A quick guide to decoding body language

People don't always say what they mean. Body language expert Janine Driver offers tips on how to decipher nuances in unspoken and verbal cues to improve client understanding.

Janine Driver, CEO of the Body Language Institute

How do you "read the room" when you enter a meeting or an event? What signs do you pick up about who's powerful, who's uncomfortable, who's decisive, and who's anxious? According to Janine Driver, a body language expert and head of the Body Language Institute, learning how to decipher these indicators and knowing how to project yourself are at the heart of turning prospects into clients, helping clients make wise decisions, generating trust, and achieving the outcomes you desire.

While many advisors naturally tend to focus on hard skills, such as interpreting data and reading markets, the soft skills of reading and conveying verbal and nonverbal cues may be equally important.

"What are you saying without saying a word?" Driver asks. "Is your body language congruent with the outcome you want to have?"

"Trust is built on first impressions," says Driver, who served as a federal agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and is the author of the New York Times best seller You Say More Than You Think. "If you know how to spot and identify people's body language and know the questions to ask, you can get the information you want to ultimately achieve the result you’re looking for."

Driver spent 16 years honing her people-reading skills while investigating criminals, an aptitude that helped her survive. She now teaches these same skills to professionals to help them win new business, increase sales, and improve staff retention. Driver is often tapped by the media for her prowess. She has appeared on numerous network news and talk shows and has been quoted in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Psychology Today, among others.

Driver estimates there are over 500 body language movements, but knowing just the key ones can help advisors positively change the conversation with clients, establish themselves as thoughtful and trustworthy, and take their firms to a new level.

The Rosetta stone of body language

To spot inconsistencies and decode clients' needs, advisors should ask three questions:

1. What is my client's baseline?
This is the client's normal behaviors—speech, facial expressions, and body positioning.

2. What are the hotspots?
These are words or behaviors that deviate from the baseline or seem incongruent. The dissonance may be a red flag.

3. What powerful follow-up questions should I ask as my due diligence to get at the core of the inconsistencies I see in words or body language?
This is the most important step if you’re trying to achieve results, but it is often overlooked.

"What do you do when you hear or see a disconnect?" Driver asks. "This is where the magic lies, because the situation is in your hands. You have more power than you realize."

Don't be afraid to investigate, Driver says, offering an example: "If you see a prospect crossing his arms when you give him a price for services or a recommendation, you can say, 'Maybe I’m wrong here, but it feels like there's something you’re uncertain about.' Then wait for an answer. It could be something simple that he’s afraid to ask, or the client could be intimidated by your power."

Decode verbal cues: Are you detecting the nuances?

By paying attention to the words people use, advisors can find opportunities to help their clients navigate decision-making while also conveying the advisor's own wisdom and fortitude.

People sometimes use convoluted language to explain their thinking, according to Driver, and this type of speech may indicate a deeper issue, such as uncertainty or confusion. While it is human nature to reframe what we hear into what we think was meant, such a situation may signal the need to probe further.

For example, Driver explains, if a client says, "We've decided we don't want to invest more even though these are pre-tax dollars, but instead we want to withdraw the money early," the advisor can infer that the decision isn't yet cast in stone because the client hasn't executed on it. This is an opportunity for an advisor to ask clarifying questions and perhaps redirect the client to clearly see what's in her best interests without invalidating her initial sentiments.

Similarly, if a client says, "That's all I can tell you," he may be withholding the full story. The advisor can probe to tease out the underlying concerns and help the client make the optimal decision. For example, the advisor could say, "Tell me a little bit more how you came to that conclusion."

Driver also suggests that advisors focus on the client behaviors they want to reinforce by conveying the positive traits they believe clients have, such as emphasizing their ability to make thoughtful, balanced choices when it comes to saving for retirement.

"Have the courage," she says, "to challenge clients to make smart decisions despite the fears they may have. This is living life at a level 10."

Shifting to the client's perspective, how the advisor comes across in difficult or crisis situations can also either build or degrade trust. Clients want to see that their advisors are prepared to answer tough questions, handle panic situations, foresee consequences, set goals, and make plans.

"How you show up 'in the moment' matters," Driver says.

"Of all the things you put on every day, your body language is what will be judged the most. People…are reading your nonverbal communications and deciding if you are going to make smart decisions with their investments."

Body talk: What are you saying without speaking?

Equally as powerful as verbal cues is the way you convey your physical presence.

"Of all the things you put on every day, your body language is what will be judged the most," Driver says. "People are evaluating you based on what they see, which is often not grounded in reality. They are reading your nonverbal communications and deciding if you are going to make smart decisions with their investments."

Clients are continually evaluating your capabilities and suitability—from how you sit and who surrounds you, to how you hold your hands and feet. In stressful situations, people draw conclusions about your likability and how you handle challenges. And, because the human brain is wired to add meaning and context, each of us can often misinterpret physical cues, as well as have our own body language misunderstood.

"It's scientifically proven that a lot of body language is an illusion that we base our decisions upon," Driver explains. For example, if a client's arms are crossed, an advisor might misconstrue this as negative, even when it's not, and cede his or her power by starting to negotiate out of a false sense of desperation, thereby harming the advisor's credibility.

Seven tips and two myths

To guide advisors through the subtleties of reading and conveying body language properly, Driver offers several insights:

1. Where you sit matters. When meeting with clients, sit to their left with an open body posture. The left side of the face attracts people's attention. "Research shows you are up to 30% more likely to close a deal if you are off to my left, more likable side," Driver says. Sitting opposite someone is a competitive stance that increases anxiety and stress. You can seat other members of your firm—not the client—opposite you.


2. When you grab the chin, you're about to win. Touching or grabbing the chin shows intelligence, sending the message that you're successful and capable of handling challenging situations.


3. Initiate the handshake. You are twice as likely to be remembered if you extend your hand first. Face the other person squarely when you shake hands.


4. The elbow pop. When seated, extending an elbow horizontally back conveys that you're open, likable, and relaxed.


5. Open stance. Others will perceive you as dependable when you stand with your feet more than six inches apart, but you will be viewed as a pushover if you stand with your feet too close together.


6. Don't steeple people. When the fingertips or palms of both hands touch to form an A-frame or "I," this is a steeple. It conveys confidence, authority, and power but is intimidating when you’re trying to establish rapport. The higher the steeple in front of your body, the more intimidating you appear. As an alternative, imagine holding a basketball, which is an open-handed variation.


7. Frame yourself to fame yourself. The position of power and leadership is the center, whether you're in a meeting or taking a photo. People view the person in the middle as having the greatest influence. The framing concept can also be applied to introductory meetings. By pausing in the doorway of an office or meeting space to introduce yourself, you allow the other person to feel in control and at ease. In both situations, you'll come across as more likable.


8. Myth: Crossed arms. While this stance may convey boredom or shock or be a signal to back off, crossed arms may also indicate something quite different—that the individual is thinking, gathering data, or solving a problem. In the latter, the stance has to do with how the intuitive right and analytical left hemispheres of the brain control opposite sides of the body.


9. Myth: Burps and yawns. These may be stress signals rather than signs of indigestion or boredom.

Achieving a competitive edge

Uncovering the mysteries of body language is a powerful soft skill for mastering business and social situations. Successful advisors know that the ability to detect and react to split-second signals is crucial to achieving their goals, and they adjust their reactions to maximize the moment.

You may also read Janine Driver's book You Say More Than You Think: A 7-Day Plan for Using the New Body Language to Get What You Want.

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