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How to Read People

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woman with serious face
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If you've ever been blindsided by an unfavorable performance review or a backstabbing coworker, you know that people don't always say what they mean. However, the body doesn't lie. It takes only seconds to tell whether someone is being straightforward with you, says Lillian Glass, an expert in body language and behavioral analysis and the author of I Know What You're Thinking (Wiley).

Luckily, the ability to read and decipher body language can be learned. We've all heard that crossing the arms is a defensive position, but body language in the workplace can be far more subtle, experts say. Here are some cues your boss and colleagues may be sending and ways to use them to your advantage:

Posture Never Lies. "We lean toward things we like and away from things we don't," says Janine Driver, author of You Say More Than You Think (Crown). So if your manager is sitting up and leaning in your direction, she's interested in hearing more of what you have to say. If she leans back during the course of a conversation—especially a critical one—she's creating distance, which could signal a problem. Driver suggests turning the interaction around by saying, "Maybe I'm wrong here, but it seems I made you uncomfortable bringing that up." It's a cordial, disarming style of confronting the situation, she says, and clarifies the reason for the shift in mood.

The Facts are in the Face. Vital signs to pay attention to are in every part of the face, says Glass. "If somebody's biting her lip, she's holding back and not giving you the whole story," she says. "You may want to probe and ask more questions." Another tip-off is if a coworker tells you something while scratching her face. People sometimes involuntarily itch when they tell lies, Glass points out. Much can be learned from watching the way someone holds his or her mouth, says Patti Wood, a media coach and body language authority. For example, pursing or licking the lips can indicate anxiety, while pulling them in could suggest someone is holding back anger.

Feet Tell No Tales. When people—supervisors, associates, clients—are engaged, their feet will point toward you. "Where the toes point, the heart follows," says Wood. "Women in particular tend to align our feet, our torso, our heart and our upper body when we're into what's being said." If they don't care about or begin to question what you're saying, they may gradually shift their body in a different direction. "One foot might turn away, then the next foot, then the lower pelvis, then the torso, then the heart center will turn away," adds Wood. When this happens, you may want to put off an important powwow for another day.

This article was originally published in the August 2014 issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands now.

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