The Washington Post

Executives turn to body language for an edge

Janine Driver has a few tips for you: Touch your chin the next time you’re accepting a stressful assignment. Widen your stance when you’re in an important business meeting. And the next time you’re sitting down, pop one elbow over the top of your chair.

“How you sit, stand, walk, shake hands — it’s all part of your brand,” said Driver, chief executive of the Body Language Institute in Alexandria. “Powerful people, they do it a certain way. They take up space, they exude confidence, they know how to show they’re smart and in control.”

Driver, whose clients include Lockheed Martin, Coca-Cola and Georgetown University, said business leaders are learning not only how to send the right signals, but also how to read them. In light of high-profile cases of fraud in recent years, deception detection techniques and body language workshops that were once reserved for police forces, military intelligence personnel and the FBI are becoming relevant in the corporate world.

“This is something you absolutely didn’t see five or 10 years ago,” said James Newberry, a former agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who teaches deception detection and rapport building at the Body Language Institute. “But now when managers hire people or negotiate a deal, they’re interested in knowing how to read faces and body language.”

The Body Language Institute is part of a thriving industry of consultants helping people to climb their career ladder.

In Chevy Chase, Michele Pollard Patrick recently added a “boardroom body language” course to her curriculum at National Protocol, which offers courses in etiquette.

Among other things, she teaches hiring managers that they should sit across from the person they’re interviewing, but that the chairs shouldn’t be completely in line.

“Direct eye contact is important, but your chair should be slightly off so you’re not too intimidating,” she said.

When Patrick started the school 20 years ago, she taught dining etiquette to children. “Now,” she said, “all of my clients are corporations and law firms and universities.”

Teaching detective skills

Driver, who spent 15 years as a federal law enforcement officer for the Justice Department, started the Body Language Institute three years ago when she realized there was an untapped market for teaching detective skills to businesspeople.

“It’s literally the same techniques I’ve given the CIA and the FBI,” said Driver, whose three-day courses cost $1,495. “There is such a demand for these skills in the corporate world.”

Over the years, she has assembled a collection of instructors — ranging from those who focus on fraud and deception, to others who specialize in etiquette and handwriting analysis. It is important, she said, for executives to know how to interpret different types of signals their employees and clients may be sending them.

“For example,” Driver said, “truthful people say ‘no.’ If someone were to ask you ‘Have you ever stolen money from your boss’s wallet?’ you’d say ‘no.’ But a liar would say, ‘never.’ That’s what you have to look for.”

Facial reactions and expressions can change within a fraction of a second, making them easy to miss, said Aaron Brehove, a fraud investigator for an accounting firm, who also teaches at the Body Language Institute.

“In the boardroom, when people aren’t completely enthralled with an initiative you’re pushing, you need to be able to recognize what’s happening,” Brehove said. “Being able to read nonverbal and verbal cues can make the difference between being a good manager and not, so a lot of executives are looking for ways to reinvent how they present themselves.”

Toby Warden, a study director at the National Research Council in Washington, took a course at the Body Language Institute earlier this year.

“The important thing for me was learning how to not only be open but to appear open at work,” she said. “I’m a lot more aware of my interactions now and try to keep my palms open when I talk.”

Abha Bhattarai is a business reporter for The Washington Post. She has previously written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg Times.
Show Comments

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.