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Time spent with body-language expert Tony Morris can leave people feeling a little self-conscious.
After more than 30 years teaching body-language interpretation to legions of salespeople and executives from corporate giants such as Microsoft, KPMG, Accenture and Samsung, British-based Morris has a finely honed ability to register the slightest change in posture, eye movement or physical gesture to identify the emotions under the surface.
He has been in Australia recently appearing at business-networking events, talking about the finer points of reading body signals – skills he says are relevant “from the boardroom to the bedroom”.
Based on his ability to quickly read what people are thinking, he moderates what he says, explaining himself clearly and, he says, getting better results.
Knowledge of body language is a very useful communication tool for any executive, he stresses, and helps improve skills in many areas – in spotting liars, making good first impressions and giving great presentations.
This is probably the most important point of what Morris teaches. Trust is vital in business negotiations and sales.
“I have a motto for business and that’s if you’re going to lose, lose quickly,” he says. “You don’t want to waste time, so it’s crucial to be able to tell if a potential customer is genuinely interested or not.”
Signs of being “untruthful”, he says, include scratching or rubbing the nose, looking down and to the left, and adopting closed positions such as turning the hands palm down or clenching fists.
“They all have to be taken in context,” he says. “Somebody might do one of these things quite innocently, but if they do two or more, you can be more certain that something isn’t right, especially if they’re making claims or promises.”
The body language of someone who is being open and honest is very different and involves open, upturned palms, arms wide open leaving the chest and groin unprotected, and making eye contact.
“The nose scratching is a very common clue because being dishonest increases our pulse and heart rate, sending more blood around the body,” Morris says. “There’s increased blood flow to the capillaries at the end of your nose, giving it an itch we need to scratch.”
Always greet with a firm handshake, warm smile and eye contact. Morris says there are five distinct types of handshake, including: solid and upright, implying peace and respect; limp – which implies insecurity; and a noncommittal half grip at the fingertips, suggesting the person doesn’t really want to meet you.
“If somebody grips your hand and turns your wrist so that your palm faces up and their hand is covering yours, it’s an attempt at dominance,” he says. “Try and gently move your hand back into an upright position to assert yourself. But if it’s a job interview, it may be just as well to allow the boss to feel superior.”
In any business meeting, also look out for somebody playing with their ear lobe. “It harks back to childhood,” he says. “When we’re kids and we don’t want to hear something, we clap our hands over our ears and we cover our eyes when we don’t want to see something. As adults we’re much more subtle but rubbing the ear lobe is a clear sign somebody doesn’t want to hear what you’re saying.”
Former US president George W. Bush used to hold the podium when giving speeches to prevent himself giving anything away with negative or defensive hand gestures, Morris says, a tactic he advocates. “If you’re giving a presentation, keep your body open, hold your head high and shoulders back.”
“When taking questions,” he says, “rather than risk giving negative signals, put your hands behind your back or hold the podium. It shows you’re confident and have nothing to hide.”
It’s been estimated there are more than 700,000 body signals compared to about 40,000 words in the English language, so it’s unlikely anybody will master the art of reading body language quickly. But there are useful lessons to be learnt from a grasp of the basics.