• January 2016

Why the Best Salespeople Read Body Language

By Carol Kinsey Goman
Business Coach, Author, Speaker

Being aware of what customers and clients are really feeling, and knowing how to react effectively, can transform a good salesperson into a great one.

The best salespeople are experts at reading body language.

Here’s why this is a crucial sales skill: When you are interacting with a prospective client, you are both communicating on two levels — one verbal, one nonverbal. And while the verbal interchange is obviously important, it may not be the most important when negotiations get tricky or subtle personality complications arise.

During any kind of sales presentation, the most informative body language signals to monitor are your prospect’s engagement and disengagement behaviors. The former indicate interest, receptivity, or agreement with what you are saying. The latter show resistance, defensiveness, disagreement, and even hostility. All of these signals are revealed in a combination of eye activities, facial expressions, head movements, hand and arm gestures, torso positions, and leg and feet movement.

While it may sound like an impossible task to spot these nonverbal signals while keeping track of a complicated verbal negotiation with someone you may never have met before, remember that you’ve been reading and reacting unconsciously to body language cues all your life. What’s different now is that you’ll be taking conscious note of these signals, using them to gauge how things are going, and then making appropriate adjustment to ensure the best possible outcome.

So to begin with:

1. Watch the eyes

Having presented your prospect with two written options, you observe that the prospect’s gaze lingers longer on one than on the other. If, in addition, you see the prospect’s eyes open wide or pupils dilate, you know for certain that the prospect has a much greater interest in this option.

In general, people tend to look longer and with more frequency at people or objects they are drawn to. A person may be trying to appear uninterested, but his or her eyes will keep returning to the object that attracts the person most.

The same holds for eye contact. Research suggests that maintaining eye contact between 60-70 percent of the time is ideal for creating rapport. And in a negotiation setting, when people like or agree with you, they automatically increase the length of time they look into your eyes.

Disengagement, in contrast, triggers less than normal eye contact. People tend to look away from things and people they don’t like. A prospect who is bored with you or feels restless may avoid eye contact entirely by gazing past you, defocusing, or glancing around the room. And, instead of opening wide, eyes that are signaling disengagement will narrow slightly. Eye-narrowing may also be observed when people read various parts of a contract or proposal. When this occurs, it is almost always a sign of their having seen something troubling, or problematic.

Researchers have known for years that eye-pupil size is a major clue in determining a person’s emotional responses. The pupils are a part of our body we have practically no control over. Therefore, pupil dilation can be a very effective way to gauge someone’s interest. Pupils dilate for various reasons, including memory load and cognitive difficulty, but pupils also dilate to express positive feelings about the person we’re talking to or the object we’re looking at. When someone is less than receptive, however, his or her pupils will automatically constrict.

2. Notice facial expressions

Typically, someone who is in agreement with you will smile and nod as you speak. Disagreement shows up in compressed or pursed lips, lowered eyebrows, a tense mouth, clenched jaw muscles, or a head turned slightly away, causing an awkward, sidelong eye contact.

3. Learn what gestures are saying

In general, the more open the position of your customer’s arms, the more receptive he or she will be to the sales process. Watch for expansive, welcoming gestures that seem to flow naturally. When someone reaches toward you or uses a lot of open-hand gestures, it is usually a positive signal of interest and receptivity. By contrast, people who are defensive or angry may protectively fold their arms across their chests, clench their fists or tightly grip their arms or wrists.

As the negotiation progresses, hand and arm movements are one of the best indicators of changes in emotions. For example, when you start the conversation, your prospect’s hands may be resting openly on the table. If they pull away or withdraw to under the table, it’s probably a signal that something unsettling or unwanted just happened. In contrast, if someone is about to make a sincere disclosure, they will usually show their hands — placing both hands on the table or gesturing as they speak.

4. Focus on shoulders and torso

The shoulders and torso play an important role in nonverbal communication. The more your customers/clients like and agree with you, the more they will lean toward you, or the more closely they will stand before or beside you. On the other hand, when you say or do things they disagree with or are uncertain about, the more they will tend to lean back and create additional space between the two of you.

When you see people turn their shoulders and torso away from you, you’ve probably lost their interest. In fact, orienting away from someone in this manner almost always conveys detachment or disengagement, regardless of the words spoken. When people are engaged, they will face you directly, “pointing” at you with their torso. However, the instant they feel uncomfortable, they will turn away — literally giving you “the cold shoulder.” And if someone is feeling defensive, you may see an attempt to shield the torso with a purse, briefcase, laptop, etc.

People who are in agreement tend to mirror each others’ behavior. One will lead and the other will follow. If you notice your prospect has assumed the same basic body orientation as yours, move slightly and see if the prospect follows suit. When this happens, you know you’ve made a positive connection.

5. Read feet signals

Feet and legs are not only our primary means of locomotion, they are also the main indicators of our “ “fight, flight, or freeze” survival strategies. And they are programmed to respond faster than the speed of thought. Before we’ve had time to form any conscious plan, the limbic brain system has already made sure that, depending on the situation, our feet and legs are primed to freeze in place, run away, or kick out in defense.

If someone is sitting with ankles crossed and legs stretched forward, they are probably feeling positively toward you. But when you see feet pulled away from you or wrapped in a tight ankle lock or pointed at the exit or wrapped around the legs of a chair, you would be wise to suspect withdrawal and disengagement.

Other signals from feet include:

  • High-energy heel bouncing almost always indicates that the party involved has “happy feet” — and is feeling pretty good about his or her bargaining position. And if your seated opponents rocks back on their heels and raises their toes — they probably thinks they have the upper hand.
  • In the opposite case, bouncing legs that suddenly go still is probably a sign of heightened anticipation — the equivalent of holding your breath.
  • Crossed legs send their own set of cues. If the foot on the leg that is crossed on top is pointing towards you, the person is most likely engaged. If the opposite leg is crossed so the top foot is pointing away, the person may be withdrawing.

In conclusion

Be observant without making it obvious, Trust your instinctive reactions, but improve your accuracy by consciously analyzing the nonverbal signals being sent.

And remember, you are already much better doing this than you may know. Successfully reading body language has helped the human race survive for the last several million years. The best salespeople have simply turned a survival skill into a savvy technique for success.


About Carol Kinsey Goman

Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, who specializes in leadership and nonverbal communication, coaches executives, female leaders, salespeople, and change-agents to build strong and productive business relationships by projecting confidence, credibility, caring, and charisma. A frequent presenter, she delivers keynote addresses and seminars on leadership, body language in the workplace, collaboration, and change leadership.

Goman has served as adjunct faculty at John F. Kennedy University in the International MBA program, and for the US Chamber of Commerce. She’s a faculty member for the Institute for Management Studies, a leadership blogger for Forbes, and the author of 12 business books, including:

For more information, visit Goman’s website at www.carolkinseygoman.com