How to read body language in an interview

When Negotiating, Look For

Nonverbal Cues

Your mother probably taught you that it’s rude to stare. But when you negotiate a

business deal, close observation of your opponent makes sense.

By inspecting your opponent’s every physical move, you can often determine

whether he or she is holding something back or not telling the truth.

The key is not to stare so much that you make your opponent uncomfortable, but to

be aware of his or her movements through casual glances and friendly eye contact.

It will almost certainly give you an edge.

What should you look for? Experts who study body language suggest a two-step

process. First, identify a subject’s mannerisms during the initial, friendly stages of a

discussion. As the negotiation unfolds, see whether your opponent suddenly adopts

different behavior. “You have to watch people a long time to establish what their

baseline mode is,” said David Hayano, author of “Poker Faces.” “Once you know

how they normally behave, you may be able to tell when they start to put on an act.”

Hayano is a retired professor of anthropology at California State University at

Northridge, who has analyzed the body language of poker players, and he’s found

that the rapport-building stage is a valuable time to study your opponent. Why?

Because that’s when you get to know someone’s “natural” behavior. “If you are

dealing with a very talkative executive who all of a sudden gets meek during the

heat of the negotiation, then something strange is going on,” he said. It may be a

clue that your opponent is hiding something; other clues are exaggerated

movements or excessive enthusiasm.

Hayano says that in poker, for example, a player who throws chips forcefully on the

table or suddenly behaves in a brash, aggressive way may be masking his being

stuck with a weak hand of cards. The same goes for executives who loudly and

repeatedly proclaim that they’re making a major concession, when in fact they’re

not giving up much. “When you’re negotiating with someone who starts overtalking

and backslapping, this can mean they really have little to offer,” Hayano said.

A range of nonverbal clues may serve as red flags during a negotiation. Experts

suggest paying special attention to a person’s hands and face. “There are many

revealing body signals that may indicate a hidden agenda,” said Donald Moine, an

organizational psychologist at the Association for

Human Achievement in Rolling Hills Estates, Calif. Examples include hair pulling,

lip biting, eye blinking, gulping and throat clearing. According to Moine, a

negotiator who starts breathing rapidly may not be telling the truth. “The way to tell how someone is breathing is to notice their shoulders,” he said. “With more

rapid breathing that’s higher up in the chest, you will see their shoulders rise and

fall a lot more than normal.” When coaching executives to improve their negotiation

skills, Moine finds that many of them miss opportunities to read others’ body

language. “They often make the mistake of looking down at papers instead of being

observant,” he said. The next time your opponent gestures for you to study a

document or presents a written contract for you to scrutinize, don’t fall for the bait.

Instead of cutting off eye contact, Moine suggests that you say, “Tell me about it.

What does it say?” As long as you keep your eyes on your negotiating partners, you

can assess whether their nonverbal behavior conflicts with what they tell you.

Even the most experienced deal makers who know how to mask their expressions

may still betray themselves with their bodies. “Watch for signs of deception,” said

Raymond McGraime, author of “Silent Seduction.” “Deception is shown by such

movements as covering of the mouth with the hands, rubbing the side of the nose,

jerking the head quickly to the side, and leaning away from you. If these things

occur when they’re saying something critical to the negotiation, that’s even more

significant.” Although these behaviors may simply result from nervous tics,

McGraime warns that they can also expose a liar.

“When most people lie, they subconsciously want to apologize for it,” he said. “They

feel guilty for lying, and that shows in their nonverbal behavior.” On a more

positive note, body language can sometimes help you trust a speaker. Look for

expansive, welcoming gestures that seem to flow naturally from the person’s

behavior. “When someone opens his palms towards simultaneously, that’s a sign of

openness and honesty,” McGraime said. “The further the palms come out from

their body, the better. In depictions of the great prophets, you see this. It’s like

saying, ‘I have nothing up my sleeve.'”

Now that you know what to look for while negotiating, beware of attributing too

much meaning to every little move your opponent makes. Resist drawing rash

conclusions based on someone who suddenly starts scratching or acting jittery. “The

danger of reading your opponent is that you lean too much on just one sign,” said

Richard Heslin, professor of psychology at Purdue University in West Lafayette,

Ind. “But when you can put several things togethe r, maybe there’s something there

that’s worth paying attention to.”

Body Aspects

Our body says a lot about us in many ways as we communicate. Body movement can

indicate attitudes, and feelings while also acting as illustrators and regulators. Our

body movement includes the heads, eyes, shoulders, lips, eyebrows, neck, legs, arms,

fingers, orientation, hands and gestures. Together these pieces can convey if we’re

comfortable, unhappy, friendly, anxious, nervous and many other messages.

With so many parts conveying messages, you can see how easily things can get

confused and how difficult it is to manipulate nonverbal communication. Just think

of the different messages which are communicated through facing a person,

touching, standing at various distances and in different stances. With careful

thought, however, we may begin using our bodies to further our clarity and


This discussion has broken down body language into several areas: proxemics,

appearance, eye contact, and physical behavior. We will continue by looking at each



Proxemics is the amount of space around or between us and others. How closely

people position themselves to a person during a discussion communicates what type

of relationship exists between the two people. This space and meaning differs from

culture to culture but in American culture the following standards exist.

·  0-18 inches is intimate space reserved for family and close friends

·  18 inches to 4 feet is personal space used in most interpersonal interactions

·  4-12 feet is social-consultative space used in more formal interactions


Appearance is a second important factor involved with nonverbal communication .

In today’s society, the purpose of clothing has changed from fulfilling a need to

expressing oneself. Teens use fashion to determine cliques such as prep, jock, punk,

or gangster. Clothing communication is continued later in life by identifying

someone in a suit as a businessperson, someone wearing a black robe as a judge,

doctors wearing lab coats and stethoscopes or various other positions wearing

required uniforms of dress. Adornments are another form of appearance. Wearing

expensive jewelry communicates one message while wearing ceremonial ornaments

communicates a completely different message. Appearance also takes into account

personal grooming such as cleanliness, doing one’s hair, nail trimming or wearing


Overall appearance is the nonverbal that people are most aware of and manipulate

the most. Appearance communicates how we feel and how we want to be viewed.

Eye Contact

Many sayings hold that the eye is the window to the mind. This is very true to

illustrating the power of eye contact in nonverbal communication. Eye contact can

maintain, yield, deny and request communication between people. People who use

eye contact are viewed as confident, credible and having nothing to hide.

Some important do’s and do not’s of eye contact are:

·  If you have trouble staring someone in the eye, simply focus at something on

their face

·  When speaking to a group look at everyone

·  Look at people who are key decision makers or hold power

·  Look at reactive listeners

·  Don’t look at the floor, scripts or anything that causes you to tilt your head

away form the receiver

·  Don’t look at bad listeners that may distract you


As mentioned earlier, there are many parts of your body that add to the nonverbal

message. This type of nonverbal communication is called kinesic code. It is made up

of emblems, illustrators, regulators, affect displays and adapters. These behaviors

are each communicated in different behaviors and movements of your body.

The first important aspect of kinesics is posture. Standing or sitting in a relaxed

professional manner is a positive posture nonverbal. Also, being comfortably

upright, squarely facing an audience, and evenly distributing your weight are all

aspects of posture that communicate professionalism, confidence, attention to detail

and organization.

Nonverbals communicated by moving the trunk of your body are called body

gestures. Several different body gesture strategies are to move to change mood or

pace, draw attention, or reinforce and idea. Some examples are stepping aside for a

transition or stepping forward to emphasize a point.

Hand gestures are what are most often ide ntified as nonverbal communication. One

reason is because they are so obvious to a receiver and seen to be partly conscious. It

is important to let your gestures flow naturally as if in conversation with a close

friend. You may also use gestures to specifically describe shape and size, emphasize

a point, enumerate a list, or picking out a specific item.

In conjunction with hand gestures is touching. This is a very powerful

communicator especially for establishing a link to a receiver or conveying emotion.

However, touching is dangerous because it invades a persons intimate space and

may be perceived as unwanted or breaking norms. It is important to pay attention

to the other person’s nonverbal cues before deciding to initiate a touch.

The last area of physical nonverbal communication is facial expression. Facial

expression is partly innate and also partly learned. Because of the number of

muscles and features, such as mouth, nose, lips, cheeks, in your face, it is extremely

expressive. A face can ask questions, show doubt, surprise, sadness, happiness and a

wealth of other messages.

Below is a list of some body behavior and the message they communicate.

1) Slumped posture = low spirits

2) Erect posture = high spirits, energy and confidence

3) Lean forward = open and interested

4) Lean away = defensive or disinterested

5) Crossed arms = defensive

6) Uncrossed arms = willingness to listen

Sending Signals Without Words

Body language is extremly important in an interviewing situation. Some would

argue that it is just as important as what you say and what is on your resume. Why?

Because we can learn quite a bit about people by their non-verbal actions. This is

one of the ways that an interviewer is trying to size you up as a candidate.

When we are in stressful or uncomfortable situations, many of us have habits that

can be distracting to other people. Certainly biting ones nails or constantly fidgeting

with ones hands could be distracting from what you are trying to say. These are

examples of body language that can be harmful in an interviewing situation. Used

correctly, however, body language can reinforce what you are saying and give

greater impact to your statements. The following are tips to help you give the right

non-verbal clues.

The Greeting

Facial / Head Signals

The Eyes

The Head

The Mouth

The Hands


Seven Signals for Success

The Greeting

Giving a “dead fish” handshake will not advance one’s candidacy: neither will

opposite extreme, the iron-man bone crusher grip.

The ideal handshake starts before the meeting actually occurs. Creating the right

impression with the handshake is a three-step process. Be sure that:

1. Your hands are clean and adequately manicured.

2. Your hands are warm and reasonably free of perspiration. (There are a

number of ways to ensure this, including washing hands in warm water at

the interview site, holding one’s hand close to the cheek for a few seconds,

and even applying a little talcum powder.)

3. The handshake itself is executed professionally and politely, with a firm grip

and a warm smile.

Remember that if you initiate the handshake, you may send the message that you

have a desire to dominate the interview; this is not a good impression to leave with

one’s potential boss. Better to wait a moment and allow the interviewer to initiate

the shake. (If for any reason you find yourself initiating the handshake, do not pull

back; if you do, you will appear indecisive. Instead, make the best of it, smile

confidently, and make good eye contact.)

Use only one hand; always shake vertically. Do not extend your hand parallel to the

floor, with the palm up, as this conveys submissiveness. By the same token, you may

be seen as being too aggressive if you extend your flat hand outward with the palm

facing down.

Facial / Head Signals

Once you take your seat, you can expect the interviewer to do most of the

talking. You can also probably expect your nervousness to be at its height.

Accordingly, you must be particularly careful about the nonverbal messages you

send at this stage.

Now, while all parts of the body are capable of sending positive and negative signals,

the head (including the eyes and mouth) is under the closest scrutiny. Most good

interviewers will make an effort to establish and maintain eye contact, and thus you

should expect that whatever messages you are sending from the facial region will be

picked up, at least on a subliminal level.

Our language is full of expressions testifying to the powerful influence of facial

signals. When we say that someone is shifty-eyed, is tight-lipped, has a furrowed

brow, flashes bedroom eyes, stares into space, or grins like a Cheshire cat, we are

speaking in a kind of shorthand, and using a set of stereotypes that enables us to

make judgments — consciously or unconsciously — about a person’s abilities and

qualities. Those judgments may not be accurate, but they are usually difficult to


Tight smiles and tension in the facial muscles often bespeak an inability to handle

stress; little eye contact can communicate a desire to hide something; pursed lips are

often associated with a secretive nature; and frowning, looking sideways, or peering

over one’s glasses can send signals of haughtiness and arrogance. Hardly the stuff of

which winning interviews are made!

The Eyes

Looking at someone means showing interest in that person, and showing interest is a

giant step forward in making the right impression. (Remember, each of us is our

own favorite subject!)

Your aim should be to stay with a calm, steady, and non-threatening gaze. It is easy

to mismanage this, and so you may have to practice a bit to overcome the common

hurdles in this area. Looking away from the interviewer for long periods while he is

talking, closing your eyes while being addressed, repeatedly shifting focus from the

subject to some other point: These are likely to leave the wrong impression.

Of course, there is a big difference between looking and staring at someone! Rather

than looking the speaker straight-on at all times, create a mental triangle

incorporating both eyes and the mouth; your eyes will follow a natural, continuous

path along the three points. Maintain this approach for roughly three-quarters of

the time; you can break your gaze to look at the interviewer’s hands as points are

emphasized, or to refer to your note pad. These techniques will allow you to leave

the impression that you are attentive, sincere, and committed. Staring will only send

the message that you are aggressive or belligerent.

Be wary of breaking eye contact too abruptly, and shifting your focus in ways that

will disrupt the atmosphere of professionalism. Examining the interviewer below the

shoulders, is a sign of over familiarity. (This is an especially important point to keep

in mind when being interviewed by someone of the opposite sex.)

The eyebrows send a message as well. Under stress, one’s eyebrows may wrinkle; as

we have seen, this sends a negative signal about our ability to handle challenges in

the business world. The best advice on this score is simply to take a deep breath and

collect yourself. Most of the tension that people feel at interviews has to do with

anxiety about how to respond to what the interviewer will ask. Practice responses to

traditional interview questions and relax, you will do a great job.

The Head

Rapidly nodding your head can leave the impression that you are impatient and

eager to add something to the conversation — if only the interviewer would let you.

Slower nodding, on the other hand, emphasizes interest, shows that you are

validating the comments of your interviewer, and subtly encourages him to continue. Tilting the head slightly, when combined with eye contact and a natural

smile, demonstrates friendliness and approachability. The tilt should be momentary

and not exaggerated, almost like a bob of the head to one side. (Do not overuse this


The Mouth

One guiding principle of good body language is to turn upward rather than

downward. Look at two boxers after a fight: the loser is slumped forward, brows

knit and eyes downcast, while the winner’s smiling face is thrust upward and

outward. The victor’s arms are raised high, his back is straight, his shoulders are

square. In the first instance the signals we receive are those of anger, frustration,

belligerence, and defeat; in the second, happiness, openness, warmth, and


Your smile is one of the most powerful positive body signals in your arsenal; it best

exemplifies the up-is-best principle, as well. Offer an unforced, confident smile as

frequently as opportunity and circumstances dictate. Avoid at all costs the technique

that some applicants use: grinning idiotically for the length of the interview, no

matter what. This will only communicate that you are either insincere or not quite

on the right track.

It’s worth that the mouth provides a seemingly limitless supply of opportunities to

convey weakness. This may be done by touching the mouth frequently (and,

typically, unconsciously); “faking” a cough when confused with a difficult question;

and/or gnawing on one’s lips absentmindedly. Employing any of these “insincerity

signs” when you are asked about, say, why you lost your last job, will confirm or

instill suspicions about your honesty and effectiveness.

The Hands

As we have seen, a confident and positive handshake breaks the ice and gets the

interview moving in the right direction. Proper use of the hands throughout the rest

of the interview will help to convey an above-board, “nothing-to-hide” message.

Watch out for hands and fingers that take on a life of their own, fidgeting with

themselves or other objects such as pens, paper, or your hair. Pen tapping is

interpreted as the action of an impatient person; this is an example of an otherwise

trivial habit that can take on immense significance in an interview situation. (Rarely

will an interviewer ask you to stop doing something annoying; instead, he’ll simply make a mental note that you are an annoying person, and congratulate himself for

picking this up before making the mistake of hiring you.)

The Feet

Some foot signals can have negative connotations. Women and men wearing slip-on

shoes should beware of dangling the loose shoe from the toes; this can be quite

distracting and, as it is a gesture often used to signal physical attraction, it has no

place in a job interview. Likewise, avoid compulsive jabbing of the floor, desk, or

chair with your foot; this can be perceived as a hostile and angry motion, and is

likely to annoy the interviewer.

The Seven Signals for Success

So far we have focused primarily on the pitfalls to avoid; but what messages should

be sent, and how? Here are seven general suggestions on good body language for the


1. Walk slowly, deliberately, and tall upon entering the room.

2. On greeting the interviewer, give (and, hopefully, receive) a friendly

“eyebrow flash”: that brief, slight raising of the brows that calls attention to

the face, encourages eye contact, and (when accompanied by a natural smile)

sends the strong positive signal that the interview has gotten off to a good


3. Use mirroring techniques. In other words, make an effort — subtly! — to

reproduce the positive signals your interviewer sends. (Of course, you should

never mirror negative body signals.) Say the interviewer leans forward to

make a point; a few moments later, you lean forward slightly in order to hear

better. Say the interviewer leans back and laughs; you “laugh beneath” the

interviewer’s laughter, taking care not to overwhelm your partner by using

an inappropriate volume level. This technique may seem contrived at first,

but you will learn that it is far from that, if only you experiment a little.

4. Maintain a naturally alert head position; keep your head up and your eyes

front at all times.

5. Remember to avert your gaze from time to time so as to avoid the impression

that you are staring; when you do so, look confidently and calmly to the right

or left; never look down.

6. Do not hurry any movement.

7. Relax with every breath.

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