Body Language

23.07.2021 |

Episode #2 of the course Mastering your conversations by John Robin


Welcome back to the course!

In yesterday’s lesson, we talked about authentic listening. In our example, I showcased my uncle’s skill of talking to people he’s never met before.

It might have led you to wonder, “How can I talk to more people like that?”

Welcome to our second lesson, where we’ll improve our conversation skills by learning to read body language cues.


Body Language: Following the Lead from Permission Behaviors

There are natural cues, as well as behaviors, that a stranger will make that tell you there’s an opening to get to know them better.

Let’s first talk about the ones that tell you someone you’ve never met before is interested in having a conversation.

In the example of my uncle with our breakfast server, the server’s job is to be friendly to customers, and many servers who excel at their job add being conversational to this mix. My uncle is following a natural series of leads—these leads are subtle body language cues called permission behaviors given by the other person that tell us to keep going.

Learn to look for permission behaviors:

• They make eye contact

• When you smile at them, they smile back—and maintain eye contact

• They make a comment to you

• When you ask a question, they open up

This list is very general, so think of it as the general guide for you if you are following a natural lead-in or not.

I know most of my neighbors because of following natural leads like this. They could remain strangers, but instead, because I am in the habit of smiling, making eye contact, and offering a simple greeting, this has opened me up to following many leads.

Once you start speaking to someone, there are some further body language cues that help you tell if they are enjoying the conversation or not:

• When they smile, look for the “crow’s feet” wrinkles in the corners of their eyes—this is an authentic smile and means they are enjoying the conversation

• Check if their body is directly facing you or not—when someone is not engaged in a conversation, they tend to face away slightly

• Look for signs of impatience such as fidgeting or crossed arms—they are wanting to get away

• Notice if they stop making eye contact, or frequently look away when you talk—that usually means they are searching for an out but trying not to be rude

These cues are subconscious, meaning we are not aware we even do them. However, social psychologists have been able to map them out, so if you know them, you can at least check if the other person is giving you further permission behaviors to keep talking, or if they’re anxiously hoping you’ll give them an exit.

When you’re having a great conversation, not only are you authentically listening, you’re also paying attention to permission behaviors that tell you whether or not to keep going.

It should go without saying, but you should also be undistracted. Taking out your phone to check messages—even holding it in your hand while you talk—can be read as a sign of disinterest, on your part, in the conversation.

What about if it’s you who is putting out the anxious body language?

This situation is the familiar conversation trap we sometimes fall into—conversations where the other person goes on and on and we seem like we can’t escape it. In this case, you’re likely doing some of the above behaviors that indicate you want out, but the other person isn’t paying attention.

Actually, this leads to our tip of the day!


Tip of the Day: How to Tactfully End a Conversation

If you’re trying to be a master of conversation, the only time you should be breaking up the conversation is when you want to end it. Sometimes this can be easy, especially if you pick up that the other person seems anxious and is looking for an out.

Sometimes, this is hard, especially if the other person—or group of people—are giving you all the permission behaviors that tell you to keep going. I’ve fallen into this trap with chatty neighbors, turning a routine hour of gardening into nearly two! It can get more complicated as well—for example, a lonely neighbor who enjoys your company so much, they start telling you stories of the neighborhood when they were a kid, while meanwhile you’re now ten minutes from dinner, but you feel so guilty leaving them alone with no one to talk to.

There are some common tips on how to end a conversation. I like to think of it like a recipe. Your conversation-ender should have:

• Something you have to do, or get back to

• A phrase like, “It’s been really great to catch up with you”

• Body language that signals you are preparing to leave

Some conversations are harder to get out of than others, and you might even find you have to use your closer a few times. The most important thing is to maintain your departing body language after you’ve given your closing phrase. If you find the other person still carries on after you’ve tried, then one further tip that helps:

• Use an apology and make your closer more emphatic

This can look like, “I’m really sorry, but I do have to go. Have a great day and talk again soon!”

It might feel rude to use this line, but it’s more rude to continue a conversation you’re no longer interested in.

If you find that even then, you’re still stuck, it helps to enter a conversation with an appointment that you mention at the start.

That’s a wrap for today. Stay tuned for tomorrow, where we’ll turn to another important topic: conversation balance.


Recommended book

The Definitive Book of Body Language by Barbara and Allan Pease


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