7 tips for reading a candidate’s body language

You may have heard of the ‘7-38-55’ rule of communication; UCLA Professor Albert Mehrabian’s theory that 55% of meaning is conveyed through body language, words merely accounting for 7%, while tone conveys the remaining 38%.

Professor Mehrabian’s figures relate primarily to first impressions and situations where communication tends to lack congruence.

The ‘7-38-55’ rule is especially pertinent to interview situations, where both first impressions and a candidate’s desire to say the right thing – no matter how truthful – come into play. To really gain an insight into a candidate’s personality, here are seven non-verbal clues body language can give away, no matter what they’re actually saying:

1. Crow’s feet

If you want to spot a genuine smile on first meeting, look for those crow’s feet crinkles around the eyes. Called the ‘Duchenne smile’, a genuine grin activates muscles not only around the mouth but those also controlling the outside of the eyes. No crinkle = no smile, no matter how many teeth your candidate shows.

2. Raised eyebrows

Humans tend to lift their eyebrows in unconscious displays of discomfort or worry. If your candidate’s eyebrows are raised, they may not be as comfortable or sincere as their corresponding words suggest.

3. Eye contact

The eyes really do have it. Sustained eye contact suggests interest, but you should also watch for a lack of blinking here. Accomplished liars know that eye contact is important, so they may over-do their efforts. Watch for no eye contact from your candidate – or too much, at any one time.

4. Mirror, mirror

Unconscious mimicking suggests comfort and rapport. If you find your candidate mirroring your movements (leaning forward, leaning back, gesturing) – or you find yourself mirroring theirs in return – it may mean you’ve found someone you can instinctively trust.

5. Space invaders

You want your candidate to feel comfortable – but not too comfortable, too soon. If an interviewee stands too close, or constantly reaches over the desk, they may be displaying an unconscious need to take charge. Self-possessed candidates are highly desirable, but watch for those who automatically need to dominate, even in unfamiliar situations.

6. Cross over

Crossed legs suggest a person is closed off, both mentally and physically. Crossed arm signals need to be read with caution, however. Like crossed legs, the position can suggest defensiveness. But the environment plays an important factor here. Does the chair your candidate is using have armrests? Is it cold in the room? In either situation, you might get crossed arms from the most open candidate on your list.

7. On shaky ground

Let’s go back to the legs. If your candidate is jiggling their leg constantly, they might be nervous – or impatient with your questions. If their legs are crossed, and pointed away from you – and toward the nearest exit – they may be signaling their disinterest in the conversation. Likewise for feet tucked under a chair – when people engage, the feet come forward.

The general rule, when it comes to reading body language, is that forward, open gestures tend to suggest open, honest communication, no matter the body part.

The ‘7-38-55’ rule should never be taken to mean that words don’t matter, of course. But for those times when words don’t match a person’s physical language, you can often look to the body for the real story.
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SEEK is the destination of choice for job-seekers and hirers in Australia, acting as the conduit between hirers looking to fill vacant roles and candidates looking for work across many and varied industries. SEEK's mission is to help people...

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