Body Language Advice From an FBI Agent and Harvard Social Psychologist

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Scott Tousley
Scott Tousley



I'm not gonna lie ...

body language advice

The following advice has profoundly impacted my life. Since learning these skills, I've learned how to:

Understand what people are really thinking (not just what they're saying)

Spot nonverbal cues in others that indicate calm, nervousness, and/or confidence

Use nonverbal cues myself to project 10x more confidence, strengthen relationships, and build rapport

Does that make me a psychopathic, crystal ball-reading weirdo who can decipher every thought behind any human being I've ever encountered? Definitely not.

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However, the following advice has genuinely helped in both my professional and personal life. It's one of the most interesting, thought-provoking fields of study, rooted in our ancient survival instincts. And it's really easy to learn.

Before we dive in, I have a quick question to test your current body language knowledge:


Adding a few dot dot dots here to hide the answer. Scroll down after you answered (no cheating!) ...











The correct answer is ..... (drumroll please) .... our feet.

Crazy right?

Our feet are the most reactive to our subconscious thoughts, mainly because they're linked to our limbic brain. To recap on biology 101, our brain is separated into three parts:


Our brain controls ALL behaviors. Whether that's going to the bathroom (reptilian), feeling heartbroken after a breakup (mammalian), or figuring out the perfect follow-up email to send (neocortex).

The trick is understanding that our mind doesn't just influence our actions. It's reciprocal. Our body can control our mind.

Here's one useful example of that in action:

A psychology-backed three-minute body language trick to increase confidence and lower stress

Imagine this scenario:

You're an entrepreneur pitching your startup to a panel of six venture capitalists. They've already showed interest, but they're not completely sold on your idea. So they give you ten minutes to convince them otherwise.

How do you feel?

Chances are your palms are sweating, your heart is pounding, and you feel like throwing up inside.

But you can't show it. You need to project confidence and calm. How?

Well, there is a three-minute exercise that is psychologically proven to boost confidence when you're nervous:

1) Force a smile for 1 minute.

When our stomach has butterflies fluttering inside, the last thing our mammalian brain does by default is think SMILE!!!

Yet it's proven that forcing a smile works. In fact, the Journal of Psychological Science conducted a study, revealing that forcing a smile results in a lowered heart rate, thus reducing stress.

Don't feel like smiling? Then what? Two things. First, force yourself to smile. If you're alone, force yourself to whistle or hum a tune or sing. Act as if you were already happy, and that will tend to make you happy.

Dale Carnegie


2) Do the superwoman for two minutes.

Harvard social psychologist, Amy Cuddy, ran a study that became one of the most-watched TED Talks of all time (currently at 27 million views). She explains how "power posing" can significantly boost our confidence and decrease stress:

Power posing raises testosterone levels (i.e. increases confidence) and lowers cortisol levels (i.e. reduces stress), hacking our brain to feel more powerful.

One of the power poses Cuddy describes is "The Superwoman Pose." Here's what it looks like:


Spread your legs shoulder-width apart, hands on the hips, chin up, and look straight ahead. Do this for two minutes and you'll feel (oddly) much more powerful. It's odd because this actually works. I've tried it. Stand up right now and give it a test run.

This hack helps your body control your mind ... but what are examples of when your subconscious mind controls your body?

9 Body Language Tips From an FBI Agent

The following are tips from an FBI Agent, Joe Navarro. He wrote an incredibly interesting book called What Every BODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent's Guide to Speed-Reading People which inspired these tips. And fair warning, we're just scratching the surface here.

We'll cover nine tips from his book, split into two sections:

4 body language tips to project confidence

5 body language tips to avoid (which shows insecurity)

Body Language That Projects Confidence

1) Steeple your hands.

"Hand steepling" is when we spread our fingers, pressing them together in a prayer-like gesture. It's a high-confidence display, used by people such as Donald Trump, Kevin O'Leary (from Shark Tank), and George Soros (billionaire hedge-fund manager):


Fun fact: those three men combined are worth a whopping $27 billion.

Try it right now. It gives you a little rush of testosterone.

2) Keep your thumbs up.

As Navarro says,

"When movie critics give a film two thumbs up, it indicates their confidence in it's quality. Thumbs up is almost always a nonverbal sign of high confidence."

A common display of power is interlacing our fingers and keeping our thumbs pointed up toward our face. This is a body language sign projects confidence and power, frequented by authoritative people such as Russia's president Vladimir Putin:


3) Point your feet toward the person you're talking to.

As noted in the introduction, our feet, believe it or not, are the most honest part of our body. Not our eyes, not our mouth, not our hands ... our feet.

For example, if we're stuck in a conversation that we don't know how to escape ... we'll naturally have one foot pointed toward that person and another foot pointed away:


On the flip side, if we're highly engaged with someone, both feet with face toward that person:

Next time you sense an awkward conversation, look down. Chances are their (or your) feet aren't facing that person.

This is what Joe Navarro calls an "intention cue" ... which explains that our feet lead the direction we want to go, even if our torso remains facing that person out of social courtesy.

It's a scarily-accurate judgment if someone's uncomfortable in a conversation or not.

4) Sit up straight, shoulders back, leaning forward.

Arguably the most recycled (but effective) body language advice, so I'll get this over quickly.

In Amy Cuddy's groundbreaking study (and TED Talk), one "power posture" example was sitting up straight, shoulders pulled back, leaning into a conversation. For those in the dominant position, they were 45% more likely to make a riskier decision, due to the power posture raising testosterone levels.

Joe Navarro, FBI agent, calls this process ventral fronting. It's why we lean toward people we like at a party and turn away from people (ventral denial) we don't like.

Now what body language should we avoid?

Body Language You Should Avoid

1) Neck or face touching

Neck or face touching is the adult equivalent of toddlers sucking their thumb.

When we're uncomfortable, our mammalian brain's natural response is to feel comfortable again. This is when we assume what Joe Navarro calls "pacifying behaviors." It's when we rub our necks, touch our cheeks, or rub our eyes (even when we're not tired):


When we're experiencing an unpleasant emotion, our brain sends signals to our body to stimulate nerve endings (ex. sucking a thumb for toddlers or rubbing our necks for adults). This releases calming endorphins into the brain, which "pacifies" our uncomfortableless.

Men touch their faces, necks, and arms. Women touch their necks, clothing, jewelry (particularly if they have a necklace), arms, and stroke their hair. All of these pacifying behaviors demonstrate insecurity and limited confidence.

2) Leg cleansing

"Leg cleansing" is another pacifying behavior. This when we're sitting down, then rub our hands from our upper quad to our knees:

This gesture accomplishes two things at once:

1) It dries sweaty palms

2) It "pacifies" our minds by stimulating nerve endings.

It's our mammalian brain's same natural response to touching our face or necks.

3) Interlocking ankles

When Joe Navarro would be interrogating criminals, he'd keep an eye on their feet.

If he asked a question that made them interlock their ankles, he knew he needed to prod further. It looks like this:


Interlocking our ankles after being asked a tough question often suggests discomfort. Why is this happening?

It's our "freeze, flight, or fight" response.

Our mammalian brains first response to uncomfortableness is to freeze -- hence locking our ankles together, locking us down in one place. Remember: our feet are the most "honest" part of the body.

4) Crossing arms

When it's socially unacceptable to distance ourselves from something we dislike, or we're uncomfortable, we cross our arms:


Think of when we're waiting in line to order coffee. Or standing at crosswalk, waiting for the "walk" sign to turn on. Or have a conversation with someone new. A common natural response is to cross our arms. This is often because we're bored, uncomfortable, or impatient.

Now think of laying on the couch at home, watching TV. How come we never cross our arms then? Because we're never uncomfortable just waiting around the house.

5) Pressing lips together

According to FBI agent Joe Navarro, when we press our lips together to the point they almost seem to disappear, that's our mammalian brain giving signal to not let anything else in our body. Because we're so consumed with a stressful situation.

This is also known as lip compression:

It's a clear sign that someone is troubled or uncomfortable.

Take notice of anyone stressed out, whether that's in a courtroom or a corporate office, and chances are you'll see this subconscious behavior of lip compression.

Editor's note: This post was originally published in July 2015 and has been updated for comprehensiveness and accuracy.

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