Leveraging Nonverbal Communication for Leadership with FBI Special Agent Joe Navarro

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If you want to be a leader who inspires and doesn’t underwhelm or intimidate, this is an episode for you. 

Aspire to Inspire co-host Lottie Bazley is joined by the inimitable Joe Navarro, a former spy catcher and retired FBI agent who is now one of the worldwide leaders in nonverbal communication. 

Joe joins Lottie to share his decades of expertise when it comes to applying nonverbal lessons to leadership strategies. The two explore how we should carry ourselves in the age of Zoom calls and be people who inspire others and project the right kind of confidence. 

For more information about Joe, including a complete list of his books, visit his website at https://www.jnforensics.com/. You can also check out his bestseller “What Every BODY Is Saying” or follow him on LinkedIn and YouTube for more content. 

Mentioned in the podcast: The Still Face Experiment 


Follow the host and guest on LinkedIn: 

Lottie Bazley and Joe Navarro


Lottie Bazley: Hello, everybody, and welcome to a brand new Aspire to Inspire podcast episode. My name is Lottie Bazley and I am a Senior Internal Communications Manager here at Staffbase. And today I am thrilled, if not, in all honesty, a little starstruck to be speaking with Joe Navarro, a former FBI special agent, esteemed author, and globally recognized expert in body language and really a true pioneer in the realm of nonverbal communication and human behavior.

Joe, it is lovely to meet you. Thank you so much for coming along today. How are you feeling?

Joe Navarro: I’m almost embarrassed hearing all that. Lottie, thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here. I’ve been looking forward to joining you on this podcast. So I’m very pleased to have this opportunity to be with you and to share some things that I’ve learned along the way.

Lottie Bazley: Absolutely. And you do have a lot of knowledge and a lot of things to learn. So I have a ton of questions. If you don’t mind, I’m going to get stuck right in there.

Joe Navarro: Sure.

Lottie Bazley: So one of your books, “What Every BODY is Saying” had huge acclaim for its insights in nonverbal communication. So it would be great to understand a bit about kind of what inspired you to write that in the first place and any key messages that you want people to take away when they’re reading that book.

Joe Navarro: Well, thank you. And I love that question because it really gives me the opportunity to give the genesis of it. I had when I started studying body language, which was in the 1970s, there was so very little that was written specifically about body language. There were books that were (…) I remember there was one that was written not by someone in authority, but called “How to Read a Person Like a Book.” And there were some interesting things in there.

One of the things I found was that the books that talked about human behavior really were so complicated. And so, as I, you know, did over 13,000 interviews in the FBI and collected notebook upon notebook of observations. It dawned on me how would I have wanted to be taught about body language. And so that was the genesis of writing “What Every BODY is Saying”, which, and thank you for mentioning it, well, it came out in 2007. It’s still the number one body language book in the world. It’s the only body language book in the world.

Lottie Bazley: Congratulations.

Joe Navarro: Thanks. And I lucked out. It’s the only body language book in the world that is in 29 languages and over a million have been sold.

What’s interesting about it is when I wrote it, I wasn’t thinking that it would become a bestseller. I just wanted people to see the world the way I saw it. And interestingly enough, you know, people say, well, you start out with the feet instead of the face in the book. And I remind them that the feet are often so much more honest than the face. In revealing how we really feel about people, you know, when we play footsies, we like the person. When our feet turn away, often it reflects how we feel about them. So it was really just that.

And I remember the publisher thinking, you know, if a book has a shelf life of six months, consider yourself lucky. So I consider myself very lucky. But I really attribute it to the genuine yearning from the readers who really want to understand. Well, what are the underpinnings of our behavior? Why do, for instance, people see this behavior all the time and they don’t know what it means? They’ll all of a sudden, they’ll see a horrific accident or something terrible. And they cupped their hands around their mouth and their nose, and nobody stops to wonder, why do we do that? We do that because since the time we were early humans going back to the Australopithecus references in Africa, we’ve always been surrounded by predators. And so we develop these shortcuts or heuristics of behaviors. Freeze. Don’t move. So it doesn’t attract the lion and cover your mouth so you don’t broadcast your breath.

Lottie Bazley: Wow.

Joe Navarro: And that remains in our DNA. We know this because when a person who’s a child who is born blind, congenitally, they will do the same behavior. When they’re told about something horrific, they’ll cover their mouth, having never experienced it. So for me, it was about exploring the why of the behaviors.

Lottie Bazley: Fabulous. And that’s such a great start. We’ve already covered so many different things. It’s really interesting that I like that your, you know, your kind of motivation for writing that book was to make things more accessible to people, you know, and, as you say, kind of learn about it in a way that you would want to be taught about it. So love that as the motivation.

Now, of course, you’re joining us today on the Aspire to Inspire podcast, and I’m sure there’s loads of things that we can take today about kind of how we can hopefully inspire people with the kind of things that we’re doing with our body. So are there any key principles from your book that kind of business communications leaders can apply to inspire rather than potentially intimidate people within their interactions?

Joe Navarro: Yeah. And that’s why studying nonverbals is so important that we just through our nonverbals, right? So nonverbals is everything that communicates but is not a word. But just think for a minute about the traits of good leadership or the traits of influence. Most people forget the order. Influence begins visually. From the time we’re adults on, it’s different under the age of two, but once we are two years old, it is visual, vocal. So the tone of voice? Then it’s verbal. And then lastly, it is haptic or touch. That’s the sequence.

And a lot of leaders forget that the people that they work with or associate or are associated with are looking for that. They’re looking for that calm person that isn’t erratic. The gestures of leadership are broad, but smooth. Anything that is jittery or, you know, distracts takes away from leadership. That our tone of voice has just such a profound effect on us. That, you know, you often hear this with pilots who are struggling with their aircraft, and they calm the passengers down through their tone of voice. And I’ve seen it over and over in medical settings where that tone of voice. So there are things that we need to think about which are not taught in business school. But they are essential to good leadership.

I often give the example of the American military, if it is from behind. If you look at the uniform of someone who’s a corporal and one that is a general, there is no distinction. So obviously, you don’t want a target on your back. But it is the nonverbals of how they walk, how they carry themselves, how they look about, who sets the pace. That’s what defines the general. And we often forget that this is both something that we must do. If we are to be influential. And we can work on it.

I’ll give you another example. I do a lot of one-on-one with clients from all over the world. And one of the biggest things that we work on is, for instance, when it comes to voice is cadence. A lot of young people just sort of want to blurt everything out in long sentences without any kind of commas or semicolons or anything like that, or pauses. And I have to remind them that the greatest storytellers, the greatest orators pause. Martin Luther King with his “I have a dream that one day.” Right? The pause. The pauses that Churchill worked into his exquisite orations. These are the things that are influential. These are measured in their effect and influence. And gestures. We forget that you can become much more dynamic as a speaker if you bracket what you’re talking about, if you engulf it, if you define it as you’re speaking. That potentiates the message beyond just the mere words. So. And the mere fact that nonverbal communications is the primary means by which we, in fact, communicate.

Lottie Bazley: This is fascinating. And now I’m just thinking. I’m so conscious. I’m a real hands-talker. I’m really thinking, what am I doing with my hands? What am I saying to Joe when I’m not talking? But yeah, that honesty, that was that was fascinating. And I think what you’ve covered there is kind of we’re talking about leaders being inspirational people. Something that comes up a lot more at the moment when we’re talking about kind of inspirational leaders, certainly within business and my profession, internal communications, is that we want leaders that are trustworthy and authentic. And there’s lots of work that we can do with those leaders in terms of what they’re saying.

But do you have any, I suppose, tactics or tips for nonverbal communication to help inspire trust in leadership?

Joe Navarro: Sure. I’ll give you one that really came to light since 2020 with COVID and being in a virtual environment. And this goes back to studies that were done. And you can look it up online called the still face experiments. And basically the still face experiments, where the mother would play with the child, look away, look back, and continue to smile. Do this over and over. And then all of a sudden she comes back and then just stares at the child. Much as we look in a virtual call. The children would just get unhinged. Well, they decided to test that with adults. Same effect. Why is that?

Because we expect the face to be animated. And I don’t mean in a, like, cartoonish. I mean animated as in real life. In a virtual environment, the worst thing you can do. The absolute worst thing you can do, let’s say there were five people on a call, is to just sit there still. The brain sees it not just as less trustworthy, to your question, it sees it as a threat.

Lottie Bazley: Wow.

Joe Navarro: Think about that. Just internalize that for a minute, that you think you’re doing the right thing by just holding still, when, in fact, the brain perceives it as, one, less trustworthy and, two, as a threat. And anything that is negatively valenced or, as the Brits might say, balanced, it goes to that part of the brain, our sort of emotional memory bank, the hippocampi because we have two, as a negative influence and it remains there for a very long time.

Lottie Bazley: Wow.

Joe Navarro: And so what’s the significance? So you don’t want to just hold still. You might have thought that that’s the most proper thing to do when in fact, in a virtual call, you want to nod. You want to tilt your head. You want to make sure you’re, you know, fully gimbaled from the shoulders up to demonstrate at a subconscious level to everyone present that you are very much somebody that is trustworthy and reliable and not a threat.

That had gone dormant for about 20 years. 2020. In fact, I can nail the date. April. I think it was April 23rd when all the virtual stuff started. That completely changed. And it affected so many people who just didn’t understand the concept of the still face. So for those who are watching and listening, this is one of those crucial things that you can do to help yourself.

The other thing was that we had become habituated for 70 years of having on television, both in the BBC, and American television, that the broadcaster would be no more than a fourth of the screen. Think about that, a fourth of the screen. And yet, what do we usually see? We see faces right up to the lens. And we don’t understand that our heritage, our primate heritage, which we have been imbued with, says that anything that is intense eye to eye is contraindicated. This is, you become a threat to me if we’re this close together. So, you know, one of the things that I deal with executives, in dealing with executives, I say backup. Yeah. You must not be more than a fourth of that screen. And, you know, get out of that habit of thinking that you need to be close to it.

So we have some cultural things in effect. And we have some biological things in effect, which we now can measure non-verbally. We can measure these things by blink rate. We can measure it by how long people are willing to stay tuned and listen and how quickly people turn off. The other thing we found was the quality of your virtual call, not the content so much, but the quality of the virtual call was a big factor that we could now measure that as much as 40% of your audience would be lost in the first 7 minutes. And that’s unprecedented. It’s and then, of course, there’s the, you know, what we call the TED Talk effect, which is everything needs to be concise. And where we used to, you know, be able to let people talk forever and ever. Now it has to be rehearsed. So a big difference in what we’ve seen.

Lottie Bazley: Amazing. Thank you so much. And I actually already kind of had a question about body language in a sort of digital workplace. I’m going to get into that now. And I heard you on a podcast and you already mentioned it today, that kind of feat. One of the big tellers, obviously, you don’t have that kind of pleasure when you’re on a virtual call nine times out of ten, it’s kind of shoulders and above.

So do you think we’re missing anything or are we overcompensating if we don’t have that kind of teller there?

Joe Navarro: Well, we’re certainly missing a lot. And I’ve heard this from HR people from around the world who are used to having somebody come in for an interview and now they don’t have that. We’re missing things like a shaking foot, hands being wiped on the legs from nervousness, nervous hands and so forth. And it does inhibit 2 million years of observational cues that we are accustomed to look for.

But there’s still things that we can focus on. We can look at, for instance, is the face relaxed? Is the face comfortable? Do we see the face still remains one of the go-to locations where we self-soothe or pacify? Right? So a lot of times we touch our face. Right? But then when I was just in a call the other day and one of the accountants didn’t have the information, and as soon as the question was asked, he was scratching his face.

Well, when we transition from touching to scratching, that’s a huge clue. And the reason for it is, is the nerves that underlie the face are actually near the surface, that this is self-soothe. But we dig into our skin to create more self-soothing. So the fact that we’re struggling with something.

Lottie Bazley: Yeah.

Joe Navarro: You see that in basketball when there’s a one-point difference and the clock is run out, you’ll see people literally digging into their faces with their fingers. And the reason for that is that pressure on nerves, rubbing, helps to alleviate the stress. So there are some things that we can see in the face.

Something you mentioned earlier, and that is our hand gestures, you actually have to train yourself that in a virtual call your hand gestures have to be in a smaller plane. Right? They can’t be out here and nobody sees them. But as every actor learns, you have to slow it down. You can’t. I have one client who did this a lot, and I said to her, you know, that looks like an upside down eggbeater when you do that. You can’t do that. And so we worked on that and said, you need to change the behavior in front of the camera. So that it’s smoother. It’s tighter. And like anything else, it’s just a matter of practice. But when you’re a leader and you’re talking to the press, as this one lady did, and you’re doing quarterly, you know, market reports, your nonverbals are being read by investors.

Lottie Bazley: Yeah, sure.

Joe Navarro: I know, because they call me up to decode the behaviors of executives. And if you are in some way, you know, if you have to bite your lip before you answer a question, that might be worth two points on the stock market because they’re sensing hesitation. Right? So these behaviors that are very facial, such as lip compression, lip biting, perioral stroking, right? Before they answer the question, I go, yeah, well, whoa. I’m telling you, you will have investors sitting there and saying, now we’ve got to either dig deeper or we stay away from that one.

Lottie Bazley: Wow.

Joe Navarro: Because these behaviors, of which indicate lack of confidence or concerns or now, you know, during conversation, you may do this because you’re, you know, you sense saliva or something.

But in relation to a question that is asked and then you see behaviors that pacify or here’s another one. I just saw this the other day on a quarterly call, because, you know, we just started in another quarter here then. And this very financial sector, let’s just say that was asked a question and before he answered, he ventilated. Most people, you say, he’s just fixing his shirt. No, no. The fact is that the ventilating behaviors, because your skin changes at one 250th of a second. They didn’t like the question. They didn’t like the way they were going to have to answer it. Ventilating behaviors can be very revealing. We’re not talking about deception. What we’re talking about is psychological discomfort. We’re talking about something that is negatively valanced. And that registers with us. And it registers for a very long, long time. Why the person had to do that, they may be looking at, well, we weren’t going to release that information until the end of the month or whatever, but whatever it is, it was very telling.

And of course, everyone is always looking at us. And that’s one of the things that I wanted to point out, is executives think that they’re only being looked at once they’re in a room. It starts the minute you drive into the parking lot. Yeah. As you’re getting out of the car. As you’re walking in. And don’t think that the whole building doesn’t know that you as the most senior executive never say good morning to the receptionist or that you never say good morning to the security staff. Those are non verbals. Nothing is sweeter than an executive who takes the time to talk to the security guards, to talk to everybody at every level that shoots through an organization faster than any other medium.

And that goes to demonstrating that you are empathetic. And I think there needs to be a lot more of that. I’ve walked into buildings with executives and they don’t take the time to say good morning to the people that work for them. I find that shocking. Agreed. And in a way, disgusting.

Lottie Bazley: Absolutely. Yeah. It’s so interesting that I’m watching Succession at the moment. So now we’re going to be watching it with a completely different lens this evening to be like, well…

Joe Navarro: That’s a great show. And you learn a lot about it. If I may, you learn a lot about nonverbals in that show. Obviously, it’s all staged. But yeah, that and Love Island. Love Island especially Love Island UK. You know people say why Joe, why do you watch those shows? You’d be surprised how much you can pick up about nonverbals by studying proximity reactions, how people address each other, the faces they make when somebody new comes in.

Lottie Bazley: Yeah.

Joe Navarro: When there’s fear and apprehension at being excluded, all of that. So my wife and I enjoy it. She says, she says, Joe, you’re the only person I know that actually takes notes. I do. I have these little cards and I sit there and I say, did you see in season four where the woman just she, and this was great, someone new comes in and one of the people there immediately does a lip pull. A dramatic lip pull is huge. And in business, it’s huge, because oftentimes, let’s say you’re in sales. And or you’re presenting a new product, and you have people in the audience that, first of all, a pursed lips, which means I’m not sure I agree. And then they pull it dramatically. It’s over. It’s like, go no further. Not only have they made up their mind and it’s negative. But what they’re saying with a lip pull is, this isn’t going to sail. And I’ve seen so many people over the years in sales who don’t see this behavior or ignore it or don’t know what it means and continue to, they don’t go off script. When, in fact, you should just stop right there and ask, so what are you thinking right now? Before you waste more of their time. Anyway, some tidbits there of an ethologist like myself who studies.

And by the way, because we live in a world market, you know, I go to Asia a lot. I go to Latin America. One of the best ways to train yourself in dealing with different cultures is to watch movies. From those cultures, whether it’s from Persia, Iran, or Egypt, you can pick up a lot about spatial distance. Yeah. Greeting behaviors, all of that. And, of course, it’ll enrich your life.

Lottie Bazley: Sure. That’s really interesting. I honestly never thought that we’d end up speaking about Love Island, but it’s another one of my guilty pleasures. I try and come across as all intelligent by saying, I’m watching Succession and actually I’m like, Now I’m going to go back to Love Island and rewatch all of those in my little notebook.

Joe Navarro: Very instructive.

Lottie Bazley: Yeah, I have permission. It’s really interesting, actually, you talking there about different cultures. And I suppose one of the things is, one of the questions that I did have for you was, is body language a kind of universal language? Are there things that are the same or different in different cultures? What does that look like when you’re talking to people, a global audience, for example?

Joe Navarro: Yeah. I’m so glad you asked that. There are. Look, we know. We know going back to the early seafarers in the Mediterranean area of the world, 501,000 before the Common era, sailors went around the world and they were able to communicate actually quite exquisitely, if you think about it nonverbally. I’m always astounded when I, you know, when I was studying cultures around the world, when Captain Cook arrived just off what is now Tahiti?

And he’s about a mile and a half offshore, and he’s looking through his spyglass, and he’s looking at people gathered along the beach. And he says to his number two, he says, there’s the king. And like, how do you know that? For the same reason that when Cortez arrived in the new world, here in the Americas, in Mesoamerica, he didn’t have to say, take me to your leader.

You could identify the leader because we have our primate past. All leaders dress differently, act differently, walk differently, dress differently. In Tahiti, over the attire you meet from a mile out, you could tell there’s a king. So there are things that are hardwired in us about primacy, about leadership. There are many of the behaviors that we share are very much universal.

We know that because they can be interpreted, we know them, for instance, because when we study children who are born blind, they perform the same behavior. I’ll give you an example of confidence behavior. So the steeple is the number one behavior that we all share of confidence. The first time, 1974, I was studying blind children.

The first time I saw a blind child steeple. And I’m thinking, how do they know how to do this behavior, having never seen it and knowing how to do it at the right place and time as they’re talking about their birthdays coming up and they’re sure that it’s in the right. And then you realize these things are universal.

Now. True. There are cultural things. For instance, going back to Captain Cook when he arrived on the islands. They had never seen a haka. They had they hadn’t seen, you know, these gestures, for instance, of the wide eyes and the sticking out of the tongue. Every culture contributes to nonverbals. You know, in some cultures we say, come here this way.

And in other cultures we say, come here this way. In America, we say everything is A-OK. But in many parts of the world, this is a very ugly symbol of an orifice. So we don’t do that. But I think overall, if you were to look and I have, you know, in one of the books behind me, the dictionary of body language, before, there’s over 400 gestures there before they made it into the book, I had to make sure that they were universal.

Lottie Bazley: Yeah.

Joe Navarro: Yeah, we could see them around the world. And so they made it in the book. Now, that doesn’t always mean that it’s appreciated. Different cultures, for instance, in Japan, how we gaze at each other is very dependent on status and hierarchy, but also age.

Lottie Bazley: Okay.

Joe Navarro: Somebody my age is really entitled to look everywhere they want basically in a business meeting. A junior executive is not.

Lottie Bazley: Wow, okay.

Joe Navarro: It’s just “verboten”. You’re straight ahead. You may look at someone when they’re speaking, but you’re not allowed to just kind of look around like you own the place. Okay. That just doesn’t cut it. Yeah. Your. Your attire in Japan has to conform.

You know something that in America, you know, people go, well, we should wear whatever we want. Well, that’s fine if, you know, if you’re in resume speed Idaho. But if you, you know, have different cultures, you may, for instance, you go to the Middle East and, or even Latin America. there’s a procedure for, for instance, fronting your heritage.

Who are you? Where are you from? Who is your family? Where in other cultures, you don’t bring that up at all. You just get down to business. So, you know, we know that smiling, being genuine, being interested. I always tell people, as long as you are genuine and you’re interested, that you’re not judgmental, that you are, there’s a certain amount of alacrity in your presentation, you’re going to do fine in every culture because it has been demonstrated over and over and over. What doesn’t sell is being judgmental. And you have to remember many cultures, they are very much more attuned to nonverbals. So I’ll give you an example. Cultures that are nuanced, rich. Right. France, Italy. Most of the Mediterranean countries and Asia. Countries that are nuanced poor for instance, are England and the Nordic countries. Why? It’s not, it’s neither good nor bad. It’s just that they put greater emphasis on the words than on the deeds. For us, for a French person the air kiss of greeting and how it’s performed, the abrazo in Latin America. You know, I always point out to American diplomats, when they first get to Latin America, they’re trying to figure out how to do this man hug.

And they’re, you know, they look really awkward. C’mon guys. Get your act together. Yeah. It’s really simple. But the fact that you do it and you do it with grace and dignity is very significant. So. In anthropology, we say these are context-rich and context-poor countries. And so we have to keep that in mind that if you, for instance, in Japan, when you go in, you bath 30 degrees, but on exit, it’s 45 degrees. Get that wrong.

Lottie Bazley: Wow.

Joe Navarro: And that is a major screw-up.

Lottie Bazley: Yeah.

Joe Navarro: Or as Bill Gates did, he goes to South Korea. This is unconscionable. He goes to South Korea and shakes hands with the president of South Korea with one hand in his pocket. And to most people, you say, I don’t get it. What’s the big issue?

That made the front page of every Asian newspaper for three days. And so that’s when you realize, oh, in these cultures, these subtleties are more significant than, you know, in Silicon Valley, California. Yeah. To this day, nobody knows why he went to South Korea because it never made it into the news. The only thing in the news was that he shook hands with one hand in his pocket.

Lottie Bazley: Sure. No. Fascinating. And honestly. Now I’m steepling now without even thinking about-

Joe Navarro: Well, you can steeple! Just don’t do it too much, because then… Well, interestingly, Angela Merkel used to steeple all the time. You can go online and see all the thousands of pictures of her. You don’t want to do a behavior too often because then it loses its meaning.

Lottie Bazley: Yeah, it’s about authenticity to the point that we were talking about earlier as well. But honestly, we could speak for hours and hours. I’m sure. But sadly, we don’t have that luxury on today’s podcast. But if listeners are as fascinated as I am about everything that we’ve spoken about today, I know you have at least a few books.

Where is the best place for people to find more content from you?

Joe Navarro: Sure. Just come to my website. joenavarro.net and you can find my 14 books there. You can find my YouTube channel and all of my Psychology Today articles that I’ve written. I think there’s over 100 of them.

Lottie Bazley: Amazing.

Joe Navarro: And you can get it all there.

Lottie Bazley: Fabulous and no guilt when everyone comes to watch Love Island next time because they can say, hey, I’m studying.

Joe Navarro: Joe Navarro said, it’s okay.

Lottie Bazley: Exactly. That’s everyone’s homework then today is to go back through old series of Love Island and then study. But thank you so much again for your time, Joe. I genuinely loved today’s conversation. I keep using the word fascinating. I’m conscious of it now, but it has just been incredibly fascinating. So thank you so, so much for coming along today.

Joe Navarro: Thank you for the invite and you asked terrific questions, I have to say.

Lottie Bazley: Thank you very much. That means a lot from an FBI agent. So I appreciate it. And I hope everyone enjoyed this episode of Aspire to Inspire as much as I have today. And be sure to join us again in the future. Thanks, Joe.

Joe Navarro: Thank you.

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