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April 5, 2016

Body Language That Speaks Millions

Get in touch with the way the other person feels. Feelings are 55% body language, 38% tone and 7% words

As silence, patience, listening and proper pacing enhance our life, so too, does reading body language. Why do we say this? It is because it raises our understanding of each other to greater heights. In Proverbs 24:3 we learn that by wisdom is a house built and through understanding is it established. As understanding establishes a home, so too, does understanding body language help us be more at home with each other.

It was one of the coldest speed skating meets I ever experienced. The potbelly stove in the warming house was less than adequate for keeping warm; our winter clothing was nothing like today's outfits, and the wind whipping off Lake Michigan was brutal.

As I stood at the turn of the racetrack, a group of skaters were coming around the corner heading toward the finish line. My cousin, who was an excellent speed skater, turned to me and said, "You see that fellow in the lead; he's going to fade", and so he did.

I asked him how he knew this.

"Look at the way he is bent over and how he is breathing; he's had it!" he replied.

Ever since that first lesson in body language I have become its devotee. Thanks to this devotion, I am able to better understand people and respond to them more meaningfully. Although looks can deceive, paying close attention to the signs people give off can teach us a great deal about their disposition, character and well-being. Interestingly, in the fourth century St. Ambrose wrote about body language and its importance for understanding a person's heart.

"The set of a man's mind can be read on how he carries his body. This is how we size up 'the hider in the heart' --- ranking a man as frivolous pretentious and overwrought; or ranking him as weighty, determined, humble, and restrained. The mind speaks through the body's motions."

As St. Ambrose valued understanding body language, I, too, have come to value it because of various experiences I have had with this science.

While playing tennis with a college student, who was studying to be a podiatrist, he spotted a young child in the adjoining court and said, "That kid is going to have back trouble as he grows older."

"How do you know this?" I asked.

Just look at his hips and the way he walks; his body is out of line," he replied.

That young college student is now one of the best podiatrists in the country. One reason for this is the art he has made of reading body language for correcting postures that lead to debilitation.

Whenever we go for a physical examination, note how a doctor will "look us over." A doctor with a trained eye for interpreting body language can be the difference between life and death sometimes.

Many years ago I had a minor bought with depression that ended up being a blessing in disguise. Why was it a blessing? It is because it taught me how to read depression in people who were sitting in our church pews.

One day a young woman wanted to talk with me about a problem she was experiencing. Before opening her mouth, I said to her, "Nothing has much meaning for you anymore, does it? You're experiencing panic attacks, and you want to constantly go back to sleep hoping you'll wake up free of depression." She knew exactly what I was talking about, and I knew what she was experiencing, thanks to reading the signals she was sending.

Most of us aren't doctors, but all of us can be healers! One way to accomplish this is to be a student of body language. All it takes is paying closer attention to the movement, sounds and gestures of a person and reflecting on his or her posture, tone of voice and what the eyes are saying.

Knowing body language is especially useful in dealing with the variety of people we encounter daily. For example, I live in an area that contains homeless people. To respond to them meaningfully requires street smarts. Some homeless people are truly destitute. They may come from a dismal background, have severe mental problems, or are alcoholics and chemically dependent. There are also those who have been very successful, lost everything and now are the poorest of the poor.

On the other hand, there are pseudo homeless people "working the streets" and playing on the sympathy of others. Some of the stories I have heard from them exhibit brilliant imagination and magnificent skills of persuasion, causing me to think, "You'd make a great lawyer. Your use of facts, logic and gifts of persuasion would convince any jury." When I expressed a desire to work with street people, a priest friend in this work cautioned me, "Gino, it is not cut out for everyone. You've got to know what you are doing. If you don't you can get hurt and you can damage people."

In telling me "you've got to know what you are doing", he was implying, among other things, the need to possess skills in reading people. Working with the poor is not simple. It requires listening, observing and reflecting on the signals being given off. Many poor people truly need help. In coming to their aid we practice charity at its best. Spotting the fakes is also necessary in order to encourage them to go straight.

Reading body language is not only useful in spotting problems; it is also valuable in recognizing joy. When a person is happy, eyes sparkle, the voice sings and his or her step bounces. When this is detected, it invites us to rejoice with them.

Every so often I meet people who are gloom and doom. They are forever sad, negative and lacking hope. I remember meeting one such woman who had suddenly changed. She was cheerful and walked with her head and shoulders held high. Detecting this, I told her, "You look very happy; don't let anyone or anything take that away from you!" Reading her uplifted disposition permitted me enter into her joy. Hopefully my detecting it kept her from returning to gloomy disposition.

Reading body language is extremely important in close relationships. It is ever so easy to miss signs people send when we live or work with each other daily; familiarity does breed contempt!

My mother knew immediately when I was sick, afraid or had done something wrong. I attributed this to a mother's sixth sense. I will never forget driving down to Lake Michigan in Chicago for a practice swim before competing in a triathlon. My mother looked over at me and said, "You're afraid!" She hit the nail on the head; that is exactly how I felt. By reading my fear and getting it out in the open, she freed me of it.

What is this sixth sense of which we speak? It is a personal closeness between two human beings in which one person can sense immediately what the other is experiencing? Having watched me grow up, my mother knew me better than myself, and hence could read me better than I could read myself. In the case of her and my dad, our close familiarity enriched our togetherness: we were forever reading each other and responding to the signals we were sending. These beautiful memories often make me wonder if one cause of broken homes and marriages is loss of interest in reading signals being sent. I also wonder how much better life would be if the signs of disappointment, irritation, fear, anxiety, disapproval and the like were read and reacted on more often.

Studies on marriage tell us that more than anything else interest is the basis for holding it together. One important aspect of interest is taking notice of and responding to signals that are being sent. There have been times I thought a person would be interested in going through our National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Once there, it became obvious from the signs they were sending, it held no interest for them. Their bored look said, "When are we going to get out of here and go somewhere else." Incidents like this teach us to ask beforehand what a person enjoys before attempting to show him or her the town.

Some might object that observing body language can be an intrusion on one's privacy; we shouldn't be "spying" on others.

It is true some people are nosy. Like anything good, when reading body language is misused it can become an abuse.

In studying counseling, our psychology professor drummed into us, "Never use counseling to control others!" This holds equally true in reading body language; it must always follow the principle of reverential distance. For example, instead of noticing anxiety in a person and saying: "You look uptight," it is better to say: "How are you feeling?" and to give the person freedom to take it from there. Allowing a person space must always come first. In this way, reading body language maintains its dignity.

As much as we never want to intrude on another's personal life, the practice of reading body language contains an indispensable principle: we aren't meant to be ships passing in the night. As social beings we are expected to look out for, and be at the service of each other. One of our best means for achieving this is to take interest in the signals that are being sent between us.

One of the pillars of Christianity is the principle of the preposition "for." God became incarnate for us, and lived, died and rose from the dead for us. God did not remain in Heaven, not caring for us. As Christ used his senses and sensitivity as a means of uniting with us, so too, are we expected to do the same with others. In the eyes of God we are not meant to be ships passing in the night. God blessed us with awesome senses for interrelating with each other. St. Augustine spells out that awesomeness in stating, "In memory all things are kept distinct and according to kind. Each is brought in through its own proper entrance; as light and all colors and bodily shapes through the eyes; all variety of sound through the ears; all odors by the portal of the nostrils; all tastes by the portal of the mouth; and by the sense diffused throughout the whole body, what is hard, what is soft, what is hot or cold, smooth or sharp, heavy or light, whether outside or inside the body. The great cave of memory . . . takes all these things to be called up and brought forth when there is need for them . . .

Augustine's reflection on the beauty of our senses leads us to ask, "Did God give us our marvelous senses just so we could enjoy them for ourselves, or did we receive them to be used in relating with other?"

I believe Augustine would affirm both reasons are correct, but would emphasize their primary purpose is to better understand and relate to another.

The reading of body language has recently taken on an greater importance due to senseless killings we have experienced. In many cases, those who knew the killers detected signs of bizarre behavior, and regretted not acting on what they sensed.

Our life is a matrix of signals we are forever sending to each other. The more interest we take in them, the greater probability of creating the good life. How very true is the proverb, "By wisdom is a house built and through understanding is it established." The more we take interest in the signals we send to each other; the better is home life for all of us.