Imagine the following scenario: Someone in a group dislikes you, whether out of envy or mistrust, but in the group
environment they cannot express this overtly or they will look bad—not a team player. And so they smile at you, engage you in conversation, and even seem to support your ideas. At times you might feel something is not quite right, but the signs are subtle and you forget them as you pay attention to the front they present. Then suddenly, as if out of the blue, they obstruct you or display an ugly attitude. The mask has come off. The price you pay is not only difficulties in your work or personal life, but also the emotional toll, which can have a lingering effect.
Understand: People’s hostile or resistant actions never come out of the blue. There are always signs before they take any action. It is too much of a strain for them to completely suppress such strong emotions. The problem is not only that we are not paying attention but also that we inherently do not like the thought of conflict or disagreement. We prefer to avoid thinking about it and to assume that people are on our side, or at least neutral. Most often, we feel something is not quite right with the other person but ignore the feeling. We must learn to trust such intuitive responses and to look for those signs that should trigger a closer examination of the evidence.
People give out clear indications in their body language of active dislike or hostility. These include the sudden squinting of the eyes at something you have said, the glare, the pursing of the lips until they nearly disappear, the stiff neck, the torso or feet that turn away from you while you are still engaged in a conversation, the folding of the arms as you try to make a point, and an overall tenseness in the body. The problem is that you will not usually see such signs unless a person’s displeasure has become too strong to conceal at all. Instead, you must train yourself to look for the microexpressions and the other more subtle signs that people give out.
The microexpression is a recent discovery among psychologists who have been able to document its existence through film. It lasts less than a second. There are two varieties of this: The first comes when people are aware of a negative feeling and try to suppress it, but it leaks out in a fraction of a second. The other comes when we are unaware of their hostility and yet it shows itself in quick flashes on the face or in the body. These expressions will be a momentary glare, tensing of the facial muscles, pursing of the lips, the beginnings of a frown or sneer or look of contempt, with the eyes looking down. Aware of this phenomenon, we can look for these expressions. You will be surprised at how often they occur, because it is nearly impossible to completely control the facial muscles and repress the signs in time. You must be relaxed and attentive, not obviously looking for them but catching them out of the corner of your eye. Once you begin to notice such expressions, you will find it easier to catch them.
Equally eloquent are those signs that are subtle but can last for several seconds, revealing tension and coldness. For instance, when you first approach someone who harbors negative thoughts toward you, if you surprise them by coming up on them from an angle, you will clearly see signs of displeasure at your approach before they have had time to fit on their affable mask. They are not so happy to see you and it shows for a second or two. Or you are expressing a strong opinion and their eyes begin to roll, which they try to quickly cover up with a smile.
Sudden silence can say a lot. You have said something that triggers a twinge of envy or dislike, and they cannot help but lapse into silence and brood. They may try to hide this with a smile as they inwardly fume. As opposed to simple shyness or having nothing to say, you will detect definite signs of irritation. In this case, it is best to notice this a few times before coming to any conclusions.
People will often give themselves away with the mixed signal—a positive comment to distract you but some clearly negative body language. This offers them relief from the tension of always having to be pleasant. They are betting on the fact that you will tend to focus on the words and gloss over the grimace or lopsided smile. Pay attention as well to the opposite configuration—someone says something sarcastic and pointed, directed at you, but they do this with a smile and a jokey tone of voice, as if to signal it is all in good humor. It would be impolite to not take it in this vein. But in fact, particularly if this occurs a few times, you should pay attention to the words and not the body language. It is their repressed way of expressing their hostility. Take notice of people who praise or flatter you without their eyes lighting up. This could be a sign of hidden envy.
In the novel The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal, Count Mosca receives an anonymous letter designed to stir up jealous feelings about his mistress, whom he is desperately in love with. In thinking over who could have sent it, he recalls a conversation earlier that day with the Prince of Parma. The prince was talking about how the pleasures of power pale in comparison with the pleasures afforded by love, and as he said this, the count detected a particularly malicious glint in his eye, accompanied by an ambiguous smile. The words were about love in general but the look was directed at him. From that he correctly deduces that the prince had sent the letter; he could not completely contain his venomous glee at what he had done, and it had leaked out. This is a variation on the mixed signal. People say something relatively strong about a general topic, but with subtle looks they point at you.
An excellent gauge for decoding antagonism is to compare people’s body language toward you and toward others. You might detect that they are noticeably friendlier and warmer toward other people and then put on a polite mask with you. In a conversation they cannot help showing brief flashes of impatience and irritation in their eyes, but only when you talk. Also keep in mind that people will tend to leak out more of their true feelings, and certainly hostile ones, when they are drunk, sleepy, frustrated, angry, or under stress. They will later tend to excuse this, as if they weren’t themselves for the moment, but in fact they were actually being more themselves than ever.
In looking for these signs, one of the best methods is to set up tests, even traps for people. King Louis XIV was a master of this. He stood at the top of a court in Versailles filled with members of the nobility seething with hostility and resentment toward him and the absolute authority he was trying to impose. But in the civilized realm of Versailles they all had to be consummate actors and hide their feelings, particularly toward the king. Louis had his ways, however, of testing them. He would suddenly appear in their presence, without warning, and look for the immediate expressions on their faces. He would request a nobleman to move himself and his family to the palace of Versailles, knowing that this was costly and unpleasant. He carefully observed any signs of annoyance in the face or voice. He would say something negative about another courtier, an ally of theirs, and notice their immediate reaction. Enough signs of discomfort indicated secret hostility.
If you suspect someone of feeling envy, talk about the latest good news for you without appearing to brag. Look for microexpressions of disappointment on their face. Use similar tests to probe for hidden anger and resentments, eliciting the responses that people cannot suppress so quickly. In general, people will want to see more of you, want to see less of you, or be rather indifferent. They may fluctuate among the three states, but they will tend to veer toward one. They will reveal this in how quickly they respond to your emails or texts, their body language on first seeing you, and the overall tone they take in your presence.
The value in detecting possible hostility or negative feelings early on is that it increases your strategic options and room to maneuver. You can lay a trap for people, intentionally stirring their hostility and goading them into some aggressive action that will embarrass them in the long run. Or you can work doubly hard to neutralize their dislike of you and even win them over through a charm offensive. Or you can simply create distance—not hiring them, firing them, refusing to interact with them. In the end, you will make your path much smoother by avoiding surprise battles and acts of sabotage.
On the other side of the coin, we generally have less of a need to hide positive emotions from others, but nonetheless we often do not like to emit obvious signs of joy and attraction, especially in work situations, or even in courtship. People often prefer to display a cool social front. So there is great value in being able to detect the signs that people are falling under your spell.
According to research studies on facial cues by psychologists such as Paul Ekman, E. H. Hess, and others, people who feel positive emotions for you will display noticeable signs of relaxation in the facial muscles, particularly in the lines of the forehead and the area around the mouth; their lips will appear more fully exposed and the whole area around their eyes will widen. These are all involuntary expressions of comfort and openness. If the feelings are more intense, such as falling in love, blood rushes to the face, animating all of the features. As part of this excited state the pupils will dilate, an automatic response in which the eyes let in more light. It is a sure sign that a person is comfortable and likes what they are seeing. Along with the dilation the eyebrows will rise, making the eyes look even bigger. We do not usually pay attention to eye pupils because looking intently into another’s eyes has an overtly sexual connotation. We must train ourselves to glance quickly at the pupils when we notice any widening of the eyes.
In developing your skills in this arena, you must learn to distinguish between the fake and the genuine smile. In trying to hide our negative feelings, we most often resort to the fake smile, because it is easy and people generally do not pay attention to the subtleties of smiles. Because the genuine variety is less common, you must know how to recognize it. The genuine smile will affect the muscles around the eyes and widen them, often revealing crow’s-feet on the sides of the eyes. It will also tend to pull the cheeks upward. There is no genuine smile without a definite change in the eyes and cheeks. Some people will try to create the impression of the genuine variety by putting on a very broad smile, which will partially alter the eyes as well. So in addition to the physical signs, you must look at the context. The genuine smile usually comes from some action or words that suddenly elicit the response; it is spontaneous. Is the smile in this case somewhat unrelated to the circumstances, not warranted by what was said? Is it a situation in which a person is straining to impress or has strategic goals in mind? Is the timing of the smile slightly off?
Perhaps the most telling indication of positive emotions comes from the voice. It is much easier for us to control the face; we can look in a mirror for such purposes. But unless we are professional actors, the voice is very difficult to consciously modulate. When people are engaged and excited to talk to you, the pitch of their voice rises, indicating emotional arousal. Even if people are nervous, the tone of the voice will be warm and natural, as opposed to the simulated warmth of a salesman. You can detect an almost purring quality to the voice, which some have likened to a vocal smile. You will notice also an absence of tension and hesitation. In the course of a conversation there is an equal level of banter, with the pace quickening, indicating increasing rapport. A voice that is animated and happy tends to infect us with the mood and elicit a similar response. We know it when we feel it, but often we ignore these feelings and instead concentrate on the friendly words or sales pitch.
Finally, monitoring nonverbal cues is essential in your attempts at influencing and seducing people. It is the best way to gauge the degree to which a person is falling under your spell. When people start to feel comfortable in your presence, they will stand closer to you or lean in, their arms not folded or revealing any tension. If you are giving a talk or telling a story, frequent head nods, attentive gazes, and genuine smiles will indicate that people agree with what you are saying and are losing their resistance. They exchange more looks. Perhaps the best and most exciting sign of all is synchrony, the other person unconsciously mirroring you. Their legs cross in the same direction, the head tilts in a similar manner, one smile inducing another. At the deepest level of synchrony, as Milton Erickson discovered, you will find breathing patterns falling into the same rhythm, which can sometimes end in the complete synchrony of a kiss.
You can also train yourself to not only monitor these changes that show your influence but induce them as well by displaying positive cues yourself. You begin to slowly stand or lean closer, revealing subtle signs of openness. You nod and smile as others talk. You mirror their behavior and their breathing patterns. As you do so, you watch for signs of emotional infection, going further only when you detect the slow crumbling of resistance.
.With expert seducers who use all of the positive cues to mimic the appearance that they are falling in love only to bring you more deeply under their control, keep in mind that very few people naturally reveal so much emotion so early on. If your supposed effect on them seems a bit too rushed and perhaps contrived, tell them to slow down and monitor their face for microexpressions of frustration.