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Published September 24, 2010, 12:00 AM

Body language reveals how person really feels

What do you believe – a person’s words, their tone of voice or their body language?

By: Val Farmer, INFORUM

What do you believe – a person’s words, their tone of voice or their body language?

Research findings show that if there is a discrepancy between the various modes of communication, 7 percent rely on words, 38 percent rely on tone of voice, and 55 percent rely on body language. If the three modes of communication are congruent, belief in words rises to about 33 percent while belief in tone of voice and body language drop to about 33 percent each.

Body language. Body language means hand gestures, body posture, openness of the arms, lean of the body, facial expressions, tilt of the head, and other signals. It is a subtle, nonverbal language. Learned along with verbal language from infancy, it is a trustworthy guide to meaning.

Good listening skills involve a general turning toward a conversational partner. Other nonverbal communication includes smiles, open posture, eye contact, forward lean of the body, compassionate touch at key moments, the amount of space between speaker and listener, and head nods that show close attention. When there is exceptional rapport, even body movements become synchronous.

People may reflect the meaning of thoughts back correctly, but their body language communicates disbelief, disinterest and disapproval of what they are hearing.

Eyes are another key to communicating – a veritable window to the soul. Eyes can show acceptance or rejection, love or hostility, hope or despair, gratitude or indifference, admiration or contempt, threat or safety – the whole gamut of human emotion. Animals know this. If they want to know about human intention, they look at people right in the eyes.

“An eye can threaten like a loaded pistol, or can insult, like a hissing or kicking; or in an altered mood, can, by beams of kindness, make the heart dance with joy.” – Emerson

Tone of voice. The meaning of words can be completely altered to its opposite by tone of voice. Voice is another mirror of the heart. Are the tones we hear soft, gentle and inviting, or are they shrill, hard and disapproving?

A raised voice betrays anger sometimes before the angry person may be even be aware of it. We understand attitudes and emotions such as doubt, enthusiasm, discouragement, kindness and fear through the way words are said, not just the words themselves.

People can learn to mask their tone of voice as cleverly as a poker player masks his or her body language. However, it isn’t easy. Comparatively speaking, the spoken word is far easier to disguise. No wonder we scan all three modes of communicating and attempt to integrate them into a coherent message before we trust our understanding.

Couples need to pay attention to their body language and tone of voice so they give clear and unambiguous messages. If they are reconciling after an argument, their non-verbal language is often the key to their genuine intent.

Some people need to be easier to read and to be better at projecting their non-verbal language of love and intimacy more than they do. Eyes, face and voice are like a title page of a book that invites a reader to delve further.

Misinterpretation. If you think words are easily misunderstood, try body language and tone of voice. Many individuals believe they know better what another person is feeling or thinking because of assumptions and beliefs that they are making based on non-verbal messages.

Sometimes they are intuitive and right on the mark, while other times they are dead wrong. Right or wrong, it is dangerous. Body language and tone of voice can be denied. Sometimes rightfully so. Arguments about what non-verbal communication really mean go nowhere and arouse anger. They can’t be resolved through debate as easily as disputes about words.

The perceiver, in order to justify his or her preferred explanation of what is going on, interprets body language and tone of voice in line with what he or she already believes.

This is a delicate matter. Is the perceiver on to something truthful or is this a provocative insinuation based on a projection of inner need?

When in doubt, ask about tone of voice or body language. Take the speaker at his or her word and don’t accuse him or her of deliberate deception. Words and intent should be taken at face value, but monitor closely the actions that follow. The speaker deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Spouses sometimes are driven crazy by their jealous partners reading way too much into their tone of voice, their glances and even their smallest actions. There is little an innocent spouse can say or do to alleviate the fears of his or her insecure mate. This is difficult however because occasionally infidelity is often discovered through the intuitive reading of non-verbal behavior.

Non-verbal behavior and trust. When people are making changes, their non-verbal behavior communicates care and concern and matches the changes being made. People need time to observe, trust and experience changes, especially in the non-verbal arena, before they begin to trust the changes that are being made.

Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, Mo., and can be contacted through his website,