Body Language – Pointers

Have you ever had the feeling that someone to whom you are talking would rather be elsewhere than with you, even though he or she seems to be enjoying your company? A still photograph of that scene would probably reveal the following: (1) The person’s head is turned towards you and facial signals such as smiling and nodding are evident. (2) The person’s body and feet are pointing away from you, either towards another person or towards an exit. The direction in which a person points his or her torso or feet is a signal of where he or she would prefer to be going.

Figure 139 shows two men talking in a doorway. The man on the left is trying to hold the other man’s attention, but his listener wishes to continue in the direction to which his body is pointing, although his head is turned to acknowledge the other man’s presence. It is only when the man on the right turns his body towards the other that a mutually interesting conversation can take place.

It is noticeable that often in negotiations, when one person has decided to terminate the negotiation or wants to leave, he will turn his body or swing his feet to point towards the nearest exit. If you see these signals during a face-to-face encounter, you should do something to get the person involved and interested or else terminate the conversation on your terms, which allows you to maintain the control.


Open Formation

In an earlier chapter, we stated that the physical distance between people is related to their degree of intimacy. The angle at which people orient their bodies also gives many non-verbal clues to their attitudes and relationships. For example, people in most English speaking countries stand with their bodies oriented to form an angle of 90 degrees during ordinary social intercourse. Figure 140 shows two men with their bodies angled towards an imaginary third point to form a triangle. This also serves as a non- verbal invitation for a third person to join in the conversation by standing at the third point. The two men in Figure 140 are displaying similar status by holding similar gestures and posture and the angle formed by their torsos indicates that an impersonal conversation is probably taking place. The formation of the triangle invites a third person of similar status to join the conversation. When a fourth person is accepted into the group a square will be formed and for a fifth person, either a circle or two triangles.

Closed Formation

When intimacy or privacy is required by two people, the angle formed by their torsos decreases from 90 degrees down to 0 degrees. A man wishing to attract a female partner uses this ploy, as well as other courtship gestures, when he makes his play for her. Not only does he point his body towards her, but he also closes the distance between them as he moves into her intimate zone. To accept his approach, she need only orient her torso angle to 0 degrees and allow him to enter her territory. The distance between two people standing in the closed formation is usually less than that of the open formation.

In addition to the usual courtship displays, both parties may mirror each other’s gestures if they are interested in each other. Like some other courtship gestures, the closed formation can be used as a non-verbal challenge between people who are hostile to each other (see Figure 106).

Inclusion and Exclusion Techniques

Both the open triangular position and the closed position are used to include or exclude another person from the conversation. Figure 142 shows the triangular formation taken by the first two to show acceptance of the third.

When a third person wishes to join two others who are standing in a closed formation, he may be invited to join the conversation only when the other two orient their torsos towards a mutual third point to form the triangle. If the third person is not accepted, the others will hold the closed formation position and turn only their heads towards him or her as a sign of recognition of the third person’s presence but the direction of their torsos shows that he is not invited to remain (Figure 143).

Often a conversation among three people may begin in the open triangular formation but eventually two may take the closed formation position to exclude the third person (Figure 143). This group formation is a clear signal to the third person that he should leave the group to avoid embarrassment.

Seated Body Pointing

Crossing the knees towards another person is a sign of acceptance or interest in that person. If the other person also becomes interested, he or she will cross knees towards the first person, as shown in Figure 144. As the two people become more involved with each other they will begin to copy each other’s movements and gestures, as is the case in Figure 144, and a closed formation results that excludes all others, such as the man on the right. The only way in which the man on the right could participate in the conversation would be to move a chair to a position in front of the couple and attempt to form a triangle, or take some other action to break the formation.

Interviewing Two People

Let us assume that you, person C, are going to interview or talk to persons A and B, and let us say that by either choice or circumstance you are sitting in a triangular position at a round table. Let us also assume that person A is very talkative and asks many questions and that person B remains silent throughout. When A asks you a question, how can you answer him and carry on a conversation without making B feel excluded? Use this simple but highly effective inclusion technique: when A asks a question, look at him as you begin to answer, then turn your head towards B, then back to A, then to B again until you make your final statement, looking at A (who asked the question) again as you finish your sentence. This technique lets B feel involved in the conversation and is particularly useful if you need to have B on side with you.

Foot Pointing

Not only do the feet serve as pointers, indicating the direction in which a person would like to go, but they are also used to point at people who are interesting or attractive. Imagine that you are at a social function and you notice a group of three men and one very attractive woman (Figure 146). The conversation seems to be dominated by the men and the woman is just listening. Then you notice something interesting – the men all have one foot pointing towards the woman. With this simple non-verbal cue, the men are all telling the woman that they are interested in her. Subconsciously, the woman sees the foot gestures and is likely to remain with the group for as long as she is receiving this attention. In Figure 146 she is standing with both feet together in the neutral position and she may eventually point one foot toward the man whom she finds the most attractive or interesting. You will also notice that she is giving a sideways glance to the man who is using the thumbs-in-belt gesture.

Seated Body Formations

Take the following situation: you are in a supervisory capacity and are about to counsel a subordinate whose work performance has been unsatisfactory and erratic. To achieve this objective, you feel that you will need to use direct questions that require direct answers and may put the subordinate under pressure. At times you will also need to show the subordinate that you understand his feelings and, from time to time, that you agree with his thoughts or actions. How can you non-verbally convey these attitudes using body formations? Leaving aside interview and questioning techniques for these illustrations, consider the following points: (1) The fact that the counselling session is in your office and that you are the boss allows you to move from behind your desk to the employee’s side of the desk (the co-operative position) and still maintain unspoken control. (2) The subordinate should be seated on a chair with fixed legs and no arms, one that forces him to use body gestures and postures that will give you a better understanding of his attitudes. (3) You should be sitting on a swivel chair with arms, giving you more control and letting you eliminate some of your own giveaway gestures by allowing you to move around.

There are three main angle formations that can be used.

Like the standing triangular position, the open triangular formation lends an informal, relaxed attitude to the meeting and is a good position in which to open a counselling session (Figure 147). You can show non-verbal agreement with the subordinate from this position by copying his movements and gestures. As they do in the standing position, both torsos point to a third mutual point to form a triangle; this can show mutual agreement.

By turning your chair to point your body directly at your subordinate (Figure 148) you are non-verbally telling him that you want direct answers to your questions. Combine this position with the business gaze (Figure 149) and reduced body and facial gestures and your subject will feel tremendous nonverbal pressure. If, for example, after you have asked him a question, he rubs his eye and mouth and looks away when he answers, swing your chair to point directly at him and say, ‘Are you sure about that?’ This simple movement exerts non-verbal pressure on him and can force him to tell the truth.

When you position your body at a right angle away from your subject, you take the pressure off the interview (Figure 149). This is an excellent position from which to ask delicate or embarrassing questions, encouraging more open answers to your questions without any pressure coming from you. If the nut you are trying to crack is a difficult one, you may need to revert to the direct body point technique to get to the facts.


If you want a person to have rapport with you, use the triangular position and, when you need to exert non-verbal pressure, use the direct body point. The right angle position allows the other person to think and act independently, without non-verbal pressure from you. Few people have ever considered the effect of body pointing in influencing the attitudes and the responses of others.

These techniques take much practice to master but they can become ‘natural’ move- ments before long. If you deal with others for a living, mastery of body point and swivel chair techniques are very useful skills to acquire. In your day-to-day encounters with others, foot pointing, body pointing and positive gesture clusters such as open arms, visible palms, leaning forward, head tilting and smiling can make it easy for others not only to enjoy your company, but to be influenced by your point of view.

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