Inside the Book: The Dictionary of Body Language

Inside the Book - Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

This blog refers to the best 5 books I read in 2020 and goes deep on the matter. You can find the list of my best readings here.

Complete title – The Dictionary of Body Language

Author – Joe Navarro

I seriously contemplated the importance of non-verbal communication for the first time when I began to prepare for soft-skills workshops at IBM. I could say that before that, I was giving little importance to all that is not spoken, but I would tell a lie. Even unconsciously, the way we relate to one another is driven by the impressions we get while communicating with our interlocutor.

Most of our communication is non-spoken. Paraverbal communication is the subtle layer that colors what we say: tone and voice pitch, to say. Non-verbal communication is, essentially, our body language. The latter is becoming a more popular topic in business when it comes to leadership, and it is not related purely to sales. This article on Forbes, based on Mehrabian’s research, summarizes it very well: of the message we give out to others, 55% is non-verbal; 38% is para-verbal; only 7% accounts for verbal communication.

What does back up this fact? In the first place, huge work on emotional intelligence from the last 50 years, some of which I will cover in future articles. Second, there are two main “schools” of non-verbal communication, both driving impressive results:

  • the studies of Paul Ekman on microexpressions explore in detail how the minimal changes on our faces can reveal how much we are aligned to what we say. Practical uses are showcased by Logan Portenier on his YouTube channel.
  • the work of Joe Navarro uses a more holistic approach as it focuses on the way the whole body interacts with what is said to reveal what is thought.

This blog is about Joe Navarro’s knowledge and its relevant applications in real life. That is enlisted in the manual of nonverbals that is The Dictionary of Body Language.

Here’s what you’ll find inside the book:

360-degrees manual, easy to learn

Who knows me well as a coach is aware of how high I hold up non-verbal communication. I did not receive any formal training however my knowledge and practice are based on Navarro’s work. I read first What Every BODY is Saying in 2019 (and wrote about it) and slowly integrated non-verbal clues by observation in my coaching practice.

Navarro is a former FBI agent who, at a young age moved from Cuba to the United States with no knowledge of the English language. He survived by focusing on body language, which finally became his area of expertise when he joined the Bureau. While his first book is about use cases, The Dictionary of Body Language is a 180-pages collection of clues cataloged by area of the body, with their meaning alone and in combination with others.

The language is plain and the way the material is distributed makes it easy to remember. The structure of the book makes it ideal for being memorized in a memory palace or to be converted into mind maps (which is what I did). Even if you do not remember everything, you can easily look up what you observe now at a later time.

There is more to face and hands

Most of the time a clue alone does not say much and, indeed, we could misjudge what the other person is really trying to “say”.

With non-verbal communication, we tend to think of facial expressions and posture alone. In reality, there are many other active behaviors, like gestures in a given context and changes in breathing and ventilation. These are more subtle to observe and need a higher level of situational awareness to be understood in the place.

Finally, body language compliments exceptionally with paraverbal communication. We learned from The Monographs that the real goal of reading others should be augmented awareness, something that could help us excel in doing what we do. Speaking of which…

Forget about lie detection!

This is not what the book is about. So-called lie detectors are people who trained for that intensively and to achieve their status they also developed some bias. If your goal is to learn body language to find out who lies to you, your life is prone to become hell. You would be looking for false steps on everyone, and that assumption alone makes useless everything you are trying to learn.

Instead, the scope of the book is to enhance “situational awareness” – a mindful way to look at what is happening around us and gather information without letting our impressions and emotions alter the story. It is very difficult to achieve, even for the most analytical and cold-blooded person. I doubt that we can maintain such a mindset for long fractions of time anyways.

You should think of how would you benefit from learning how to read others. I achieved two goals by doing that. The first, is to better connect with others through empathy. Indirectly, to better manage my emotions and reactions to what happens around me.

My favourite quote from this book

“People often lie, but their nonverbals usually reveal how they actually feel”.

Joe Navarro

Our body language tells more than words can do. It is embedded in our DNA and it makes us communicate things involuntarily. It takes a huge effort to modulate our nonverbal communication, and the same is for others. But it is possible, and we can earn huge benefits from it, one of which is to manage better emotional hijacks and conflicts; and another, is to know better ourselves – our triggers and pacifiers.

While learning body language is still seen and promoted as the ultimate lie-detecting tool, truth to be told is that, whereas we all follow general patterns more or less, each individual has unique features. In my opinion, learning nonverbal communication is more relevant to connecting better with others. And I can guarantee that it really works.

What I learned from reading this book

Body language changes with cultural background. Some behaviors are for us conventional that may be different elsewhere. What is common sense here might be unacceptable elsewhere. It is something that diplomats and politicians (should) know to avoid embarrassing situations.

Some nonverbal patterns are common among sociopaths and narcissists. Joe Navarro describes these traits in detail in other books, but what you can learn in The Dictionary of Body Language is that the best clue is the most discordant and unexpected one in a given context.

Learning human behavior requires a lot of self-study. In this case, I mean it as “studying ourselves”. Indeed, a good practice of situational awareness is to keep observing how we move when communicating with someone else, and catching up on our involuntary clues. Reflecting upon them made me understand a lot about how I feel!

You realize how it makes the difference while working remotely. When I meet people on Webex or Zoom, and if the other decides to turn on the camera, we have only a limited range of clues we can pick on – everything above the shoulders. That gives us an incomplete picture of what is really happening, and bad video resolution can make things worse. Luckily, this is a useful challenge to refine our senses.

Published by Andrea Paviglianiti

I practice coaching, I love reading, and I work as a data scientist. I also recharge my batteries with meditation, martial arts, and video games. I perform career and skills coaching – thus I define myself as a “cognitive” coach: I help people improve their learning experience to succeed where they want. My method is based on behavioral analysis, psychology of learning, philosophy of dialogue, and classic literature. I write about how to get better at learning, the best books I read, and my personal philosophy of coaching. And I will not lie to you – I can get verbose at times! I’d be happy if you stick around and read more of what I have to share!

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