The Problem with Body Language Training

My chosen field of study and work is embodied training. When I tell people this they normally think I mean body language and this is frustrating as they are some critical differences. Describing them has also led me to be very clear about what is not helpful in body language training as it is traditionally done. I now offer what I call body language training as this is the better known term but the training content is a world apart from the normal farcical set of misunderstandings.

Why Traditional Body Language Training Is a Waste of Time

Despite the massive importance of the body in communication and leadership body language training doesn’t work that well and when it does it’s usually unethical. This is pretty bold claim so let me explain. Many others intuitively feels this way and are “turned-off” body language, here’s my analysis of why:

Context and Reductionism

Much body language training says if someone does X then it means Y. The classic example is saying that crossing arms means you are defensive. Does it? …Well it depends.  Cultural, situational, personal and interpersonal factors are all important. In the arms crossed example, it could mean I am cold, it could just be a habit picked up from a parent, it could be the norm in a country or sub-

culture, etc. So it depends. Some schools use only the perceived effect on an observer of body signals and do not claim to know underlying meaning but these can fall into the same trap of reducing and prematurely labeling the wealth of embodied human experience.

Gesture Not Posture and Movement

Better body language training acknowledges the context issue and looks for changes from a base-line however they are still looking at the wrong things. Body language nearly always focuses on static poses and fleeting gestures. However, posture – the overall pattern of a person’s body and their manner of movement are much more important that if someone has their legs crossed one way or another for example. The vast majority of body language trainers have a woefully inadequate understanding how people move and deep postures. Warren Lamb wrote on this many years ago but he has been largely ignored which is a shame.

No Personal Internal Embodied Wisdom

The body as relates to leadership and communication is best understood internally – this field, called somatics – the “lived” experience of the body – provides a wealth of first-hand knowledge that is far superior to the crude theories of body language “experts”. By working for years in fields such as dance, martial arts and therapeutic bodywork a way of understanding the body is gleaned that realises the importance of such factors as attention and intention, imagery and emotion. Through cultivating high levels of personal body awareness intuition to other’s bodies is built (though recognition of mirroring and having enough personal range to understand others). People who have read a few books and don’t have these skills so are best ignored when it comes to the body.


This is the big one – the gestures that body language training teaches people make them look inauthentic for the reason so far discussed- see Tony Blair for a great example! “The body doesn’t lie” as Martha Graham said and we “leak” what is really going on for us out of the many channels of the body. It is impossible to control everything the body is doing form foot movement to blink rate and as other people are great unconscious BS detectors there is little point faking it. Body language experts and people they train just come across as inauthentic, untrustworthy and a bit creepy and weird the vast majority of the time because of this -we know they are full of it. Professional liars such as actors and politicians have to train for many years to have a chance at fooling us and yet we usually know when someone is trying to fake it.


I have found most body language training and similar NLP body “tricks” don’t work that well, however when they do – and people who are not body aware themselves can be fooled for short periods I worry about the ethics of it. How is teaching people to pretend to be trustworthy in sales for example in any way a moral way to earn a living? Body language is at best ethically neutral a more normally of interest to those with an interest in manipulation – see the world of “pick-up” for some examples of this.

The Fundamental Issue with Body Language Training

Perhaps the most fundamental criticism I have of body language training is that it is concerned with doing not being. Rather than working with the body as a tool for genuine transformative change at the level of who someone is, it teaches cheap tricks. Because of the lack of internal awareness raising and external practices that can actually build a different way of operating in the world – authentically and effectively – body language is giving a bad name to anyone who works with the body. I hope this article has made some distinctions that those considering such training find helpful.

NB: Many of these points were bought home to be after watching a number of DVDs by Michael Grindler (as good and as bad as it gets in the body language field – see below) and doing a session with one of his UK students, so genuine thanks to them for helping me differentiate body language form the embodied work I love.


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