your voice should be strong and at an even pitch.  You do not want to project any stress.  This is why it is always a good idea to role-play with a friend before you confront the adversary.  Practice does wonders for the nervous, pitch-varying speaker. Finally, always give your adversary 100% of your attention along with a straight-in-the-eyeball look.

Now, let’s consider the body language of the adversary. There are two significant items to notice in your adversary’s body language, both of which are controlled by the adversary:

  • changes in the physical distance between you; and
  • the amount of continuous eye contact the adversary maintains with you.

People lean toward what they like and away from what they don’t like. This movement occurs at the moment the other person hears your words. The adversary may, after hearing your message, lean back in their chair, or push back against the chair, increasing the physical distance between you.  They could even get up and begin pacing.  Should the adversary come forward in their chair, you should anticipate hearing something positive.  Should the adversary move away, you should assume you will quickly hear something negative with regard to your words.

The second cue involves your opponent’s eye movements.  The adversary should be giving you fairly uninterrupted direct eye contact all through the conversation.  At some point in the interaction, the adversary may avert their eyes.  They may suddenly become very absorbed in looking out the window or examining their hands or watching themselves pick lint off their clothing.  This is evidence that your adversary would like to get away from you and the problem you have addressed.  The physical constraints of the situation do not allow him or her to do that.  So they escape as much as they can by increasing the distance between themselves and you and by directing their eyes and attention somewhere else.

In the confrontation, there is one moment of significant body language communication: immediately after you speak.  At that moment, you will see before you the adversary’s psychological response to your words reflected in a group of body language changes. Then your opponent will speak their response.

What you want to look for, immediately after you speak, is gross changes in the body language followed quickly by a verbal response.  If you see positive body language, anticipate hearing a positive response.  If you see negative body language, anticipate hearing a negative response.  The problem comes when you see negative body language but the response is positive.  Then you know your opponent is not speaking truthfully. The adversary’s body language and the words of the message that he or she speaks should match. If they do not, your adversary is not being honest.

The most effective strategy for dealing with an adversary’s body language is to comment on it directly.  This indicates that you got their unspoken message.  Here are a few examples.

Adversary:     (Pushes back from the desk, leans back against the chair, crosses arms over chest, looks away into a far corner of the room, shrugs shoulders, looks back at you, rubs at his nose and then  says, I’ll be happy to look into it and get back to you when I have some information.

You:    I sense there is a big problem with my request and that your search for more information may be a delaying tactic and I want…

Opponent:     (She pushes back in the chair, crosses her legs, eyes avert to side wall while she fidgets with a pen. When she looks back at you, her jaws seem tight. She responds in a strained voice.) Well, I guess that might be possible.

You:    You don’t sound as if you want to make the effort to make it possible and I want..

Adversary:     (She leans forward in the chair, smiles while giving you a straight in the eyeball look and says) I’ve been waiting for you to tell me you wanted more responsibility”.

You:    Well, I’m ready for a new challenge right now and I want….

Spouse:(Moves away from you, starts to pace the room while combing hair with fingers and says)  I don’t want to discuss this right now.

You: I can see that this topic is stressful for you. Nevertheless, it’s critical that we resolve this issue quickly. When would you like to discuss it because I want….

Teenager:(Looks down at feet, hands are clenching and unclenching, voice is weak and says) I’ll try not do that again.

You:    That doesn’t sound like much of a commitment and I want you to…..


Listed below are some of the most commonly seen negative body language cues and what they mean.

Negative Body Language Cues                         What that Body Language says

Fidgeting                                                                   discomfort

Teeth grinding                                                          stress

Nervous laugh or cough,                                       agitation

Reddening face                                                       discomfort, embarrassment

Fluttering hand motions with long silences       discomfort

Hands at mouth                                                       a desire to retract words

Arms crossed over chest                                        closed off from discussion

Rapid blink rate                                                        untruthfulness

Hand touching nose                                               untruthfulness

Rubbing back of neck                                             aggravation

Combing hair with fingers                                     agitation

Pacing the floor                                                        distancing self from the issue

Tightness in jaw                                                       aggravation

Playing with pen, paper clips, etc.                                    agitation

Tapping pen or pencil in even cadence              impatience

Crossed legs, top one swinging                            impatience

Hands clenching and unclenching                                 anger

Hands at throat                                                         unexpected surprise

Hand rubbing chin                                                  thinking

Feet up on desk                                                       prove it to me

Legs crossed one leg over the other                    defensiveness

Bulging eyes                                                                        extreme anger

Purple-red face                                                        extreme anger

Lack of eye contact                                                  distancing self from the issue

Rolling eyes to ceiling                                            heard this already

Mumbling response                                                            unsure, uncommitted

Voice high-pitch; words rapid                                panic, nervous

Voice low; words slow                                             anger

Varying pitch                                                                        constructing a phony response

Long silences                                                           fabricating or deleting information

Sigh, noisy exhale, groan                                      passive aggressive no response

(may speak agreement)

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