When I teach interviewing skills, I ask the workshop participants what they want to learn in the workshop. I’m always amazed at how many people say “interpret body language.” I expected people to focus on listening for behavior-description answers to questions, not body language.
Interpreting body language is difficult. Imagine you’re sitting across a table from someone who leans back and crosses his arms over his chest, tucking his hands underneath. What do you think his body language means? Many people think that person is withdrawing from the conversation. But what if I tell you this person is a woman? Does that change your interpretation?
I’m one of the get-cold-quickly people. I can be comfortable in a room, and suddenly the A/C will switch on, and I’ll get cold in a matter of seconds. I cross my arms, and tuck my hands underneath. And, if there’s a chair back behind me, I’ll lean back against it. I’m not withdrawing from the conversation. I’m conserving body heat.
This is exactly the kind of problem we run into when we attempt to interpret body language. People frown, shrug, pull back, pull forward, do all kinds of things that are open to interpretation. And inevitably, it’s better to not interpret, but to ask questions such as “What’s happening for you?” I’ll tell you I’m cold. And some other person may say something else.
Interpretation of other people’s expressions or body language is tricky. And it’s not usually necessary. It’s better to ask a question that helps people explain what’s going on for them than it is to assume you can “read” a person and know.