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Chapter 10 Primal Instinct


Throughout my career, I’ve interviewed over 100s of professionals. Many times, job candidates claim that they have great social skills and are great at reading people which helps them become more effective in the business world. Any time an interviewee would make such claims, I ask which books they have read, which muscle movements they look for in particular, which psychologists they have followed, and if they have earned any body language certificates. As I write this, I cannot recall a single time a job candidate who made such claims provide a satisfactory answer.

One of the most frequently quoted statistics on nonverbal communication is that over 90% of all daily communication is nonverbal. This statistic, which is sometimes misquoted or misrepresented in seminars, books, and various articles was actually first presented by Dr. Albert Mehrabian. Mehrabian is best known for the 7%-38%-55% Rule for the relative impact of words, tone of voice, and body language when speaking. Words account for 7%, tone of voice accounts for 38%, and 55% accounts for body language. Therefore, 93% of communication is derived from non-verbal signals. For effective and meaningful communication about emotions, these three parts of the message need to support each other – they have to be “congruent”. In the case of any incongruence, the receiver of the message might be irritated by two messages coming from two different channels, giving cues in two different directions. Despite the importance of non-verbal communication, very few business professionals put in the effort to study this. I find this unfortunate because so much can be lost when one is not able to communicate non-verbally effectively.

Discovering Microexpressions

Out of the few non-verbal communications schools of thought, I’ve truly enjoyed Dr. Paul Ekman’s work on microexpressions. Ekman is a psychologist who pioneered the study of emotions and relation to facial expressions. A microexpression is a voluntary facial expression shown on the face of humans according to emotions experienced. They usually occur in high-stakes situations, where people have something to lose or gain. Microexpressions occur when a person is consciously trying to conceal all signs of how they are feeling, or when a person does not consciously know how they are feeling.

Unlike regular facial expressions, it is difficult or impossible to hide microexpression reactions. Microexpressions cannot be controlled, as they happen in a fraction of a second, but it is possible to capture someone’s expressions with a high-speed camera and replay them at much slower speeds. Microexpressions express the seven universal emotions: disgust, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, contempt, and happiness. Whether we live in China, Cuba, or Canada, all of us express the same seven universal emotions since the same muscles in the face are triggered.

What was most fascinating with my discovery of Paul Ekam’s work, which happened on a random night browsing the internet to investigate studies on body language, was the fact that I had been unknowingly studying microexpressions for years. As someone who grew up moving back and forth from Korea and America, my speaking and listening abilities were compromised for most of my youth. Because of this, not only did I communicate more efficiently through reading and writing, but since an early age, I had to rely on body language to understand what was going on in the classroom. By the time I started my first business in networking marketing when I was 18, thanks to my ability to read non-verbal communication, I was successful at sales despite speaking limited English.

When I launched Dealflicks after finishing college and spending my first few years in finance, I was back in sales and was able to rigorously build my non-verbal communication skills. I started to notice that people’s facial expressions moved in patterns and if someone was trying to conceal their true feelings or thoughts, the facial muscle movements would adjust quickly after showing a contradicting expression (This was later what I learned as a microexpression and according to Ekman’s work, microexpressions are only visible for about 1/15th to 1/25th of a second) At this time, I was unaware that there were already studies on this phenomenon but I was fascinated with what I thought was “my own” discovery.

For a couple years during my spare time I would log into Facebook and study facial patterns by browsing through pictures of random friends to build familiarity with facial muscle movements.  Additionally, prior to important meetings or networking events, I would try my best to find out who I would need to impress and memorize their facial movement patterns to give me the best odds to succeed. It didn’t end there. I spent quite a bit of time studying pictures of dogs and monkeys to see if I could recognize patterns and similar muscle movements. As I laid in my bed (or sometimes my van), I would try to memorize the facial expressions I saw throughout my research, hoping I would be able to recognize them in the future.

Every now and then my hard work would pay off. I would be able to catch a microexpression real time. Catching a microexpression in the middle of a conversation is like watching a rare shooting star. It is extremely difficult to do and it took me a couple years to be able to catch them with some consistency. However, when you do see it, particularly if it is someone who you do not know yet, it feels like you are looking into their soul.

Once I found out about Ekman’s work, my mind was blown. He was decades ahead of my discoveries and his work was organized and simplified. Many people can recognize body language and microexpressions in a photo. But how many individuals can do this real time? A photo is freeze frame, but reading non-verbal communication real time while negotiating a business deal is a completely different dimension. The difference is similar to listening to salsa opposed to dancing to salsa. Imagine if you are able to get instant feedback by decoding microexpressions during an important meeting or a heated debate. You can finesse the conversation and time your argument to give you the best odds for success similar to timing your footing in a salsa dance.

You do not have to be an expert in non-verbal communication and I would not consider myself an expert. My goal for this chapter is to introduce you to some basic concepts to help you gain an advantage in the business world. To leverage non-verbal communication effectively, it must be practiced in the real world and in real time. Not only can body language help you become an expert negotiator, stronger leader, finesse relationships with all your stakeholders in your company, but also many disagreements can be avoided if people are just fractionally aware of other’s body language.

Cats, Dogs, and Our Animal Instincts

For the longest time it seems like cats and dogs have never been friends. One might ask then, where’s the love and is it possible for cats and dogs to be friends? According to some studies, the fundamental problem is that the two species do not speak the same language.

When animals interact with us and with one another, they rely on body language. There is no language. In the case of cats and dogs, certain physical cues commonly appear, however, those cues do not always mean the same thing. For example, when a cat holds her tail high, it can signal that she is friendly and relaxed. The higher the cat’s tail, the more confident she may be. However, if her tail is raised high with the fur erect and puffed out, it usually indicates alarm or potential aggression. As she becomes more unsure or fearful, her tail is more likely to sink lower. On the other hand, when a dog holds his tail high, it often signals arousal and the possibility of aggressive behavior. A dog that is agitated and about to attack may also flick his tail back and forth vigorously. A dog is more likely to carry his tail in a neutral position, extended out behind him, when he is relaxed. Another example is the wagging of the tail. Friendly dogs wag their tail loosely back and forth at medium height. When a cat’s tail begins to wag back and forth, an unfriendly encounter or predatory attack is likely to occur. If only cats and dogs knew that they have different body language, they could become the best of friends. However, cats and dogs fight simply because of miscommunication.

When it comes to communicating, we are not too different from cats and dogs. Because we have language opposed to animals, our miscommunication is derived from the discrepancy of what we say verbally and what we say non-verbally. From an early age, through education, our world is transformed to become literal. We are taught language and we forget that we have the ability to read non-verbal communication. As we become adults, we simply forget to recognize that we have evolved from animals and the ability to non-verbal communication is embedded in our primal instincts, our DNA. By re-familiarizing yourself with what is your natural way of communicating, you will be able to enhance your social intelligence considerably.

The sad truth is that humans lie. There’s a multitude of reasons behind this that can range from a gentle white lie to make someone’s day, to an innocent exaggeration that was caught in a moment to impress you, to a planned malicious attempt to serve one’s self interest. I’m sure you can think of some more. However, according to a study by the University of California, we are only able to detect a lie about 53%. What’s interesting is that people who are trained in detecting deception—judges, customs agents, law enforcement officers, and even CIA agents—don’t fare much better. They can only spot a lie about 60% of the time. However, do not get discouraged with these numbers. When such surveys are done, they are normally surveyed by strangers testing strangers.

Personally, I have been using body language techniques for quite some time now. What I’ve noticed is that because I have studied non-verbal communication, my ability to read a particular person becomes substantially better after each encounter. Therefore, over a course of time, my ability to read someone will resemble more of an exponential curve compared to a linear line when compared to the ability of someone who has not studied non-verbal communication. Even after training yourself and being able to spot lies just 60% is not bad. In the stock market if you are right 60% of the time, you’d be a millionaire. Therefore, do not worry about these statistics. The real gains come after the 2nd, 3rd, 4th encounter when you start to recognize patterns, “a default setting in a combination of muscle movements”, in someone as you become more familiar with their facial muscle movements.

For example, I was able to read one my old business partners like a book. I’ve known him for many years. His mannerisms and microexpressions were very consistent with traditional body language schools of thought and Paul Ekman’s work. He would teepee his hands when he was trying to act in a peacemaking way when unveiling new information that could not be welcoming. Massaging his head or scratching his arm was a way of him trying to keep his calm. He would do this when he didn’t agree with your point of view but wanted to make his point clear in a calm and effective way. This body language is first introduced to us when we’re a child and a mother or father attempts to soothe us to keep calm. This simple gesture is proven to bring the heart rate down. As adults, we have a tendency to continue these habits.

There were other more aggressive body language cues as well. For example, when my old business partner didn’t agree with you, his right eyebrows would go inward for a fraction of a second indicating a sign of anger. I would be able to catch this when he wanted to bring up a strong argument in an aggressive tone. Sometimes the movement would happen in the corner of his eye. When he felt superior after he made a point, his chin would point up for a fraction of a second. This again is consistent with many body language studies, this indicates a sign of defiance, extreme confidence, or possibly contempt. His body language cues were not limited to just work. When we played basketball, he would lick his lips (a sign that shows interest) right before he pulled up for a jump shot and if he was driving to towards the rim, his lower right lip would angle downwards.

There were two primary reasons why this business partner was significantly easy to read. 1) I’ve known him for quite a long time 2) Certain people have much more expressive and consistent micoexpressions. At times, it felt like I could even feel the change of his heart rate based on how many words he spoke in between breaths. When you’re in the “zone” of being able to read someone that is that expressive, it is fascinating. It’s hard to explain but for me it feels like I can hear the rhythm of their heart. Without further explanation, my ability to read this person helped us finesse our relationship and avoid many possible arguments despite the fact this business partner had quite an emotional personality.