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Ex-FBI Agent: How to Decode Your Clients’ Body Language

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Body language gives outright cues and clues to how clients feel about their financial advisors and what they’re saying. At the same time, FAs can cast themselves in the most favorable light by deliberately employing certain nonverbal behaviors.

Other body language may sabotage an advisor, however. For example, don’t go tapping the side of your nose or scratching your face in a client meeting. So says former FBI Special Agent Joe Navarro in an interview with ThinkAdvisor.

(Related: The Ear of the Beholder: Words Clients Hate, Words Clients Like)

With more than 25 years in counterintelligence and counterterrorism, Navarro was the Bureau’s top nonverbal communications expert. In the interview, he discusses how FAs can decipher clients’ desires or fears by observing their body language. It is a technique the FBI uses to decode human behavior and identify anxiety in suspects.

As a public speaker and consultant to major companies, Navarro’s presentations for the last decade have been almost entirely to financial firms, including JPMorgan, Wells Fargo and Raymond James.

Author of the bestseller “What Every BODY is Saying” (2008) , Navarro has just released a new book, “The Dictionary of Body Language: A Field Guide to Human Behavior” (William Morrow – Aug. 21). It is packed with more than 400 non-verbals, from head to foot, and explanations of what they mean.

“There is no one [nonverbal] way of communicating honesty and truthfulness, and there is no single behavior indicative of deception,” Navarro argues.

“Suppose I ask: ‘Where were you last night?’ If all of a sudden you get nervous, all we can say is that my question created psychological discomfort. What we cannot say is ‘You touched your nose or covered your mouth, and therefore you’re deceptive.’ There’s no science to support that. But,” Navarro says, “the question is: What is the cause of that discomfort?”

By the time he retired 15 years ago, he had conducted and supervised more than 13,000 interrogations — in the U.S., Germany and Brazil, among other countries — that, based largely on body language, sent spies and terrorists to prison.

ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed Navarro, 65, on the phone from his Tampa, Florida, office.

Here are highlights of our conversation:

THINKADVISOR: Why should financial advisors pay attention to body language?

JOE NAVARRO: They’re not just selling a product or giving advice, they’re letting the client know how they feel about it and communicating their commitment. The advisor needs to provide comfort: “We’re in it together, and we’re going to take good care of you.” That can only be communicated nonverbally.

How do you transmit that via body language?

Having no hesitation to answer questions but not being overly eager; smiling; using gestures that are very open; conveying rather than trying to convince by being forceful and aggressive.

How is that helpful in giving financial advice?

The job is to communicate with the person in front of you and for them to reflect their sentiments back about what we say. If they already have doubt or don’t find us [believable], or if they’re teetering, they’ll communicate that nonverbally before they communicate it verbally.

What body language might indicate the client’s doubt or distrust in what the advisor is saying?

Nodding and giving the impression they’re in agreement; but if they’re pursing their lips together, that means “I disagree.” If a client is already pursing their lips, it’s time for the advisor to go off-script and ask: “What are you thinking?” — because [the client] has already made up their mind.

What if a client gives the advisor a sideways glance? Does that mean they’re doubting them?

Yes. It’s one way of saying, “I’m not sure.” It often shows suspiciousness and a reluctance to commit. If you see a behavior that could indicate doubt, ask questions.

If the client crosses their arms in front of them, does that say they’re feeling defensive?

There are a lot of misconceptions about crossed arms. People think it’s a blocking behavior, but it’s not. Most people do that to [give themselves] comfort.

You write about a number of self-comforting behaviors, or “pacifiers.” People need a lot of pacifiers!

Yes, the human brain requires more pacifiers than any other species. We start with thumb-sucking in [the womb]. Throughout our lives, we’re habitually touching our bodies with self-comforting behavior.

What other client body language should advisors be aware of?

When meeting with a couple, you often see the husband leaning forward and nodding his head. But the wife is touching the bottom of her neck below the Adam’s apple — the neck “dimple.”  We touch or cover our neck only when we’re worried, fearful or feel insecure.

What does the FA need to do?

When we see that behavior, or compressed lips or lip-biting or [self-] hand-massaging, there may be hesitation about the investment the advisor is recommending. That body language presents a great opportunity to ask: “What do you think so far?”

How can advisors employ nonverbals to win clients’ confidence?

When we use gravity-defying behavior — it’s performed in an upward direction — such as arching the eyebrows or making the thumb visible and very pronounced as we talk, we send a positive subconscious message to the receiver.

In fact, you write that “a happy eyebrow flash can be immensely useful and powerful…” When would you use that?

Eyebrow arching or flashing transmits excitement or that something that pleases us. Flashing your eyebrows upward is even more powerful than smiling when, for example, greeting a group of investors. Studies we’ve done show it causes the reaction: “I really like this person.” We tend to favor people who provide us with psychological comfort, and this is very comforting behavior we’ve always seen: We respond to an eyebrow flash at three weeks of age. And we don’t outgrow it.

When a client comes in for a meeting, what should an advisor do after greeting them?

Attend first to any negative or emotional issues you may discern from the clients’ nonverbal behavior or from what they tell you. When there’s emotional hijacking, people are not at their best. The advisor needs to assess the client and ask, “Is everything all right?” before jumping into business.

You write about active listening as “an essential nonverbal” because it communicates that we’re receptive or empathic. Should the advisor directly face the client in that situation?

You want to make direct eye contact, but you need to use a gaze. You don’t want to look too intense because that can be antagonizing. Gazing says, “I’m here, and I’m listening to you.”

What other nonverbals helps create rapport?

I learned early on at the FBI that it wasn’t about getting the confession; it was about spending enough time with the suspect to get the confession. One of the ways to increase face-time is to simply [tilt] your head to the side, which exposes the neck. On a subconscious level, that says: “I’m attentive and interested in what you say.”

What’s the best advisor-client seating arrangement in a meeting?

The worst place to sit is directly facing the client. One that contributes to greater harmony is sitting at about a 45-degree angle of each other. If you’re at the end of the desk, angle yourself slightly so that you’re making eye contact — not with your bodies in an antagonistic me-against-you position.

Is it helpful for the advisor to quickly assess a prospect by scanning them from head to toe?

In a business setting, we’re entitled to look at each other’s faces from the eyes to the chin. When men are talking to women, we’re definitely not allowed to look below the Adam’s apple into the chest area. I’ve seen men scanning women as if they were radar looking over the horizon for Russian missiles.

What other unconscious body language can be negative for advisors to manifest?

There should be no display of discomfort that would indicate something the client has asked is difficult to answer. Don’t bite your lip, massage your hand, tap the side of your nose or scratch your face because you don’t know the answer. That sort of pacifying behavior communicates psychological discomfort.

What type of questions might trigger such behavior?

For instance: “Isn’t it a fact that the SEC is looking at this problem?” Don’t sit there and show discomfort. Be ready to answer such questions. Jump right in with: “You’re absolutely right. The SEC is looking into it. And we’re certainly on top of it.”

So even though the client isn’t trained to spot pacifying behaviors, they know the advisor feels uncomfortable?

They sense it. As a [former] FBI agent, I can break all those behaviors down: ”He squinted, there was lip compression, his jaw shifted slightly to the right, he touched his neck; and when he put his hand down, he withdrew his thumb and put it underneath his other fingers [sign of feeling threatened]. Most people sense something’s wrong. It’s not a gut feeling; their brain’s limbic system unconsciously picked it up.

Is there body language that specifically female advisors should keep in mind?

One thing a lot of women ask about is: “I was just smiling and being friendly, but [a man] mistook it for being more than that.” I tell them they’re entitled to smile and are also entitled to boundaries. So there should be no hesitation to tell [a man] that anything [beyond business] is not what you intended.

For both men and women, what are your thoughts about touching someone for emphasis when talking with them?

By social convention, we’re allowed to touch one another from about the forearm to just below the shoulder. But some people don’t like to be touched at all. So you have to be sensitive. Men [or women] shouldn’t be [slapping] someone on the knee whether it’s a joke or not. We have to be mindful of others and of other cultures.

What’s a behavior that often brings a negative reaction from both men and women?

Women, and men too, prefer that others stand a little further away from them when conversing. There’s nothing wrong with that because when somebody encroaches on our space, it causes psychological discomfort.

What body language have you observed in women as they sit in big meetings?

When there are a lot of males there, females [tend to] hide their “hand-steepling” [both hands’ fingertips spread and touching like steeple]. Steepling is a sign of confidence and that you have certitude. [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel does that a lot. Women tend to do it less than men or hide it under the [conference] table. When women have something to say, they should sit up, lean forward and steeple. You need to step up and be noticed.

When giving a speech, what’s important to know about body language?

First: Don’t hide behind a podium. When people can see the whole person, they tend to gravitate to you more.

What about when someone stretches their neck or adjusts their collar or tie, a la comedian Rodney Dangerfield in his act?

That’s a ventilating behavior and means they’re feeling stress. Under stress, the skin warms. This nonverbal often shows up when CEOs are in front of a group and someone asks a difficult question. It has nothing to do with deception. It has to do with a question that causes psychological discomfort.

Is it good to gesture when making a presentation?

Our brain is stimulated by movement. Gestures are the exclamation points of speech. When we see the movement of hands, for example, we’re naturally attracted. Mary Callahan Erdoes [CEO] of J.P. Morgan Asset Management has absolutely exquisite hand gestures. If you’re considering something she’s saying, it makes you more of a believer. When you’re talking about how confident you are in the future of a company, gestures can affect markets.

You write that research shows that “when people suddenly begin to lie, they engage in fewer hand gestures — and with less emphasis.” Interesting. But to what extent should we gesture, in general?

When we come across as conveying as opposed to convincing, our gestures tend to be more open — with palms [out]. A big mistake is to emphasize everything and look like you’re trying to convince. Put emphasis only on what’s important.

President Trump repeatedly uses some gestures, like making a circle with his index finger and thumb. What is that meant to convey?

He’s talking about something very precise. The problem is that he uses it so often, it loses its importance.

Any other Trump gestures you’ve observed?

His elbows tend to flap out a lot. That’s not as comforting as seeing smooth gestures. The higher you are as an executive in an organization, the broader your gestures should be — but they should also be smoother.

What message does that elbow-flapping give, then?

Trump has a very high status — U.S. president — but his gestures are jerky, something you’d expect from middle management. The last thing you want is a leader who has jerky gestures. You’ve got absolutely no confidence in a person like that.

What about his frequent mocking smile that seems to say, “How absurd is that!” Is it helpful to him?

When he pinches the corners of his mouth like that, it shows disdain or contempt. Contempt is hierarchical. It says: “I’m superior to you” — which is very offensive.

You write about having seen stock traders and brokers showing body language indicating that they’re upset. Under what circumstances?

If you want to see a bad trading day, you don’t have to look at the Board. You can tell things are bad because of the amount of eye covering and eye rubbing that’s going on. Eye blocking says: “I’m troubled by something.” It’s genetically hard-wired and evident in every culture all over the world.

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