3 myths about body language in coaching

The discussion on the importance of “body language” has experienced a renaissance with the advent of online coaching. Many coaches studied in schools which teach the importance of body language and (worse) it’s “correct” interpretation by the coach.

Let me go through some of the “myths” around body language that continue to float through the coachosphere:

Body language interpretation is very useful for a coach

Hm…. I don’t think so. Why?

a) the coach is not there to “interpret” the client

b) there is no way the coach can know whether they are “correct” without checking with the client — so why go through the hassle of “interpreting” body language when you have to check (and then believe) the client anyway. If the coach thinks that they are more correct in their interpretation than the client, go back to point a).

Body language carries 70% of the meaning

The number cited varies between 70-93% and it derives from a study by Albert Mehrabian (Mehrabian, A., & Ferris, S. R. (1967). Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels. Journal of consulting psychology, 31(3), 248). The study is understood to mean that people don’t really pay attention to what you say, they pay attention to your body language and trust that more than your words. However, Mehrabian’s study was taken out of context. In this study, 62 women were asked to listen to a spoken word: “maybe”. The speakers of the word were asked to communicate either “liking”, “neutrality” or “dislike”. At the same time, the women were shown a picture of a person who supposedly was speaking the word. They were then asked to interpret whether the the person expressed “like”, “neutrality” or “dislike”. In this setting, the women trusted the picture more than the tone of voice.

So, no. Body language does not carry any percentage of the meaning. Meaning is always co-created between two people (don’t get me started on the sender-receiver model) and what we do together in communication involves the whole, unseparable person.

Eye movements tell us what someone is thinking about

NLP and other approaches claim that eye movements are indicative of what a person is thinking about and even whether they are lying or not. When a right handed person looks to up and to the right, they are constructing something, when they are looking up and left they are actually remembering something, so the claim. Wiseman R, Watt C, ten Brinke L, Porter S, Couper SL, Rankin C. The eyes don’t have it: lie detection and Neuro-Linguistic Programming. PLoS One. 2012;7(7) show very convincingly that this can simply not be proven through experiments.

If you want to figure out if someone is lying, it seems, you need to know the person and have “a baseline” of how they normally act. If something is off, maybe it makes sense to ask the person about it.

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