“Are you sure we can’t shave your head?” -Hank McCoy, X-Men: First Class

“I know why you shave your head.”

I used to get this a lot. Friends and acquaintances would approach me over the topic of my clean pate. They would first ask, “Why do you shave your head?” Then they would follow up with their own answer:

  • “You’re going gray and you don’t want people to know.”
  • “It allows you to get out of the shower faster.”
  • “You want to look like Michael Jordan.”
  • “It’s a fashion statement, the current ‘in’ thing.’

They stare in disbelief when I tell them the reason I shaved off all my hair. Then, they refuse to believe my explanation and go back to theirs.

Why do I shave my head?

I’ll tell you in a minute.

But I use this example to draw your attention to an observation. People have their reasons for their behavior and we have our own reasons for explaining our observations of their behavior. And as much as we would like to categorize the entire spectrum of human behavior into a few well-defined boxes to quickly explain why our clients do the things that they do, it simply isn’t possible.

For example, pick up any book on reading body language. Somewhere in there, you will find a statement indicating that a client’s folded arms is an indication of their resistance to your ideas.

I fold my arms all the time. When I was younger, I slipped while walking down a flight of stairs, landed on my shoulder blade and separated my shoulder. The surrounding muscles shortened during the healing process. I can still feel it in the winter months. Now, folding my arms is a very relaxing position for me. It relieves the strain on the surrounding muscles.

But nobody has bothered to ask me why I cross my arms. And nobody asks me if I’m being resistant to their ideas when I fold my arms. However, I do notice a change in their approach and their demeanor. When I ask them about the change that I notice in their behavior, they brush it off as nonexistent or irrelevant.

What NLP Taught Me About Reading Body Language

There are ways to ask questions to understand your client’s behavior and actions.  When I was training for my NLP Practitioners Certification, Robert McDonald, one of my instructors, reviewed this topic. He warned that without asking questions and determining causes of overt behavior, we were drawing conclusions based on our own experiences. He called them hallucinations.

In one session he stood in front of the room and folded his arms. He then asked the class, “what does this mean?”

Everyone in our class had their own ideas. “You are resistant” was one response. Another one was “You are close minded.”

After everyone stated their response, the Robert said, “Could be. Or, it could mean that I’m cold. Or maybe I’m feeling comfortable with myself. The truth is, it could mean anything. Initially, all you know is what you can see, which is one of my arms is on top of the other and both are overlaid across my chest. To know why, you have to ask questions and notice how I respond. So, when you communicate with other people, especially in sales, be careful with your assumptions about the other party.”

The Real Secret to Reading Body Language

We touch on some questioning strategies in the Dale Carnegie Course, and we cover questioning models extensively in the Sales Advantage program. However, all this is rooted in one of Dale Carnegie’s Human Relations Principles. And this is the real secret to reading people’s body language:

“Become genuinely interested in other people.”

So, if you really want to learn how to read a person’s body language, learn to be observant of what they do, be aware of their behavioral patterns, and ask them lots of strategic questions.

Oh, and be sincerely interested in them!

We’ll talk more about using questions to better understand observable behavior in a later post.

But first, the reason I shave my head.

I shave my head so my hat will fit.