People like to be treated as equals, but staying humble is something few people can do. Dominance gestures make people exposed to them, to feel uncomfortable. Respect is mutual by nature. If it goes one way only, it means one is superior and when somebody feels that way, it doesn’t end up in a win-win (be it a hiring interview or a negotiation). If you think you are superior, you don’t listen and therefore you can’t learn.
Understanding body language requires two things: context and practice. Reading one single gesture in isolation doesn’t help, it’s just one piece of the puzzle. You must link it to other gestures, micro expressions, tone, choice of words, appearance and culture. You need context to avoid misinterpretation: is it cold in the room? Maybe that’s why the other person is crossing arms. Is the other person sitting on a taboret or stool? Maybe that’s why she’s leaning forward and not out of interest. Does the other person suffer from arthritis or is old? That might limit the amplitude or presence of certain gestures or push the shoulders forward.
Let’s examine 5 common gestures of dominance:
Palm facing down (in a handshake or when speaking). This one is the easiest to observe. If the other person approaches you to shake your hand with the palm facing down it means he/she feels like having the upper ground. Doing this gesture while speaking is like saying: “stay put and listen, I got this!” It also looks like pushing down, trying to stop the other person’s opinions from surfacing. (Left photo credit: Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash . Right photo credit: Photo by Pixabay from Pexels)
Index finger pointing upwards. As kids we’ve seen this as threatening gesture when being warned about undesired consequences if we continue with the bad behaviour. As adults we usually avoid displaying it, because it’s unpolite. However, you will see it often done by religious leaders or politicians who need to “guide the flock”, tell them the expected behaviour and warn about the consequences if ignored. It can still signify threat, but you can’t threat someone unless you’re in a dominant position. When pointing straight up, it’s a bit more polite, but it’s a sort of: “hold it right there and listen to me, because I know better” (President Trump is using this one quite often). (Photo by Daria Rudyk from Pexels)
Holding your palms behind the back (and not the wrist or the elbow!) Think of an inspector visiting a factory or a policeman patrolling. It’s also a posture that gives self assurance (just like kids hide their hands behind their back). Quite interesting, you will often see this in shops, done almost exclusively by male buyers. Let me tell you a secret: that person has no intention of buying and doesn’t want to be approached by a salesperson. Do not mistake this one with holding the wrist or the elbow at the back, because that is discomfort / frustration. (Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash)
Thumbs display. There are multiple variants to this one. It could range from fingers crossed on the table with the thumbs pointing up, to holding hands in pockets leaving the thumbs outside. The latter is usually exposing vulnerable parts (genital area), which may seem unnatural since our instinct would be to protect it. But when you are the alfa, you don’t care because nobody would dare to harm you. Same could be done using the back pockets when you feel superior, but don’t want to show it. You might have seen also another form of it, with people wearing new clothes, holding the collar of a suite with thumbs up: “I’m the most styled in here, with my new jacket”. Secret hint: the angle between the thumb and the index tells you the actual level of confidence. (Photos by Corinne Kutz on Unsplash and Roland Samuel on Unsplash)
Raised steeple – the fingertips of both hands are touching and are spread so that the tips look like a church steeple. Chancellor Angela Merkel is quite famous for this one and I guess it comes natural when you are leading the strongest EU economy. It’s definitely a sign of dominant position, but its spectrum can range from evaluation (when touching lips and leaning forward) meaning: “I decide here, but I am listening to what you are saying” down to the steeple facing down, meaning: “yeah ok, I’m the man, but I’ll let you finish what you have to say”. (Photo by Obi Onyeador on Unsplash)
(!)Do not mistake this one with the “teepee hands” where fingers cross each other as that one talks about psychological discomfort.
These gestures should be read in relation to chin position (up or down), space taken in the room, shoulders position, vulnerable parts exposed and also observe how the others in the room perceive the person.
You need practice to be able to interpret fast and connect the information. Best part is you can practice anytime and most of all: anywhere… as long as there are people around you. Just observe people’s poses at a table next time you’re in a Starbucks or a Burger King.