Humans are social animals. Through the course of our lives it’s inevitable that we have to communicate and collaborate with others. We are constantly influencing each other, manipulating consciously or unconsciously the thoughts and decisions of those around us. This is not good or bad, it’s just the way humans function.

If we want to perform together as a team to solve difficult problems, we need to avoid misunderstandings and conflicts that may halt our progress. Often there are people that want to do us harm, or that are solely out for their benefit and don’t shy away from using emotional manipulation to get what they want. We need to be able to recognize those people so we can protect ourselves against them.

In our personal life we want to deepen some relationships, while avoiding others. Winning friends and avoid making enemies both need considerable skill. So does finding a partner and having a healthy relationship, which too depends largely on our ability to communicate with each other.

All of this comes down to one concept: Emotional intelligence.

Are you emotionally intelligent?

Daniel Goleman introduced the concept of emotional intelligence (also emotional quotient or EQ) with which he means

“the capability of individuals to recognize their own emotions and those of others, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt to environments or achieve one’s goal(s).”

This is arguably the most important skill you can acquire. No matter what kind of life you want to create for yourself, what kind of impact you want to have in the world, you won’t be able to make it happen alone. As soon as other people are involved your emotional intelligence determines the success of your endeavor.

Obvious! You might say. We’ve learned to deal with people since we were born. I’m already naturally good at this.

And it’s true, because of our inability to take care of ourselves as children, we were extremely dependent on others. This situation made us experts at recognizing the emotional states and motivations of everyone around us (children are experts in getting what they want through emotional manipulation).

But this innate ability to read people got lost when we were getting older. With more responsibility and problems, which now we have to solve ourselves, we become more and more self-absorbed. Our focus shifts inwards and we forget what we have intuitively known as children.

Instead of reading the signals that everyone is constantly broadcasting, we’re projecting our own emotional needs and wishes onto them. We assume that everyone is similar to us and hence, often completely misunderstand them.

While children have an ability to see right through you and your social masks, we ourselves continue to misjudge people with sometimes disastrous consequences. We get conned or manipulated, we lose a friend or partner, we make an enemy.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

Science has identified the signals and gestures we use constantly to communicate our inner thoughts and feelings. With some practice we can regain the skills and knowledge that we’ve once known intuitively.

Researchers and experts such as Paul Ekman, Joe Navarro, David Matsumoto, Allan Pease, and many others have cracked the human code, which allows us to read people like a book.

What we don’t say but still communicate

Photo by chuttersnap

According to the psychologist researchers Silvan Tomkins and Carroll Izard, emotions are our primary motivational system. Most of what you do is a result of emotional feedback that your body provides and makes you aware of potential problems, dangers, or advantageous behaviors.

“[Emotions are] transient, bio-psycho-social reactions to events that have consequences for our welfare and potentially require immediate action.”

- David Matsumoto and Hyi Jung Hwang

The duration of the emotion differentiates them from moods. Emotions are relatively short, while a mood can prevail much longer. Even though emotions are short-lived, the effects prolong for a few minutes. This means that after you’ve felt an emotion you will continue to filter your experiences through it. A form of emotional bias if you will.

Emotions are happening on a physical level in your body (biological) but are also cognitive processes happening in your brain (psychological). Lastly, their function is also highly social by signaling other humans what is going on.

Sadness, for example, sends out a “help”-signal to the people nearby.

Fear ignites fear and makes us stay alert and pay attention to potential dangers.

Emotions and the body

It all started with Charles Darwin and his book “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” which he wrote back in 1877. Darwin recognized that emotions are reflected in the facial expressions of both animals and humans and that those signals seem to be more reliable than our words. Non-verbal signals likely developed to help communicate in-between animals of the same species.

This is the core of why reading body language signals is so important and improves all communication. When we are able to read how people feel more accurately, we can communicate and influence more effectively.

Thanks to mirror neurons we are able to experience the same neurological processes by observing other people’s actions as if we ourselves were performing them. This is what allows us to feel empathy. By observing non-verbal emotional signals, we feel the emotion as if we ourselves would be happy, sad, angry, etc.

Furthermore, there is a body-mind link that goes in both directions. Not only do we express our feelings through non-verbal signals, but we can also invoke emotions in ourselves by adopting the non-verbal behavior first.

The forgotten language

“(…) the Body Language Watcher delights in watching the non-verbal cues and signals of human beings. He watches them at social functions, at beaches, on television, at the office or anywhere that people interact. He’s a student of behaviour who wants to learn about the actions of his fellow humans (…)”

– Allan Pease, The Definitive Book of Body Language

Nonverbal signals have proven to be a key element of communication. A famous study from 1981 by psychologist Albert Mehrabian found that nonverbal communication might be even more important for conveying information, than what is actually spoken. Numbers on how large the part of non-verbal signals in communication is, vary widely and can go from 60–93%.

Every one of us is already able to derive information from another person’s body and behavior. We gain this information unconsciously. The ‘gut feeling’ or ‘just-not-liking-a-person’ usually comes from that. The goal now is to increase our ability to observe the signals, so we always know what impact we have on others and what they feel and think at any given moment.

Dictionary of body language

There are five types of body language signals giving insights into our inner emotions and thoughts: emotional expressions, emblems, illustrators, adaptors and regulators.


Regulators are controlling a conversation.

This includes for example nodding with the head when listening to someone or breaking eye contact. It is important to know those signals to distinguish the purpose of the signal. Nodding with the head can also be an emblem and it is important to know which it is to interpret correctly.

We already have an intuitive knowledge of all the regulator signals and don’t need to learn them specifically. But still, you should be able to differentiate if a signal is used as a regulator or might be something else, for example an emblem.

Photo by Kristina Flour


Emblems are body language signals that have a direct translation.

For example, showing a number with your fingers is an emblem. These are culturally specific, meaning that one emblem can mean something else in a different country. Like regulators you already know the emblems of your culture and are able to recognize them. But it is still useful to be able to spot them.

If someone is asked a question and answers positively but at the same time showing a subtle shaking of the head (the emblem for “no” in the western culture) we have a signal that is in-congruent with what is said. This is a first sign of potential deception. Hence, emblems can be useful to spot incongruity or innate conditions (e.g. a shoulder shrug = I’m not sure / I don’t know).

But as always be careful with jumping to conclusions. Seemingly incongruent signals can actually be congruent. Take an audience member that congratulates the speaker after the presentation and says, “I did not expect to like your presentation so much!” while subtly shaking his head. Here the shaking of the head is not necessarily incongruent with the positive emotions he is expressing verbally, but might rather express his disbelief of how he didn’t expect to like it.


Illustrators are body language signals that accompany our speech. They emphasize what is said and don’t communicate meaning in themselves.

Illustrators include pointing gestures, rhythmically emphasizing certain words or illustrating a visual or abstract concept (for example shaping an object that is described).

Similar to emblems, illustrators are culturally specific and dependent on the individual. British people show much fewer illustrators in a conversation compared to Italians, for example (as found by Graham & Argyle in 1975). They can convey important information by the frequency and intensity by which they are shown.

Illustrators increase when people are:

  • emotionally involved
  • excited

They decrease when people are:

  • Bored
  • Scared
  • Sad
  • Concentrated

Photo by Ricards Zalmezs

Adaptors — Recognizing discomfort

Adaptors are also sometimes called manipulators or pacifiers. They are gestures with the purpose of comforting us. When we get more stressed, annoyed, worried or generally uncomfortable the number of adaptors we show increases. Adaptors are all about touch through which we get calming endorphins in our blood that comforts us. There are three types of adaptors:

Self-adaptors are gestures with which we touch ourselves. The following are the most common self-adaptors:

  • Touching or scratching face, neck or throat
  • Playing with hair or beard
  • Licking, biting or sucking the lips
  • Playing with the tongue in the mouth
  • Blowing your cheeks
  • Wringing and playing with your hands
  • Massaging earlobes
  • Stroking with hands-on upper legs

External adaptors are adaptors where we touch someone else than ourselves. For example, grabbing someone’s hand when we are scared. Also taking someone in your arm to comfort them.

Object adaptors describe pacifiers where we touch objects, for example playing with a pen, glasses or jewelry. Arranging one’s clothes is also a typical one as well as in modern times the habitual grab of the smartphone.

If adaptors increase in number compared to baseline, then it is usually a good indication of increasing stress levels. However, this happens often in times of boredom or intense concentration as well.

Emotional Expressions

Emotional Expressions

Illustrations of fundamental emotional expressions from “Affect Imaginary Consciousness” by Silvan Tomkins, 1962

Emotional expressions provide insights into what emotions a person is feeling. This includes the various facial expressions as well as information expressed by voice and body signals.

The face is especially important to recognize people’s emotions. This is because it is directly linked to our limbic system, the oldest part of the brain where our emotions originate. Facial expressions are also the only non-verbal signals that can be directly linked to specific emotions. Other non-verbal body language might support the reading and give additional insights into comfort and discomfort, as well as provide additional information regarding status, attraction, etc.

Because of these factors, facial expressions are the best-researched type of non-verbal signals. Paul Ekman identified seven universal basic emotions that are expressed in the face in the same way all over the world. These are fear, surprise, anger, disgust, contempt, sadness and happiness. He created a facial action coding system (FACS) which allows us to map all the facial expressions based on the description of the activated muscles in the face.

There are three types of expressions according to Ekman:

Macro expressions last longer than 0.5 are usually consciously controlled. Although they are willful, we cannot fully suppress them and have even when we try some subtle expression of the emotion on our faces.

Subtle expressions are the second type. These can either be uncontrolled when lasting below 0.5 seconds or controlled if lasting longer. Subtle Expressions are expressions that signal a weaker form or suppressed emotional response. In a subtle expression the prototypical signals are either less strongly expressed (e.g. less opening of the mouth for surprise) or only part of the expression is shown (in case of surprise only the eyebrows are up for example).

Recognizing subtle expressions allows you to gain more emotional understanding since in practice people often use subtle expressions to communicate different shades of an emotion. The subtle expressions appear longer than microexpressions, but you still need lots of practice to recognize them consistently.

Microexpressions are the most reliable type of expression, but they are difficult to catch since they last less than 0.5 seconds. These expressions cannot be controlled and hence, if read correctly, reveal hidden or suppressed emotions often even before the emotion is conscious to the person expressing them. They appear more often in high emotional involvement situations. Interestingly, a meditation habit increases your ability to catch microexpressions because it increases your observational awareness.

The topic of emotional intelligence is vast and difficult to learn. Knowledge alone helps only so far when trying to decipher people’s intentions.

Once you’ve acquired a library of gestures and facial expressions, you need to practice recognizing them in daily life. Through paying attention and consciously observing the nonverbal signals of friends, family, and strangers you’ll see the same signals all over.

Soon you’ll understand people’s true intentions and feelings and all your professional and personal relationships will significantly improve.