Joe Navarro: What Every Body Is Saying (Book Overview)

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What is Joe Navarro’s What Every Body Is Saying about? What is the key message to take away from the book?

In What Every Body Is Saying, former FBI agent Joe Navarro provides expert insights into how to decipher body language. He argues that by practicing good observation skills and learning to decode universal patterns of behavior, you can master the language of nonverbal communication, gain access to people’s true thoughts and feelings, and detect signs of deception.

Below is a brief overview of What Every Body Is Saying by Joe Navarro.

Why Your Body Doesn’t Lie

In What Every Body Is Saying, Joe Navarro argues that body language cues are more accurate indicators of a person’s emotions than their words. This is because we’ve developed immediate and automatic physical responses to stimuli in our environments throughout our evolutionary history. In response to many things, whether it be a cute puppy or a rude coworker, our bodies react more quickly than our conscious thoughts do, making those reactions honest reflections of how we feel.

The Limbic System Controls Your Body’s Reactions

The part of your brain that controls these automatic emotional responses is called the limbic system. Over thousands of years of evolution, the limbic system’s main function has been to keep us alive, governing our instinctive behaviors to avoid harm (like stressful situations) and seek out things that are beneficial to our survival, like shelter. To do this, the limbic system has three consistent and automatic responses to danger: freeze, flight, and fight.

According to Navarro, the secret to decoding body language is learning what physical behaviors are associated with these three limbic responses. After years of evolution, these reactions are strong and hard to suppress, making them noticeable and reliable cues that can indicate a person’s true feelings. Let’s look at each response and why we have it. 

  1. Freeze—Your body’s first automatic response to something threatening is to freeze. This is because movement attracts attention and holding still helps you avoid being noticed. Restricted movement, then, indicates someone is feeling threatened or uncomfortable.
  2. Flight—Your next limbic response is to run or physically distance yourself from the threat. Subconscious distancing, then, also indicates discomfort.
  3. Fight—The last limbic response to a threat is to confront it directly. The body will prepare itself for conflict through aggressive behaviors such as puffing out your chest.

Navarro explains that each time you encounter a new threat, your limbic system records your experience to inform how your body responds to future encounters with that same threat. For example, if you were badly scratched by a cat as a kid, your limbic system identifies cats as a threat. Later on, when you encounter cats, your body knows to immediately react with a threat response. Conversely, if you have new, positive experiences with cats, your limbic response to them will change.

Because your limbic response is largely influenced by your experiences, something that might not activate a large majority of people’s threat responses (like cats) may trigger someone else’s. Keeping this in mind allows you to better interpret not only what behaviors someone displays but why they might be displaying them.

How to Read Body Language

Now that you’ve learned that our basic emotional reactions (freeze, flight, or fight) are pre-programmed into our bodies, let’s look at how you can observe and interpret these reactions to make sense of body language. In this section, we’ll explore Navarro’s strategy in five steps.

Step 1: Strengthen Your Observation Skills

Navarro writes that the first step of reading body language is to become a good observer. Research has proven that people aren’t typically aware of their surroundings and that most of us fail to notice obvious things in our visual environment, such as other people’s clothing or the color of the building we’re in.

To be a good observer, then, practice becoming situationally aware. This means keeping constant tabs on where you are and what’s going on around you. When you practice situational awareness, you’ll naturally notice more in your surroundings, which will aid you in picking up body language cues. However, Navarro cautions you to observe discreetly so that your behavior won’t affect how others act.

Step 2: Identify a Person’s Baseline Behaviors

When you observe a person’s body language, Navarro says you must first make a mental record of a person’s behaviors at the start of your interaction. This allows you to get a baseline to measure your future observations against. Take into account their overall physical appearance, hygiene, and behavior—such as whether they’re loose, relaxed, and well-groomed or stiff, fidgety, and unkempt. 

You should establish a baseline before trying to interpret body language because people have different personalities or cultural backgrounds that can affect their behavior. For example, someone with a shy personality might naturally have more nervous or withdrawn body language compared to someone more outgoing. Alternatively, some cultures might display more intimacy than others, such as through hugs and physical touch.

When analyzing someone’s starting behavior, assess it in the context of the situation they’re in. Consider things such as their surroundings and what they’re doing there so that you can know what behaviors to expect and what behaviors are abnormal. For example, you should expect someone at a job interview to showcase more nervous behavior than someone shopping at a grocery store.

Step 3: Observe From the Feet Up

While it may seem intuitive to read a person’s body language from head to toe, Navarro suggests you do the opposite: start observing from the feet up. He explains that your lower body is the most honest half. This is because the feet and legs of our ancestors played a more significant role in their survival. Back then, the lower body came into contact with dangers such as predators or sharp objects more frequently, which makes it especially sensitive and reactive to stimuli.

Our upper body and, more specifically, our facial expressions, are less honest. Navarro explains that we learn to mask or fake our facial expressions at a young age to avoid disagreements and maintain peaceful relationships. Therefore, he advises you to start at the most honest bottom half of the body to get a more accurate impression of a person’s true emotions.

Step 4: Look for Changes in Behavior

As you make your observations, be alert to any rapid or gradual changes in behavior. Navarro explains that since the limbic system automatically responds to stimuli, these behavioral changes signal shifts in emotion—for instance, from confidence to insecurity. If you notice what stimulus precedes these behavioral changes, such as a new person entering the room, you can identify not only how someone feels about the situation, but why they’re feeling that way.

Step 5: Look For Multiple Behavioral Cues

Before making any assumptions about a person’s true sentiments, Navarro suggests you look for multiple behavioral cues rather than rely on a single observation (we’ll discuss what specific cues you can look for shortly). Since each person has a unique personality and their own behavioral quirks, you can get a more reliable reading by observing multiple indicators.

How to Differentiate Between Secure and Insecure Behaviors

Now that you know the five steps to reading body language, let’s look at how you can apply them to identify whether someone is feeling secure or insecure. Since our limbic systems induce strong responses (freeze, flight, or fight) to things that make us uncomfortable, most unconscious behaviors reflect either feelings of security or insecurity.

When we see something we dislike—whether it be a person, a word, or a situation, our bodies display signs of the freeze, flight, or fight responses. When we see something we like, we won’t experience a threat response—we’ll be open, expressive, and eager to interact. With that in mind, you can gauge how secure someone feels by observing the direction in which their body moves, their posture and range of movement, and the presence of self-comforting behaviors following a threat response.

1) Observe the Direction a Body Points or Leans

Navarro argues that one major way to read a person’s level of security is to pay attention to the direction their body points or leans. Since the limbic system controls our emotional responses, most people subconsciously turn away or distance themselves from things they find threatening.

Direction the Body Points: Since the feet and the legs are the most honest body parts, note whether a person’s feet point toward or away from you. Navarro explains that our bodies naturally orient toward things we like and away from things we dislike. For example, if you watch a horror movie at a theater, you might notice people cringing away from an unpleasant scene with their knees and legs pointed sideways. In your daily interactions, if someone is speaking to you but they’re standing with one foot directed toward the exit, their body might be subconsciously signaling their desire to leave.

Direction the Body Leans: Next, assess security by noticing what direction a person’s body is leaning, if at all. Navarro explains that it takes more energy to lean your body than it does to hold yourself straight, which is why leaning is often an indicator of a person’s true sentiments. Like with pointing, a person leaning toward you is comfortable while a person leaning away is uncomfortable.

2) Observe a Body’s Range of Movement and Openness of Posture

In addition to observing the direction someone moves, you can assess security by evaluating how much someone moves and how open their posture is. A comfortable person will move more expressively and present their body in a vulnerable and open way. On the other hand, an uncomfortable person will have restricted movements and closed body language—such as hiding, shielding themself, or preparing to escape from whatever’s causing discomfort.

Range of Movement: When we’re insecure, we naturally restrict our movements because our limbic system has activated our automatic freeze response. Navarro explains that insecure people tend to hold their arms and legs close to their bodies to avoid attracting attention. You might notice examples of this in public speaking—someone who’s uncomfortable in front of an audience will struggle to gesture emphatically and move around. They’re more likely to remain glued to the spot and struggle with voice inflection.

When we feel secure, our threat responses aren’t being triggered. According to Navarro, a comfortable and confident body takes up space and often makes what he calls “gravity-defying behaviors,” such as rising onto the toes when greeting someone or raising the arms above your head to emphasize a point. For example, consider a class of students. When asked a question, students with their hands raised above their heads exude more confidence than those with bent arms at shoulder height.

Posture: Navarro explains that a comfortable body has an open and vulnerable posture, whereas an uncomfortable body is more closed off. When we feel secure, nothing activates our body’s limbic instinct to protect itself. For example, if someone’s leaning back in a chair with their hands folded behind their head, they’re not conscious of themselves or the environment they’re in. Crossed legs while standing, Navarro points out, is also a sign of security because it is more vulnerable—this position leaves you more off balance. People in a heated debate, for instance, won’t stand with their feet crossed.

Navarro adds that people often enlist their arms to protect their bodies. They might shade their eyes with a hand or cross their arms tightly across their chests. Some examples of this shielding behavior might be rearranging nearby objects to act as a barrier, clutching a protective object like a pillow, or buttoning up a shirt.

3) Observe the Presence of Self-Comforting Actions

If you notice someone displaying the insecure behaviors we’ve explored above, observe if any self-comforting acts follow. According to Navarro, people perform self-comforting acts as a natural coping mechanism for stress. These are subconscious and take on many forms such as touching the body and engaging in distractions.

Self-comforting Touch: According to Navarro, people often comfort themselves when under stress by rubbing or massaging their necks, faces, or limbs. He explains that the neck and the face have many nerve endings that, when rubbed, release calming chemicals inside the brain and lower heart rate and blood pressure. These self-comforting behaviors can manifest in different ways for men and women—women tend to cover the dimples between their collarbones, while men prefer touching their faces.

There are numerous other ways a person might use touch to soothe themself, such as sliding their hands down their thighs while seated (which serves to both calm them and dry any sweat from their palms), hugging themselves, or rubbing their inner cheek with their tongue.

Self-comforting Distractions: When people experience discomfort, they seek distractions as a way to relieve stress, such as tidying their clothes, playing with their hair, or adjusting jewelry. Navarro explains that, in moments of stress, the limbic system instructs the body to distract itself from the stressor. People might drum their fingers on a table, speak to themselves, or whistle a tune.

How to Read Facial Cues

Now that we’ve explored how different behaviors of the human body reflect security or insecurity, let’s discuss how and why you should approach facial cues differently. As Navarro explains, unlike other parts of our bodies, we’ve trained our faces to mask how we truly feel. This means that when reading facial expressions, you must use careful judgment and look for subtle cues. He contends that lying is an adaptation that many of us have formed since childhood—we’ve learned to hide displeasure and feign agreement to maintain relationships and avoid conflict.

With this in mind, Navarro suggests you pay more attention to the first emotion that you notice when reading someone’s facial cues. For example, if you make a suggestion to someone and notice they furrow their brow before nodding in agreement, give more weight to the first behavior you observe (the furrowing of the brow).

Also, focus more on displays of negative emotions over positive ones. If someone says they’re excited but their facial expression indicates displeasure, consider the negative emotion as more truthful. This is because it’s often harder for someone to conceal their body’s limbic response to discomfort than it is to feign pleasure.

While facial expressions can be misleading, certain cues can still offer helpful insights. Navarro points out several parts of the face you should observe: the eyes, changes in face color, and the mouth.

1) Observe the Eyes

Although we have more control over facial expressions than other parts of our bodies, our eyes still have numerous automatic limbic responses that have developed over the course of human evolution: They instinctively block out things we dislike and widen to things we like

Your blink response, for instance, happens instantaneously to protect your eyes from physical harm such as dust blowing in your face. When reading body language, you can pick up more subtle eye blocking behaviors that a person might display for less obvious threats, such as seeing a person they dislike. Take note of more subtle cues like squinting, rapid blinking, and pupil constriction, which are common indicators of discomfort. On the other hand, widened eyes and dilated pupils reveal positive interest since they’re not being triggered to block out any threats.

2) Observe Changes in Face Color

Navarro explains that changes in face color, such as blushing or growing pale, can be truthful indicators of emotions since we have little control over the blood flow in our faces. When you experience strong feelings like embarrassment, your limbic system gets triggered, causing blood to rush to your face and creating a flushed look. When you sense something alarming, your face pales as your blood flows to other parts of your body in preparation for fight or flight.

3) Observe the Mouth

Navarro explains that the fullness of your lips indicates your level of security. When we feel secure, our lips are relaxed and full. The more uncomfortable we are, the more we purse our lips. This is a protective limbic response that activates so that you don’t ingest anything dangerous during a threatening situation.

How to Detect Deception

According to Navarro, body language can reveal signs of possible deception. He explains that people who are lying tend to exhibit more insecure behaviors because deception takes mental effort and often causes stress, which can trigger some limbic responses that we can identify. 

However, no behavioral cue can directly indicate whether or not a person is lying. Research has shown that even the most experienced behavioral analysis experts have, at best, a 60% chance of correctly guessing whether someone’s lying. For this reason, he cautions you to be careful when using body language alone to accuse someone of deception.

Behaviors That May Indicate Deception

While the signs of insecurity we’ve discussed earlier indicate discomfort and can reflect possible deception, Navarro offers two more specific deception-related signs:

1) Delayed or Inconsistent Behavior: Navarro explains that people who are lying often have delayed responses, since they’re consciously trying to behave in a way that matches their words. For instance, if someone says that they agree with you, observe whether their nod occurs at the same time as their words. If they start nodding after they speak or even start shaking their head side-to-side, this delay or inconsistency in behavior may indicate inauthenticity.

Similarly, people who are lying might not be displaying the appropriate emotions for the situation. For example, if someone asks to borrow money for an emergency, they should be acting anxious and urgent rather than relaxed and collected.

2) Uncommitting Behavior: Navarro explains that people who are lying tend to be less committed to their statements and use fewer grand gestures to convince you of what they’re saying. A person might give a half-hearted shrug instead of a full one, or they might cover their mouth while speaking.

One specific behavior that reflects commitment is whether someone gestures with their palms up versus palms down. Navarro explains that raising your palms up when you speak suggests you’re asking to be believed, whereas facing your palms down while speaking demonstrates emphasis.

Tips for Detecting Deception

Now that you understand the difficulty of detecting deception and two specific cues you can look for, let’s look at Navarro’s tips on how to assess whether someone might be lying:

Tip #1: Get a complete view of the person. Navarro suggests you clear any obstacles between you and the person you’re interacting with so that you can observe their full body. He states that oftentimes the most honest half is concealed under a table, making it harder to make good judgments.

Tip #2: Make the person feel comfortable. Since discomfort can indicate deception, try to help the person feel comfortable at the start of your interaction. This gives you a baseline to judge their future behaviors when you transition into more difficult topics.

Tip #3: Ask focused questions. Navarro explains that just because someone’s talking a lot doesn’t mean that they’re telling the truth. By controlling the conversation with specific questions, you can trigger behavioral cues in someone instead of letting them ramble and lead the interaction.

Tip #4: Look for self-comforting behavior. After asking a focused question, assess the person’s stress levels by looking for any attempts they make to comfort themselves. When you observe self-comforting behaviors, try to make note of what stimuli preceded it to get an understanding of what made them uncomfortable.

Tip #5: Leave room for silence. Navarro advises you to insert deliberate pauses between your questions so that your interviewee has time to react and you have time to observe. Instead of drilling them with a series of questions, ask a single question and wait for a response.

Joe Navarro: What Every Body Is Saying (Book Overview)

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Joe Navarro and Marvin Karlins's "What Every Body Is Saying" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full What Every Body Is Saying summary:

  • A guide from a former FBI agent on how to decipher body language
  • How to master the language of nonverbal communication
  • How to detect when someone is lying to you and access their true thoughts

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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