How to read your interviewee’s body language

Like boxing, interviewing can be a sweet science for a journalist. Learn how to read your opponent’s movements –  his body language – like a book and land the right blow.

The alarm is ringing. No, it is not a dream. You chose to become a journalist, so better crawl out of this barricade of pillows and prepare for the interview of your life. This interview might give you the long dreamed breakthrough and separate you from the other copy-and-paste-desk-slaves.

On the agenda is an interview with a corrupt politician, a well know philanderer, who is alleged to have an extramarital affair. You have done all the research and prepared the question in the last couple of days, but that does not guarantee you do not screw up.

To begin with: choose your clothes wisely. The general rule is to wear something that you are comfortable in and that represents you (or your paper). But that does not mean you should wear your favourite jogging pants, because they make it easier for you to scratch your sensitive areas.

You should rather wear something that will create a bond between you and your interviewee, e.g. your younger brother’s baggy pants when you interview a Gangster-Rapper, or in this case, a suit since you will meet a politician.

And if this is not feasible, you just “opt for the style that will embarrass you least,” as Sally Adams writes in her book, Interviewing for Journalist.

No interviewee wants to know what you had for breakfast by looking at the remnants between your teeth, therefore have your breakfast at home and brush your teeth. If you cannot avoid the coffee to go because of life-style obligations, just be careful that you do not make it a coffee to fall.

Before you leave, just check whether you have all the essentials: voice recorder – check; spare batteries – check; pen and pad – check; last issue of the New Journalist – check; phone tapping device – just kidding, we know no journalist would dare to…

Obviously, you have to be on time, but in case you come too late, making something up like: my grandmother’s uncle’s friend’s cousin’s husband’s zebra past away this morning.

The weigh in

Psychologists say that most people categorise other people in the first few seconds of encounter, so you better be arresting. If you have good knowledge of human nature, your counterpart’s impression on you might not be too wrong either.

Hence, for example, pay attention to what he is wearing. Is he the deceiving person who wears a fake Boss suit or the pretentious with the Armani suit?

The handshake is also an important part of the first impression. As much as you can read the interviewee through his handshake, he can read you. So dry your sweaty hands, and give a confident, strong shake, without breaking his hand.

Politicians tend to cover the other person’s hand with the second hand to convey honesty, but since politicians are not the most honest people, you might want to avoid that. In case your interviewee turns his palm up, while shaking your hand, it could mean that he is a dominant person.

Now do not sit down before you are asked to. In case you have the choice, do not sit too close to the interviewee, because you do not want him to see the caricatures, which you will draw of him when you are bored. Still, do not sit too far either, since you do not want to appear too distant.

According to the anthropologist Edward T. Hall, there are five personal space zones: the close intimate space (0-15cm); the intimate space (15-45cm); the personal space (45cm-1.2m); the social space (1.2m-3.6m) and the public space (3.6m-7.6m).

Move in the social space, and if you are really getting along with the interviewee, get closer to the personal space. Yet, never move into the close intimate space, unless everything else fails, and you have to fall back on other methods of persuasion.

Interviewing is pretty much like having a date: keep the object of your desire talking, avoid awkward moments of silence and pretend that you are utterly interested by nodding, eye-contact and sounds of agreement.

Before you start the actual interview, loosen your interviewee up and create a bond with a little kaffeeklatsch about shared experiences or things you might have in common. But instead of mentioning the mutual lover, rather talk about the University you both went to.

The first round

People knew how to stalk and read people before Facebook was invented. You have done the stalking, so read his face like a book!

If your interviewee is thinking about a question and looks up to the left, he is remembering an actual image or location, whereas, if he looks up to the right, he tends to lie, because this is where the imaginative part of the brain is located.

There are many more indicators for a lie. Firstly, there is the cookie-jaw phenomenon: Like children who try to hide their hands innocently behind their back after stealing biscuits, people tend to hide their hands when they are lying, because they know hands might give away a lie by making involuntary movements.

If the hands are not packed away safely, they could reveal a lie through other remnants of our childhood gestures. Children often cover their mouths, when they catch themselves lying or saying something bad. Likewise, adults often put their hand close to the mouth, rub their nose or hold their forehead.

Secondly, rubbing an ear might also debunk a lie.  According to Allan Pease, also known as “Mr Body Language”, rubbing ones ear is another childhood remainder, which we used to do after getting our ear pulled for lying or behaving badly.

Maybe this depends on the generation, because the new generation gets “punished” for their disobedience by not getting a new app for their iPhones.

Further, rubbing ones eyes could also be a signal, since this probably means one tries to avoid eye contact. Many other self-touching movements, like scratching ones neck or holding ones collar, often mean that one is holding something back, by, for example, agreeing while one is actually not agreeing.

Finally, look out for a fleeting expression. Sometimes a smile is replaced for a fifth of second with anger and could thus reveal a lie.

“Everyone reveals himself with a different move, like fidgeting in the chair, and some reveal themselves by not moving at all,” says Patrick Stoddart a veteran journalist and former media editor of The Sunday Times.

The knockout

So up till now you did not let the cat out of the bag. You smiled incessantly, although you wanted to smash his head in, and you even laughed at what he called a “joke”. But even if you did it like Ali, and you flew like a butterfly and stung like a bee, now it is the time for the knockout. Frost and Nixon are approaching their Watergate.

Before you pop “the question”, be sure you are close to the door and in safe distance from your interviewee’s right hook. When you ask your final question stay sovereign, flattering and do not be rude, otherwise you will remove the cat’s claws before it has a chance to scratch.

You could also put the blame for the question on someone else, or soften it by not taking it too serious either and meeting the question with discontent yourself.

If the interviewee did not chase you out of the door, but did not want to answer either, there are some last resorts: threaten with “no comment”, because no answer is also an answer, or persist like the journalist Jeremy Paxman did in his famous interview with politician Michael Howard – or as the journalist and Professor for Journalism Phillip Kightley said: “no ‘no’ is ever final.”

If you follow these rules, you might not become best friends with the interviewee, but you will be definitely closer to get the true answers and much further away from receiving a black eye instead.

More body language

Arms and hands

  • Prayer-like position of the hands, or fingertips touching and palms apart could display seniority, superiority or confidence. Wagging the index finger might be a sign of bullying or “I know best”.
  •  Ticking off points on the finger of one hand with another finger can reveal his or her authoritarian personality.
  • Pushing real or imaginative objects away or piecing and flicking imaginary fluff of cloths indicate a rejection of what is heard.
  • Holding one’s palms up stands for acceptance, holding them down for negation. Palms up could also be the beggar pleading for agreement.
  • Crossed arms portray defence, lack of security or nervousness.
  • There are also hidden crossed arms: holding a glass with both hands, adjusting one’s sleeves or checking the clasp of a handbag.

Legs and Feed

  • Tightly crossed legs tugged securely under the chair are a signal for insecurity.
  • Crossed legs tend to be a defence position.
  • Positioning one’s ankle on top of the other legs knee means he is more open and relaxed.
  • If the ankles are crossed, he or she feels nervous or uncomfortable, but tries to suppress the feeling.
  • Feet, which are pointing towards the exit, might display an urge to flee.

Body and Head

  • Turning the nose to the side might be a sign of disbelieve or dislike.
  • You will know that your interviewee is interested, as soon as his or her pupils enlarge and the blink rate accelerates.
  • The head might tilt, if he or she is interested, or look down, in case of submission.
  • Leaning back with the body or head can mean he or she is relaxed, not interested or repelled; leaning forward shows interest or aggression.
  • Unbuttoning the jacket is usually an indicator for relaxation.
  • Frustration and nervousness could be revealed through readjustment of the tie (or other objects) although it is straight.
  • Further signs of discomfort or boredom: tapping, twisting a ring, moving and replacing it, scratching the head, staring at a spot on the floor or the wall, removing glasses and putting them back on.



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