What body language can tell you about your partner

Margaret Thatcher and Oprah Winfrey may not make for natural bedfellows, but they are united by one thing: charisma. The trait, according to Vanessa Van Edwards, founder of Science People, a “soft skills” training platform, requires just the right blend of warmth and competence. Van Edwards says that even the most introverted among us can learn how to be charismatic by tweaking our own body language and reading the signals in others, ensuring that “you’ll never be underestimated, overlooked, or misunderstood again”.

Cues come in four kinds, according to Van Edwards: nonverbal, vocal, verbal and imagery. From flashing our palms to the direction in which we point our toes, these signals “are a universal social lubricant: they just make everything run more smoothly”. Correctly blended, they have the power to make or break careers and romantic pursuits, Van Edwards, a bestselling author whose TED Talks and YouTube videos have been viewed over 50 million times, believes.

Just how easy is it to enter what she calls the “charisma zone”? “I’m a recovering awkward person… I’m not at all charismatic,” the 36-year-old says. Recognizing when and how to dial up our warmth and competence cues are key – and more of us need to master this art, she thinks. Here’s how to use cues to your advantage, no matter the scenario:

With a difficult boss

Warm cues include seeming trustworthy, collaborative, kind and open; those displaying competent cues are impressive, powerful, capable and effective, Van Edwards explains. If you want to make senior colleagues like you, “warm cues are going to be the fastest type of gasoline”; if you want them to know you’re capable of getting things done, revert to competent ones instead. The two most critical questions we ask about each other – can I trust you and can I rely on you? – depend on warmth and competence, she adds. Understanding which of the two traits they tend towards “is the key to unlocking how you can get on the same page as them”.

Van Edwards has worked with companies including Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft, and says that whenever an employee rails at being unable to see eye to eye with their boss, “I always know this is a cue problem”. She suggests “mirroring and matching” the verbal cues they give off in emails – “literally using their same language” – to demonstrate that you understand them. Don’t immediately copy every word they say, as the transition needs to feel natural: “It’s like a thermostat; you want to slowly dial up.”

With a partner

Oxytocin, the happiness hormone, “is the chemical of trust and connection”, Van Edwards says. Emitted through touch, even small amounts can build bonds: she suggests holding hands when talking, sitting near one another and fully facing your partner when speaking, which “is going to help you chemically get on the same page”.

She suggests facing them fully, in a show of physical alignment: as for verbal cues, murmurs of agreement can be “very soft and subtle, like a warming blanket.” For under-expressive types who don’t smile or nod much, these signals say: “I hear you, keep going, I’m with you.”

The major modern derailer of cues are mobile phones, says Van Edwards, which are akin to “adding an extra person to every interaction”. Mobiles on the table at dinner, say, monopolize our attention and eye contact; the flash of messages or notifications popping up “adding [to our] social load… the last thing we need is two more devices that we have to attend to.”

In a job interview

You don’t need to decode the other person’s body language so much here as they will be focused on yours, meaning “you can focus all of your energy on hitting that sweet spot of warmth and competence”. Van Edwards says the main error she sees interviewees commit is when sitting outside the waiting room, hunched over their phones. First impressions are formed in a fraction of a second, so don’t let your boss catch you in the “defeat position”. Look out of the window instead of downward at a device, she suggests, or speak with the receptionist.

During the interview itself, make sure you have plenty of palm-facing interaction. “Our hands are an incredibly important part of bonding,” she explains, tracing back to our caveman days, where closed palms would raise concern that a weapon was being concealed. Wave on meeting, and gesticulate as you speak: ramping up warmth and openness cues “really helps with that trust factor”.

With someone you don’t like

Whether it’s a friend’s partner or a colleague, dislike “typically stems from feeling different to them; feeling like you have nothing in common”, Van Edwards explains. Faking it until you make it doesn’t work, as that inauthenticity will soon out. She suggests finding three things that you can agree upon – even if that’s as simple as the coffee you’re drinking – as “every time we have a mutual like with someone, we have a similarity attraction effect”, making us more drawn to them . This in turn makes it easier for us to show warmth cues, and mean them. If that fails, she suggests the Franklin effect – named after the former US president – ​​in which you ask the person you’re struggling to connect with for advice, building rapport that way instead.

When negotiating

“Research finds that when you mirror and match your negotiator, you are more likely to get a better deal” – on everything from car purchase to a work promotion, according to Van Edwards. She says the biggest mistake people make in these scenarios is the question inflection, where people’s voices rise at the end of a sentence. This reveals your own uncertainty, which the person you’re negotiating with will adopt, too. “That is giving away your power.”

Understanding cues


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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