People Management

5 Gestures that show a negative emotion – can you read them?

Photo by Jopwell from Pexels

Is the person in front of you interested in what you have to say? Is the news causing worry? Did you know that our body naturally reacts negatively when we lie?

A while ago I was explaining in an article about gestures of dominance that body language has to be interpreted in a larger context, that includes the environment (hot, cold), any known medical issues (affecting muscles or bones) or ongoing treatment (with Botox in particular).

Now we’re going to look at five gestures that indicate a negative emotion (including a distress caused by lying). The exact feeling that a person is experiencing can be derived only in context. Isolated, these gestures only show that a person has a negative reaction to the speech they hear (including their own!). When we say something that’s not convenient to us, we may cosmeticize or choose to omit some parts / enrich others, so that we present a ‘nicer’ version. If the whole version of our truth is a direct result of our fantasy, then it’s a lie.

Let’s see these gestures that should trigger you to react (ask questions, dig deeper) when you observe them:

1. Leaning backwards – when you are in a dialogue with someone and you start leaning backward, while being actively engage in the conversation, your body is simply trying to take distance. This may manifest when you are hearing things you don’t like or that take you by surprise and leave you a bit baffled. We also lean backwards when we relax and think of something nice, using our imagination and distancing from current reality.

Leaning backwards could also signify: not interested, not here, not into this, I’m taking distance from whatever you’re saying because either I don’t care, don’t like it or it’s messing with my zen state of mind.

Fun fact: if you are in a meeting setting and you are about to get some bad news, and everyone knows that except you, most of the participants will try to take distance, and friends might come closer. The bearer of bad news will usually stay in front or come to the side, if the person cares about the impact that news might have on you.

Leaning forward on the other hand, in a setting that would allow you to take any other position, shows interest. This excludes the situation when leaning forward is the only way to see a computer screen for example.

Photo by Ekaterina Bolovtsova from Pexels

2. Eyes covering – it could be limited to closing our eyes lids, followed by covering them with a hand gesture. It’s a reaction encountered also when someone is lying, because we use our imagination to generate the lie, so we are “visualising” it and our body is trying to block those images. Same thing happens when someone is talking to us and our brain “visualizes” the information we receive: if we don’t like the news, we’re trying to block them.

3. Mouth or lips covering. This gesture can be done in a bunch of ways: covering them with a finger, the whole hand or an object. It’s as if you are trying to stop negative or untruthful words from coming out. It’s interesting that we do the same gesture when we hear shocking news, as if we would want to stop the other person from talking (but it would be weird to just go and cover somebody else’s mouth).

4. Head nodding / head shaking contradicting the speech – pay particular attention when the speech is stating an affirmation, while the head gesture denies it, shaking from left to right or when we hear a negative statement, accompanied by positive head nodding. When you see this conflict, it’s always the body that’s saying the truth. Example: “I am really involved in this and want us to succeed”, while the person shakes his/her head, leaning backwards.

5. Holding one’s wrist or forearm – as if you are trying to prevent a sudden reaction. It’s a gesture of frustration. People doing it are not at ease with a situation, something that’s being told or unfolding before them. The level of stress is proportional with the area of the arm captured between the thumb and index finger of the other. It ranges from low (or discrete) when one hand captures the fingertips or the wrist of the other, and high as it goes up the forearm to the elbow.

Do not mistake this with holding one’s hand / palm which denotes confidence or control. In fact this can help you remember the rule: holding the palm means having control, confidence; moving away from it, up the forearm equals losing control and confidence.

Learn to see, not just watch and share with us what you’ve learned!

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