It’s not what you’re thinking.
After last night’s show a man approached me with a question I actually get pretty often. He wanted to know if I trained law enforcement professionals how to read and interpret body language. The event I was entertaining for was an annual meeting of an association of telecommunications cooperatives, so the guy probably wasn’t a cop himself. But I have performed at a lot of association meetings for chiefs of police and state troopers, so I’ve had plenty of chances to field that question from people with a strong interest in the answer. My response is always “no.”
For one thing, people usually ask me that question after seeing me “read” dozens of minds. After seeing a guy reveal a roomful of people’s hidden thoughts, it’s probably tempting to think, “hey, I bet that skill would come in handy.” But of course my work as an entertainer doesn’t rely only on reading people. It also relies on suggestion, strategy, misdirection, and a whole grab bag of other techniques. In order to make it look like you can read minds, you have to use a whole lot more than just body language.
When cops themselves ask me if I can give seminars in body language, I always ask what information they’re specifically interested in. It turns out it’s not what you would expect. I always thought they would be interested in learning to become better lie detectors. In fact, nearly all of them seem to think they’re perfect at that already. (They’re not. Studies show that cops in general tend to score lower at lie detection than you’re average college student.) In fact, what they express the most interest in is how to tell if a suspect is about to turn violent.
I love talking about and teaching body language, but it’s important to remember that skills are practiced in context. My worlds are entertainment, public speaking, sales, and customer service. This is why my articles and talks are focused on these areas. There are a million details I can address because I have actually walked these paths. Never in my life have I had to decide whether a perp is about to pull a knife or take a swing at me. I’m sure I could give a nice, academic lecture that would illuminate the situation and help cops learn what to pay attention to, but I’m certain that I would be leaving out crucial details that could literally mean the difference between life and death for somebody. There’s a world of difference between book learning and life experience, and this is a topic that is clearly best left to the presenter who has lived the life.
So if you’re in law enforcement and you’d like a nice primer in people reading for investigation, I suggest this. It’s also a great read for non-cops. And if you’re curious about how to detect the early warning signs of violence, let this former guardian angel be your guide. While not specifically writing about detecting the warning signs of violence, Paul Ekman has written an entire book about the body language of emotions that I strongly recommend for anybody. As always, I get no commission on these recommendations.