The Body Speaks Loud and Clear?
We see people communicating all over the world and if we think about it, some of those images are sent through to our television, internet, and newspapers. What are they saying? What are they doing? A component of interpersonal communication is body language, a nonverbal behavior. What does that include? Maybe we think of the way we sit or fold arms while listening to someone speak, but it encompasses so much more than that and is really very complex.
As I have thought many times, I find after studying people and reviewing scientific research that I have missed so much in interactions. When it applies to some of the professional fields in criminal justice, it changes the playing field to a sort of “hide and seek” or mind numbing game. Maybe we should be behavioral scientists in order to effectively communicate. What do I miss in a single police contact? I often wonder if I should be taking notes to identify the nonverbal cues. We are all reminded that phony body language is present just as phony speak. As police officers, we must always learn and expand our skill sets in interpersonal communication to extract the truth as best we can because the true meaning counts. How do we put all this together to be better cops?
History has given us many theories and concepts. Combine that with experience, and we can be effective communicators. Jim Hargrave gave a history of nonverbal influences in communication dating back to Charles Darwin which has led to validation in the centuries to come. What a significant finding for Darwin’s credibility.
You must have awareness of self and others. Once you have those two concepts down, you can apply it universally to interpersonal communication and reading body cues. (Hargrave, 2008, The Forensic Examiner 17-21) Perhaps the most important take away is not only having awareness, but understanding it from both sides, and having clarity while interpreting the message to get the most truthful meaning. After all, reading people is our job in law enforcement, right? If you think about it, all the signals are absorbed rather rapidly by the brain in order to coincide with the spoken word if any is accompanying the body language. Disassembled in tiny details really becomes beneficial in understanding the meanings behind body language and applying it to self-reflection and awareness of others. It seems interpretation of these clues would be a daunting task. This brings up two important questions for law enforcement officers to answer when reflecting upon their own skill sets: (1) Am I an effective communicator? (2) Can I read people?
Interview and interrogation is usually conducted in close quarters which allows a detective to, in essence, study a subject while trying to extract facts, corroboration, and the truth of an action or event. When I have played an interrogation video for review, some of these nonverbal nuances are seen more clearly. However, if you only view things by video and not by personal experience, you miss the feeling in the room which comes from body language. That is part of the big challenge-distinguishing what is in front of you. So how do we get better and where do we go for answers? I think we always have to rely on the experts in the field and the scientists.
For example, we can look at the work done by Peter Collett. In his book, The Book of Tells, he gives us a break down of small movements and nonverbal cues. These could be as simple as one muscle movement. He coined these nuances, “tells”, which is simply defined as a gesture which gives true meaning. Attached tells are connected to something else we do such as a greeting with a hand shake. More categories given by Collett are everyday tells, counterfeit tells, transposed tells, macro-tells, and micro-tells, etc.
While it is fascinating to break down each tell into a specific type; I would probably have problems identifying which category each tell fell into while communicating with someone. I would be able to recognize tells, but not categorize each one appropriately labeled by Peter Collett upon demand. Peter Collett was very detailed and at times overwhelming when he gave us “tells” and described each movement and what it could disclose. (Peter Collett, 2004, The Book of Tells) I found Collett’s study on poker players fascinating and I suppose you could study them all day. Some of their tells are unique to them, while others are common to many. This is probably true for all persons in reference to their body language and any nonverbal behavior. It is all for us to sort out while our brain processes spoken word accompanied by nonverbal behavior. These and many concepts are widely accepted in interpersonal communication and applied to law enforcement communication skills.
Despite all these doubts we might have about ourselves after reviewing science and expert accounts, we are successful communicators every day in most common instances. We may miss many nuances while interacting with another, but what we do catch is very eye opening and enhances the spoken message. Body language comprises of many minutiae we see, absorb, miss, mistake, or perceive with or without spoken word. When it applies to criminal justice, nonverbal cues observed from body language can be interpreted based upon your family culture, societal influences, and inherent awareness. These nonverbal clues are used to decode the message, detect lies, and enhance the interaction.
An astounding factor in communication is the weight and credibility we put into body language. This credibility is backed up by studies and science. The body really doesn’t lie. Right? Well, most often, anyway. How do we know if the cues we see are “faked” (bluffing) or genuinely telling us something we can bank on? To determine truth or expose deception can be tricky, but once you study human behavior and body language over time, the experience becomes beneficial in certain law enforcement careers. Many officers get quite good at detecting deception by evaluating body language.
I have to answer the above questions for myself: (1) Am I an effective communicator? (2) Can I read people? While my simple answer to both is a solid yes, I believe we never can learn enough. Communication is evolving and an officer should put a lot of investment into it, as should those who are pursuing criminal justice careers. It is a police officer’s most valuable tool. I believe reading people becomes more automatic with practice. Interview and interrogation can be a test of one’s skills of reading people all by itself, especially when you have to testify on the stand or use it in a sworn affidavit for a search warrant. You better be right.