What Every BODY Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People by Joe Navarro

Reading Time: 4 minutes


In this insightful book, former FBI officer Joe Navarro teaches you how to master nonverbal intelligence (body language). By learning how to observe and interpret body language, you’ll improve your interactions with friends, family, bosses, and strangers.

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Key Takeaways

Why non-verbal communication is important

When you understand non-verbal communication on a deep level, you have a better grasp on the feelings, intentions, and actions of yourself and others in all situations. It’s also something that spans across cultures, so it’s universally applicable.

Principles for mastering non-verbal communication

  • Be a competent observer of your environment: careful listening to understand verbal pronouncements, observation critical to understanding our body language.
  • Observe and assess people within the context of the situation. For example, people are nervous in job interviews or in shock after car accidents, so this behavior is relatively normal and may not be indicative of something other than that.
  • Learn about universal non-verbal cues like lip pressing and about idiosyncratic ones.
  • With everyone, establish baseline behaviors. That way you can notice any deviations from the baseline.
  • Instead of relying on one “tell,” observe multiple tells or clusters of behavior.
  • Sudden changes in behavior can reveal intentions before they happen.
  • Learn to distinguish between false and authentic non-verbal cues.
  • Be subtle with your observing and evaluate

Different parts of the brain

  • The limbic system: cannot be regulated cognitively. It’s the “honest” brain and a reliable source of information.
  • Neocortex: the thinking part of your brain. It’s the “lying” brain. Not a good source of reliable or accurate information.

Freeze, fight, or flight?

Our bodies naturally freeze, fight, or flight in different situations. This is a natural survival mechanism that allows us to compensate for the power advantage of larger predators or potential dangers to our survival. These reactions are primarily driven by the limbic brain, which helps us process information and react.

  • Freeze: We freeze if we feel threatened or exposed by physical, visual, or oral threats.
  • Flight: This manifests in distancing yourself. Turning your body, closing your eyes, rubbing your eyes, putting hands on the face, turning your feet away.
  • Fight: verbal arguments or physical encounters. You will puff out your chest and eyes.

The limbic brain also remembers hurtful or pleasurable comments and experiences. For example, it helps us feel euphoria when seeing an old friend.

Pacifying behaviors

  • We use pacifying behaviors to calm ourselves. Chewing gum, touching our necks, and touching our beards may help us calm down if we feel uncomfortable.
  • A few behaviors that indicate stress – whistling, talking to ourselves, excessive yawning, leg clenching, sliding your hands down your knee.
  • Males will often put a finger between their shirt collar and neck (providing ventilation), or cross their arms and rum against shoulders as a pacifying behavior.
  • If you notice someone using a pacifying behavior that deviates from their baseline, you can ask them what caused them to make the gesture. Or, you could just note that the person is in a stressful state and change your approach to being with them.

Feet and legs

  • The feet and legs indicate all kinds of things about how we’re feeling. For example, when we’re excited, we often have “happy feet.”
  • When we don’t want to see or be around someone, we’ll often shift our feet to turn away as a sign of being displeased or wanting to disengage. This is all automatic and unregistered behavior.
  • A knee clasp and a forward leaning torso indicate that someone is ready to leave a situation.
  • We often cross our legs when we’re confident and comfortable with someone or a situation (no real threat around). We also tilt our legs towards the person we favor in courtship. Also, women dangling shoes with their toes is a sign of comfort, and so are footsies. Limited foot touching is bad.
  • When our feet mirror the placement and director of others, they signal that we want to stay where we are.

Taking up space

When we take up a lot of space, we are typically confident and signaling higher status in a situation.

When lying

People restrict arm and leg movements when lying. It’s indicative of self-restraint and caution, not necessarily deception. Withdrawing feet under a chair is a similar cue.

Torso (Hips, abs, chest, and shoulders)

  • Leaning away or turning slightly is an unconscious reaction to discomfort.
  • Your central (front side) leans into the thing it likes and away from what it dislikes.
  • Protecting your torso is a signal of discomfort.
  • Digestion is disrupted when you are uncomfortable.
  • Bowing slightly is a sign of deference and humility, often cultural and for the elderly.


  • Behind the back: superiority and don’t come close to me.
  • Arms can be blockers, “keeping someone at arm’s length” has real meaning.
  • Arms can be used to mark territory.
  • Dominant people splay or arms.
  • Hooding: hands interlocked behind head: confident and dominant.
  • Wealth is often shown on arms, or muscles, or tattoos, or smooth vs tanned elbows – observe arms to learn about people.
  • Giving hugs freely shows care without words; approach a new person, loose arms, open palms, with ventral side exposed.

Hands and fingers

  • We communicate ideas and emotions with hands.
  • Good speakers use their hands to enthrall an audience; hiding hands is a suspicious activity so don’t do that (withdrawn, sneaky, and deceptive).
  • Decreases in touch signify relationship problems.
  • Don’t finger point, no one likes it, and it distracts attention from your message.
  • Nail-biting signals nervousness or insecurity.
  • Thumbs up is good. Duh.
  • Thumbs in pocket with fingers out = unsure of yourself (low status or confidence typically with men).
  • Genital framing: thumbs near zipper to pull pants up or just hang (expressing sexuality).
  • Liars move their bodies left, when you’re telling the truth you do everything you can to get people to believe you.

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