How Cues Work
When most people think about communication, they think about decoding cues.
Decoding is how we read and interpret social signals from others. Social signals help us decipher everything about a person—their intentions toward us, their trustworthiness, their competence, even their personality
miss cues and then wonder why people act the way they do. Decoding cues is essential for accurately reading emotions, predicting behavior, and solving your people problems. As you become more adept at decoding cues, you’ll be able to figure out the difference between what people say they are feeling and what they actually feel.
But decoding is only a part of the equation. What about the cues we send to others? This is called encoding.
Encoding is how we send social cues. We send some cues purposefully—we stand with good posture to show confidence, or we smile to show friendliness. But many of our cues are accidental. We can’t control every cue we send—it’s almost impossible to alter your blink rate, for instance—but we can influence our most important cues.
Purposeful encoding puts you in control of how others perceive you. This helps you feel more confident, make stronger first impressions, and create a more memorable presence.
The Body Language of Leaders
When most people think about communicating, they focus on one piece: verbal. While words matter, unfortunately, your words alone aren’t enough. Your nonverbal cues influence—by either enhancing or detracting from how your words are understood. The old cliché is true: “You hear what you see.”
You can have the greatest story, the best piece of data, or the most impressive credentials, but if you don’t share them with the right cues, they won’t land.
CHARMISA CUE #1: Lean Like a Leader
Leaning in is the single fastest way to look (and feel) interested and engaged.
When to lean
When you’re talking to colleagues or partners and you want to show them how much you support them, are interested in their idea, and are engaged with them.
When you want to call attention to someone else’s idea and show you agree.
When you are giving a presentation, to emphasize your most important points.
When NOT to lean
When you disagree with others. In fact, withholding leaning is a great way to respectfully show someone you are not into what they’re saying.
When you need to create space or boundaries. Have a toxic person in your life? Do NOT lean in while stating your needs. Stand tall, stand firm.
If you feel like you’re bowing, you’ve leaned too far.
CHARMISA CUE #2: Open Body, Open Mind
A closed body signals a closed mind . . . and it inspires close-mindedness in others.
When to be open
When you are in one-on-one interactions where you need to build rapport. Make a show of removing all barriers between you and others. Clear the table in a client meeting. Push aside a computer in a brainstorming session. Move your clipboard to the side when talking to people. Scoot your coffee over on a date. Open body, open heart, open mind.
When you need to spark ideas. Want to be more creative, open-minded, imaginative? Uncross your arms. Want others to be more creative, open-minded, or imaginative? Encourage them to uncross theirs. Hand them a cup of water, give them a pen to take notes, show them a photo of your family so they have to open up and lean in.
When you are presenting or pitching. Always try to be barrier free—an open torso is the most charismatic. Use a remote instead of sitting in front of your computer. Step away from the podium. Leave your arms loose by your sides so you can gesture easily and keep your torso open to the audience.
When you are choosing profile pictures—especially for LinkedIn or dating app profiles. A closed body signals a closed mind and a closed heart.
When NOT to be open
When openness is not the right message. Irish mixed martial artist Conor McGregor is often photographed with his arms crossed. And this makes complete sense for his brand. He doesn’t want to be seen as open! It’s better for his reputation to be seen as closed, intimidating, and tough. For him, crossed arms sends the right cues—he wants to be in the Danger Zone.
When you don’t want to engage. Is someone making you feel uncomfortable? Cross those arms! If you want to signal you’re closed for business or aren’t open to someone’s ideas, block them out. This works well with close talkers or over-touchers.
CHARMISA CUE #3: Front Forward
Specifically, we point our three T’s—toes, torso, and top—toward whatever we’re paying attention to. Our physical orientation cues others as to our mental orientation. Fronting is a great cue to know what someone is thinking about.
When someone is about to leave, they’ll turn their toes toward the exit.
When two people are having a great discussion, their entire bodies align as if their toes, hips, and shoulders are on parallel lines.
When someone is hungry, they often front toward the buffet.
When to use fronting
To signal respect and/or care. Make sure your torso is turned toward people who matter to you. Greet your boss with full fronting when they come through the office doors, front with your partner when they’re sharing good news, always swivel your chair toward the person speaking.
To see what others value. Pay attention to where others are pointing their toes, torso, and top—it might give you a deeper understanding of where they’re focusing.
At the office. Make your office setup and furniture fronting-friendly. Move chairs and desks to make it easy for everyone to front. Circular boardroom tables are best. Swivel chairs make it easy.
When NOT to front
When someone is opening up too much. Ever had someone verbally vomit all over you? Or share TMI—too much information? If you find someone is oversharing, stop fronting! You’ve given them too much engagement. Angling away is a nice way to cue them to slow down and back up.
When you don’t have time or space. John Stockton made thousands of successful passes without fully fronting first. Sometimes all he had time for was a quick look or turn of the head. And that can work too when you are pressed for time—it’s certainly better than no turn at all!
When you need to be covert. Some of Stockton’s best assists were made on the sly, where he deliberately didn’t front because he was sneaking a pass to someone. If you’re trying to hide your attention and intentions, don’t front.
CHARMISA CUE #4: Be Smart with Space
The closer we feel to someone, the closer we allow them to come physically.
How to Use Space
Respect people’s space boundaries by moving physically closer as you feel more comfortable.
Try a side by side. One way you might test the waters in someone’s personal or intimate zone is to do it side by side. Fronting plus being in someone’s intimate zone can be a little much—think pre-kissing. But sitting side by side in someone’s intimate zone might be more comfortable for introverts or those slow to open up.
Use nonverbal bridges to slowly cross into others’ inner space zones. Give people handouts, snacks, or pens.
How NOT to Use Space
Don’t ever go too close too fast. Watch for invitation cues. Beware of patience cues.
Don’t back someone into an actual corner. Ever notice that people back themselves against a wall when you speak to them? You might be a close talker.
Never take a seat choice lightly. Choose seats in meetings, bars, and restaurants that match your social goals.
CHARMISA CUE #5: Engage with Gaze
Gaze is an attention cue. We look to gaze to see who or what someone is paying attention to. Are they looking at us? Great, that makes us feel important.
How to Gaze
Gaze with intent. Don’t just gaze, search. Looking for emotions gives your eye contact direction and purpose. When you’re speaking with someone, search their face for clues about how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking. This is highly competent.
Gaze for oxytocin. Avoid dead eyes and lifeless eye contact. Instead, try looking for eye locks. This is a moment where you and a conversation partner lock eyes—and it can be brief! Lock eyes when you agree, when you both laugh at the same time, or when you’re intensely paying attention. This is a great way to produce oxytocin and reduces the pressure of having to make eye contact all the time. A few great eye locks will give you all the oxytocin you need. And that’s a great way to add more warmth.
How NOT to Gaze
There are cultural differences concerning how much eye contact is appropriate. All humans benefit from oxytocin during gazing and use eye contact to decode behavior, but the amount of acceptable eye contact is different from culture to culture. Pay attention to invitation and patience cues to make sure you’re making the right amount of eye contact.
Be careful not to stare someone down! It’s creepy. Watch for patience cues like blocking, self-soothing, or distancing.
Are you dealing with an oversharer? A dominant colleague? An interrupter? You can subtly quiet a conversation hijacker by not making eye contact with them.
The Wow Factor
When you walk into a Disney park, you’re greeted with big authentic smiles and waves. Cast members nod when you ask for help and head tilt when you ask questions. They match your enthusiasm for the new attraction. They raise their eyebrows when you tell them this is your first time in the park. They give your child a high five. And you think, Wow, this is going to be a great day.
Disney opens with warmth and then blows you away with know-how. Warmth cues are incredibly important for wowing people during your first impressions. Here’s Vanessa’s rule of thumb: Show three warmth cues in the first three minutes of an interaction.
WARM WORDS WARMTH CUE
“That’s so interesting.” Eyebrow raise
“I agree.” Nodding
“I’m listening.” Head tilting
“This is exciting.” Leaning
“I respect you.” Fronting
“I trust you.” Touch
“I’m on the same page.” Mirroring
How to Spot a Bad Guy . . . and Not Be One Yourself
DANGER CUE #1: Distancing
Always be on the lookout for sudden distancing behaviors, like:
- Stepping back
- Leaning back in a chair
- Turning your head or body away
- Scooting back
- Turning away to check your phone
- Angling backward
Distancing is a subtle signal that someone has said, seen, or heard something that didn’t sit right with them.
Of course we also need to make sure you are not accidentally distancing. Others won’t respond well when they sense that you are pulling or turning away. Physical distancing can trigger emotional distance. The most charismatic people are stable, present, and engaged. They front, they lean in, they get closer. Distancing is the opposite of those positive cues.
DANGER CUE #2: Self-Comfort
Research finds that we self-touch more when we are talking about anxiety-producing topics. Think of parents with small children—moms rub a baby’s back and dads pat heads to calm kids down. Even after we reach adulthood, this desire for soothing remains, and we self-touch by rubbing our neck, wringing our hands, or stroking our legs to calm ourselves. Touch produces oxytocin, which makes us feel calm and connected.
Comfort gestures like biting nails and sucking on pens are called pacification gestures because, like a pacifier, they can be used to soothe anxiety. We also pacify by biting our lips or sucking on the inside of our cheeks. All of this reminds us of having a pacifier or a bottle in our mouth—which felt very comforting indeed.
Here are some common comfort gestures you’ll see:
- Rubbing arms or wringing hands
- Rubbing the back of the neck
- Stroking thighs or calves
- Cracking knuckles
- Biting nails or pens
- Sucking on cheek or biting lips
Study after study finds that comfort gestures, fidgets, and extraneous movements make you look less charismatic. Powerful people don’t waste energy on purposeless movements. They gesture to explain, they lean in to emphasize, they’re still unless they have a reason to move.
DANGER CUE #3: Block It Out
There are three types of blocking gestures.
- Body blocking protects our heart, lungs, and abdomen.
- Mouth blocking protects our only mechanism for consuming nutrition and water (and our best way to communicate). When people are afraid, they often bring their hands up to their mouth or clap their hand over their mouth. This
- Eye blocking shields our eyes from harm. Receivers of bad news will often cover their face or eyes with their hands or pull their glasses off to rub at their eyes in exasperation. Subconsciously they’re trying to block out what they just received and give themselves a moment to process.
Be sure to decode sudden blocks and put people at ease when you think something has made them nervous or uncomfortable. Most important, don’t encode your own anxiety with accidental blocks. These cues will immediately drop you into the Danger Zone.
DANGER CUE #4: The Signal of Shame
When we feel ashamed, we lightly touch our forehead with our fingers or hands. It is often accompanied by a look down or a tilt of the head down.
Watch any prank show and you’ll see it the moment the joke is revealed. It’s a combination eye block and self-soothing gesture. When we feel shame, we try to block it out. We do this by averting our gaze, looking down, and touching our fingers to our forehead in order to shield our face from the offending information or person. This is also a way to cover our embarrassed facial reaction.
Shame is one of the most powerful cues to spot because it’s an indication that you’re close to the Danger Zone. Shame, in itself, is not a bad cue, but it is a leading indicator that you might be stumbling into a topic, an idea, or a scenario that is making someone nervous. Shame means you’re entering the Danger Zone! If you see it, tread lightly.
DANGER CUE #5: Are You Okay?
What does your face look like when you are thinking? Listening? Working? This matters more than you think. As humans, we’re very attuned to others’ faces, constantly scanning them for cues. Faces give us a wealth of information—not only does someone’s facial expression tell us what they are thinking, it can also tell us what to think.
If you don’t like something, maybe we won’t like it either. If you’re afraid, maybe we should be afraid too. Three negative facial expressions contribute the most to resting bothered face.
When angry, we pull our eyebrows down into a furrow. This creates two vertical lines in between the eyebrows.
Encoding anger: Look in a mirror while concentrating. Do you see two vertical lines in between your eyebrows? To avoid resting bothered face, try keeping your brows relaxed.
Decoding anger: Always be on the lookout for a furrowed brow. Is it their concentration face? Great, let them be. Are they a little angry? It’s a red flag! Research and try to resolve it.
When sad, we pull the corners of our mouth down into a frown. We also droop our eyelids and pinch the corners of our eyebrows together.
Encoding sadness: Which way does your mouth turn? Do your facial features encode a certain emotion? This is information you can use to be more purposeful when you need it.
Decoding sadness: See someone pull their mouth into a frown? Spot a mouth shrug? With sadness you have two choices: address it to make someone feel better or give them space. Sometimes, especially in professional settings, people need space to deal with their sadness.
The smirk, also known as contempt, happens when we lift up one side of our mouth.
Encoding contempt: Be sure you’re not accidentally smirking—at rest, in your profile pictures, or when listening.
Decoding contempt: If you see contempt, immediately identify the source. What was said, what was felt, what happened to trigger it? Then see if you can reassure, reaffirm, or resolve the cause of the negativity
Be aware of what cues your face is sending at rest—avoid accidental anger, contempt, and sadness.
Conclusion: Practicing Your Cues
Here are some best practices to keep in mind as you activate your cues.
RULE #1: Expect the Best
Learning to read cues is not about scrutinizing everyone you meet. It’s not about creating “gotcha moments.” It’s not about catching people in lies or constantly being on the hunt for dishonesty. In fact, this approach actually makes you less effective.
RULE #2: Don’t Fake It
Learning cues is not about pretending to be smarter or more likable than you are. It’s not about using cues as a cover-up. Even the most powerful cues cannot fake expertise . . . at least not in the long run.
RULE #3: Use the Rule of Three
Challenge yourself to try every cue in this book at least three times. The first time it might feel a little uncomfortable. That’s good! This means you’re learning. The second time, hopefully it will feel a little more empowering. By the third time you’ll be able to consciously decide if it’s a cue you want to add to your toolbox.
- Decode each cue at least three times in different scenarios.
- Encode each cue at least three times in different scenarios.
- Take notes on how each one could help with your charisma goals.