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19 min read

Communicating Through Body Language With David Schneer

What someone says may not always match what they think. Learn how body language can help you strengthen workplace (and life) communication.

Listen on Apple Podcasts Listen on Spotify

David Schneer is a Ph.D., CEO, and Body Language Master Trainer at The Merrill Institute. Through conducting qualitative focus groups in the electronics industry for 30 years, he recognizes that each and every one of us are surrounded by communications contradictions. David became passionate about helping business professionals and other interested folks (hello parents of teenagers!) discern someone's truth through body language. 

During the episode, David quizzes me about common body language myths, such as reading someone from an expression or a handshake, and figuring out when someone is lying. He also provides practical advice on how to facilitate effective communications in the workplace, such as creating a comfortable environment. We also discuss how to read body language via Zoom, when only a portion of someone's body is in view.  

Viewer note: our Zoom video feed cuts out around 18 minutes into the episode, but the audio file sounds great. Our apologies for this technology hiccup.





On today's episode, I've brought on an expert at non verbal communication and he will dispel common myths about body language, help you to read other people's intent, and be a stronger communicator and manager yourself. Let's do this.


Welcome to Content Marketing Engineered, your source for building trust and generating demand with technical content. Here is your host, Wendy Covey.


Hi, and welcome to Content Marketing Engineer. On each episode, I'll break down an industry trend challenge or best practice in reaching technical audiences. You'll meet colleagues, friends, and clients of mine who will stop by to share their stories, and I hope that you leave each episode feeling inspired and ready to take action.


Before we jump in.


I'd like to give a brief shout out to my agency, True Marketing. True is a full service agency located in beautiful Austin, Texas, serving highly technical company. For more information, visit And now on with our podcast.


Hey, everyone, and welcome to another episode of Content Marketing Engineered. I'm joined today by David Schneider. He's the CEO and body language master trainer at the Merrill Institute. Welcome, David.


How are you? Wendy? It's good to see you and thank you for having me.


I'm doing wonderful. I'm so thrilled you are here. And we discussed before we hit the record button on what an interesting episode it will be to talk about nonverbal communication when many folks are just listening. So kind of ironic.


No, there's nonverbals with the voice and lots of things we teach about the sound of silence. So your listeners will be able to glean quite a bit from this great.


And then, of course, we also have this episode on YouTube and video form. And so those watching will get an extra bonus, I think, because we have some fun things happening in just a little bit. But first, tell us just a little bit about yourself and how you got into this business of nonverbal communication.


I think to understand that, you really have to understand my upbringing. From a very young age, I was always the new kid on the block. My parents brought us back and forth across America three times before I was the age of twelve. Packed together with siblings and a dog and being the new kid on the block, I learned quickly to survive by keeping my mouth shut and my eyes and my ears open. And people just naturally gravitated toward me. And eventually, after a brief stint in journalism, I co founded Merrill Research, which is a research company that we have. And I parlayed my social skills into conducting qualitative research and melding that with body language. And after conducting tens of thousands of interviews over the years, one thing that I learned is that oftentimes what comes out of somebody's mouth is not what their body is saying, which is why we're here today.


Wow. I feel sorry for your girlfriends or spouse, whoever has tried to pull one past you. And this is what you study?


Well, this is the applicability of this. It goes beyond research, it goes beyond HR legal and can settle right down in your personal life and really enhance your relationship with not having to say much.


So in the business world, why is understanding body language important?


Well, of late there's been a lot of talk about body language, and there's been a lot of notoriety about it since the show Lied to Me came on. And it's becoming to the point where people are experiencing so many communications contradictions that they're trying to establish the truth themselves. What do I mean by a communications contradiction? Well, how about this one? This is one that I could relate to when I was a single guy. You go to a nightclub and you think you have made a connection with somebody and they write down your number and you go home and you call it and you realize that it's fake. Now, did you really have a connection? Maybe not. Or in today's world, in the business world, hiring is a real issue. It's hard to find people, and then it's hard to find good people. And the charming person that was super exuberant during their interview turns out to be a toxic personality in your company and starts lighting a fire to morale. Those are things that are real issues that are happening today, and to be able to notice that stuff, but before it happens can save you a lot of trouble.


It's been estimated that the cost of a wrong hire to fix that is anywhere 30% to 40% of the person's salary. So we teach people how to interview, what to look for things like that. A customer comes into your store and they're exuberant about your product, but you never hear from them again. Or the one that I love is when I'm in a focus group. And by the way, I'm going to be back in the box conducting groups as the focus group labs begin to open up. But I'll be face to face with people and I'll show them something. And what comes out of their mouth is, oh, yeah, that's great. But every fiber of their body is screaming otherwise. And I know that there's something about that that they don't like. And so that's why it's important. If you're in product management, if you're in leadership, if you're in legal, are people really picking up what you're throwing down? And how do you know?


Do you think there's a tendency to avoid conflict or please someone or woo someone? Is that why you find there's often such a contradiction?


Yeah. That ties right into another area that we look into. And that is the latest and deception theory. Why is it that things are coming out of people's mouths and their bodies are finding that? And there's all sorts of reasons why people lie. The main one is for social cohesion. You don't walk down the Street, Wendy and come up to a couple and lean into their baby carriage and say, oh, my, your baby is so ugly.


No, I wouldn't.


We don't do that. We say something pleasant to rock the boat when a telemarketer calls. If you're one of those people that actually answers the phone and they ask you is so and so there. And you say, no, but you're lying because Wendy's right next to you. So there's different types of lies. And lies are used to not rock the boat. But you really need to establish trust, especially in leadership positions. And we talk about how to establish trust and the mannerisms of somebody that looks trustworthy. For example, you see that I'm using my hands, right? And the reason is over the years, studies have shown that people who hide their hands appear less honest and less credible. Get those hands out there.


Well, you know what? I'm safe there. I remember when my daughter was three years old, she would come and stand next to me and I wouldn't realize she was there. And I'm such a talk with my hands kind of person, I would hit her. She'd get a whack. I'm so sorry. I didn't know little Lauren. You were there.


That's a different discussion. But we need to control them, not let them control.


Well, good. Well, what are some common myths about body language that you can dispel for us?


Numerous. In fact, as I mentioned, the show, A Lie to Me was super engaging, but based on not a lot of fact. And I think the best way to understand the myths is to test you. What do you make of this, Wendy? And for our listeners? What I put up on the screen here is a woman who is standing cross legged with her arms folded across her stomach. Her head is slightly knotted and she has a look on her face. I'm not going to describe it for you, but what do you make of this? What can you tell me about this, Wendy?


She looks skeptical of whatever's being communicated to her and perhaps a little distrustful.


Okay. Would you say she's closed?


Absolutely. The arms crossed, the legs crossed. She looks very closed.


All right. Now we'll come back to that in a minute. Let's suppose that you hand someone a contract and you get this smile. And I'm showing your listeners now a picture of my colleague, Kaiser in Brussels, who is a highly trained psychologist, and she is smiling. So I'm wondering, what do you think? Do you think that's a well, let's see.


Her smile is like a closed mouth, but it's turned up. So she's not like, overjoyed, but she's pleasant. I think this might be. Thank you for this contract. Thank you for your submission on time. I'll review this. Things are moving along, but she doesn't look like someone who's super excited to sign right away. But things are going in the right direction. That's how I would take that.


That's very good, because the smile that I just put up next to the one that I showed you is an actual genuine smile. And that's because the picture on the right that I just put up, you can see the teeth, you can see the elongated corners of the mouth that are symmetrical. But what makes this a true smile is the Crow scoop that many of us try to hide are connected now?




We know scientifically that these muscles are connected, and that's the sign of a true smile.


Yeah. She looks like. Yeah. I want to work with you. I'm super excited about this. Yes.


Well, when they took these pictures, they got her to do the social smile just fine. But it was difficult for her to do the genuine smile called the Duchane smile because it's hard to do. And so the way they got her to do that was to put her twin babies in front of her. How can you tell someone when someone is lying? What are the telltale signs?


Well, I feel like the common thinking on this is someone looks to the right, I believe it is looks up and to the right, they break eye contacts, they look away. Maybe there's an awkward pause where they're trying to come up with the lie.


Okay. And what's the most honest part of the body?


Oh, gosh, I never thought about that. I feel like it has to be someone's face or facial expression. I think that's harder to control than your body.


All right. And what is the proper etiquette for a handshake?


I'm a big believer in firm and confident.


Okay. And why is it that body language is scientific? Wendy, what makes this a reliable indicator of people's emotions?


Gosh, I never thought of it in those terms. But I suppose science is something that's repeatable, that we can test, that we can study, and we get the same results every time. And so this is something where certain emotions, certain things that we're verbalizing consistently come across in our body language and the actions that we take with our body.


You're partially correct. Let's walk back through your answers. And the first one that I showed you with the woman with crossed arms and crossed legs is related to why body language is scientific. So let me get to that point. But this woman is absolutely comfortable and approachable. And the reason is because when people cross their arms, that is not necessarily a sign of blocking. It's a pacifier. If you walk into a movie theater and the lights go down, next time you go to a movie theater, look around and you'll see people doing this, especially when the lights come down, her legs are crossed, which means that if I walked up to her and pushed her on the shoulder, she would fall over.


True. So is that fine of comfort. She's comfortable enough. She trusts the people around her.


That's right. Okay. Now, that is controlled by the limbic system, the top of your brain. The limbic system is your 24 X seven warning system. It never shuts off. As soon as she felt uncomfortable or threatened, that limbic system is going to send a message to those feet and they're going to come apart. She's going to be in a stance where she can make some sort of action or none at all.




In fact, the most honest part of the body is the feet. The feet are always pointed in the direction you want to go.




That's going to come back to your environment a little bit later. What is the proper etiquette for a handshake? It is to give what you get to mimic what you receive, because some cultures are taught a very soft handshake, almost like a dead fish handshake. And the worst thing you can do is recoil or bear down on somebody. That's nonsense. That's the first time you're likely going to touch somebody. You want it to go well. And if we had more time, I can tell you countless of stories that I messed up, but you just can't tell when someone is lying, Wendy. You just can't. No matter what used to be, looking down is looking towards hell. That's a sure sign of line. Looking up is looking towards heaven. That's a Truthful search for an answer. That's all BS, if I may say so. It's bunk. And body language is scientific because it's been studied and repeated for the last six decades, and it's not a new science. It's over 400 years old.


Good boy. I didn't do very well.


No. And you know what? You're right. Along with a lot of other people who are out there in the public, who are speakers and managers and who do quite well. Obviously, your presence is excellent, but there's a lot more you can do to become a more dynamic communicator.


All right. Well, I think we need to talk more on that. I have a question for you. So I often lean towards someone when I'm talking, and I think it's a little bit of I want to make sure I hear them. But also a sign of engagement. Is that one of the signs that someone's really interested in what you have to say when there's a body lean towards them.






And the reason is we lean towards things that we like. And if all of a sudden I came into the room and sat down and you lean back, that would tell me that we have a spatial issue here. And I better back up off, Wendy. But there are two things you want to look for in engagement. You want to look for a body leaned in and relaxed, not tense, but relaxed. And you want a head tilt. That head tilt. If you have a dog and you talk to it and you get the head tilt, the same thing your dog is really trying to figure out what you're saying. Somebody does that. That's a good sign not to head back. That's a different notion.


And I have a kitten, so I've seen the ears rotate backwards or they go flat. So again, more body language.


Fear often will push the hair up.


Absolutely. Well, let's bring this back to business. And how to be a better manager or business executive. What are some of the ways to facilitate better body language or better communication in a business environment?


That's a really good question because it matters so much. And the first thing you need to know is that you're looking for symmetry and harmony and comfort. You'll walk into somebody's office and oftentimes you'll see a chair, a desk, and then the person behind the desk. And so automatically the first person that walks into your office in that set up is going to have a massive barrier between you and them. And that is your desk. Now, it's fine to have a desk to work at, but what I advise my clients is put a couple of chairs in your office or better yet, a couch don't cost very much. Put couch. Why? Well, when someone comes in your office, you don't want any barriers. You want to sit down, you let them take a seat, and then you sit down and you begin a conversation side by side where you're mirroring, which isopracticism, which is Greek for the same behavior. And that creates harmony and tranquility. When you're talking with somebody, as opposed to a desk. Podiums. Do not use a podium. When you speak, make sure that when you are talking with somebody that they're comfortable, that they have, especially if they've been traveling, have they been fed that they have enough water?


What is the temperature is in the room where you're talking. And this is something that's difficult to get done correctly in a focus group. It's either too hot or too cold. So I don't know if people are sweating about my questions or whether they're sweating because they're hot. So you really got to the TV shows where they're constantly browbeating these poor suspects into a confession is just not the way it's done. Proper law enforcement interrogation is much different. Lies are rarely caught in real time in the business environment, making your employees comfortable, making yourself accessible.


So your comment on law enforcement made me want to circle back. You said there's no way to tell when someone's lying. Nonverbally.




Or it's very difficult.


So you just cannot go up to somebody. And I can't look into the mirror here, Wendy. I can tell you're lying to me because you showed me a sign of contempt or you're looking to scance. Eye patterns are highly individualistic and oftentimes regulated by society. We're taught to look away. So what we teach is oftentimes the same things that make someone look guilty in lying are the same behaviors that they show when they're uncomfortable. So a liar tends to look uncomfortable. There are indications of lying. There's about a dozen of them. One is eyes wide open. If somebody's eyes are wide open and their pupils are wide open, that's a sign that they're trying to think of the next lie while they're watching you. And so the stimulus is super wide and causing those eyes to stare. Also, liars try not to blink because this thought of it blinking is a sign of lying.


So funny. Yes. You've described my son during his teenage years, right there.


Oh, there's all sorts of things, like a jaw shift.


But it's not consistent, is what you're saying, because of the culture you grew up in and your individual nuances. So it's not something you can bet the bank on.


Well, you can if you know what you're doing. And what we do is we try and tie these behaviors to a stimulus. So if I said, hey, Wendy, what did you do last night? And all of a sudden, Wendy leans back and starts to show shines of discomfort. I would note that down, and I would go back, we start talking about your family and the state that you live in and all that. And then I come back and I say about last night, Wendy, all of a sudden, I see another sign. I now have some confidence that something last night is bothering you and you don't want to talk about it. That's how this works.


All right, well, let's talk again about the physical environment. What if I have to, I don't know, reprimand an employee or have a performance discussion that I know is going to be difficult and charged? What might be a way to set up that environment?


Just like I said, but make it private. Close the blind. So if there's any crying or sometimes there might be shouting the same thing like that. You want to have empathy. You want to have validation. You want to listen to their concerns. I'm in one of those right now with my staff. We have an issue, and I've pulled everybody and I've listened to everybody, and now I've got to make a decision. But it's all been private. You want to have empathy, which means you understand. That doesn't mean you condone. It means you understand you got to stick to the facts. There's a great book by Robin Trust and Leadership. I highly recommend it. I have our students read it, talks about all this stuff and how important it is today, especially with people that are suffering in the pandemic, some of them silently, some of them never living alone. You will never get anything out of an employee who is in distress. But if you take care of that employee, you will have a loyal employee. That's important today.


Yes, it is. So speaking of the pandemic, and along with it, a lot of virtual workplace, a lot of virtual selling. And so here we are on Zoom and we're not in the same room. We're not on a couch together. What are some difficulties with this? And maybe a lack of you can't see my feet, for example. Right. So how do you adjust reading body language in this environment?


Great question. And everything we teach is applicable to Zoom as well as in person, with a few exceptions. You mentioned defeat. You cannot see the feet. But to a highly infrained Observer, I don't know if you can see this now, but I'm moving my feet right now. I don't know if you could see that.


It was a little bit side to side. It was very subtle.


It would be. And so would this. I don't know if you can see this. Yeah. It's called a leg cleanse. And if you're talking to your teenager who would probably do this, they start rubbing their thighs, men and women. It's a leg cleanse. It's a stressful thing where you can't see that and Zoom, but you can see my shirt. Now, we talked about the torso, right. The torso is kind of like a Billboard. If you get a ventral denial of somebody start to turn away. That's a good sign that they may not be liking. If they're leaning in, they're engaged. If their head is tilted, they are engaged. If their head is back, if they're doing this, they're pretty relaxed. They may be the boss. Usually the boss does that.


And when he's saying this, your hands are classed.


My hands are class behind my back, right?


Yeah. I think of that as the sit up position. I'm about to do some crunches, except you're leaning back.


It's all about context, right?




And that's the other thing I want to mention. It is about context, and it has to be about context because the person that is exhibiting an emotion may have nothing to do with anything that you've said. And you got to navigate that.


Yes. Well, I see where this is applicable to everything we do in our personal and professional lives, and maybe that is a good segue into. Why did you start the Merrill Institute? And what do you do? What do you do for companies or individuals?


I'm at the point in my career where I've done just about everything I want to do in qualitative research, traveled the world, conducted some great research in faraway places, and along the way became a highly trained nonverbal intelligence expert and just really wanted to give back and teach people the things that are intuitive to many good communicators, but they just don't know how to categorize it and what to do with it and how to pivot. And so we put together workshops where we have a holistic approach. You said earlier, what is the most honest part of the body? You said the face, and that is typically the least honest part of the body. And the reason is because we've been taught at least in my New York household, we were taught to wipe that smile off your face, look like you're happy. And so we've learned to feign emotions with our face. And so our training does not only micro expression training because it is important, but the rest of the body, the neck down. So it's a holistic approach. We offer half day, full day training, and then we offer certification. And certification is for people who really want to up their communications gain.


We're seeing interest from coaches who want to become more powerful in the way that they teach their own constituents. And it's of interest to a lot of parents, especially parents of team. So it has wide variety for a lot of people. And we can tailor events. The other day, I've been asked to speak at a woman's forum and boil all this down to an hour. So we can do that. We can skip across the top and give you the highlights, sort of like we did today. We actually covered a lot in the amount of time we had. So that's what we do. And we train virtually. I train on premise, and I also trained here in my studio in California. We were going to do this when I was in London, where I spent a good part of my time. And I really wanted to wait to get back here to California and do this from my studio, mostly because that's where the shirt was.


Well, for the shirt alone, it was worth it. Now, at the same time, you also continue to have your research company, Meryl Research. Tell me a bit about what that company does, what services you offer.


Well, that's actually the parent company.




We've actually separated them, but yet they're very closely tied together because Merrill Research is going on. My LinkedIn profile yesterday, I think it was my 35th anniversary of despite myself keeping Merrill Research afloat. We are a traditional custom market research company. We're multimethodological, which means we do both very large scale predictive scientific studies for big decisions. And we also do a lot of exploratory qualitative research. I am a focus group moderator, and I moderate focus groups, in depth interviews, clinics. I go into people's homes and businesses. I'm like a photo bomb. A lot of the techniques that I use in talking to people are the same ones that we're teaching in the body language. And so there is a relationship there in our research. We're using these techniques, and we're also beginning to apply these to quantitative studies. So as people are taking surveys and they have a camera like you and I do, we can do pre and post studies which would show, for example, Wendy's face before you saw me and then Wendy's face after you saw me. And we would measure the horror quantitatively, all sorts of things like this in research.


So that's Merrill Research. Both organizations are headquartered out of California and Northern Bay Area here. But we are a global. Both companies are global.


And one of the things that you mentioned to me before we hit that record button was that you have some quizzes and some other research on your website. So tell us a little bit about that. And that funny video.


Well, do you want to see the video?


Well, I think that it would be tough to see it. I think people should go find it. And I'll include a link on our blog about this podcast, but you at least need to describe it.


So this is a video. When you and I talked about blogging, I mentioned that before I was a qualitative researcher, I was a journalist. And back in the day we wrote stories. Right. And now we're writing these blogs. And I thought, what am I going to ever use a blog? Now all I do is blog, and I spend a lot of time blogging, and I get a fair amount of stuff. But one day somebody sent me one of my partners sent me the video of this monkey that is in a Zoo, and there are people outside of his glass enclosure who are showing him what appears to be a cherry that they drop in a Styrofoam Cup. They take the cup out of the monkey's view, and then they pull the cherry out of the cup and they pull the cup up and they show the monkey that the cup is empty. And the monkey just barrels over laughing. And it got more views than anything I've ever done. You can go see it at the Merrell It's there. And it just goes to show you that while this monkey was engaging with these humans, they were communicating the same way.


The monkey had the head tilt looking at the cup and then the Duchenne smile with the eyes. We have lots of dog smiles. Guilty dog looks a lot of commonality here. And on the website. We also can test people. We not only use the website for training, but if you actually wanted to get certified, you would go to the website and it would not only train you, but it would also certify you. And then you would need to take a test from me. Does that answer your question?


Yes. So lots of resources there. And so is it or what's?






The website got fresh paint on it. We actually took some of your advice, which caused my designers to put their hair on fire. But it's there. It works. It's being improved as we speak. And then there's is the research site. And one of these days we'll probably link the two, but right now we're keeping it separate.


And do you have a blog on the research side as well?


We do, yeah. We take it from two perspectives. The blogs on the Merrill research site are really research focused. The blogs on the Merrill Institute site are really more instructional and practical applications for the use of body language and you'll see a lot of tips on the website, a lot you can learn from what we're writing and just realize there's a lot more that can be taught as well.


Yeah. Okay. Well, this was a fascinating subject and I would love to have you back on in the future to talk about research and some of the common myths and mistakes people make when conducting research. So I think we can have a whole nother discussion there, but thank you sure. Yeah.


Thank you for sharing. I'm honored and I'm grateful and thank you very much.


Anytime, Wendy let me know thanks for joining me today on content marketing engineers for show notes including links to resources, visit truemarketing. Compodcast. While there you can subscribe to our blog in our newsletter and order a copy of my book contentmarketingengineered. Also, I would love your reviews on this podcast so please when you get a chance, subscribe and leave me a review on your favorite podcast subscription Platform thanks.



Wendy Covey

Wendy Covey is a CEO, a technical marketing leader, author of Content Marketing, Engineered, one of The Wall Street Journal’s 10 Most Innovative Entrepreneurs in America, and she holds a Texas fishing record. She resides in a small Hill Country town southwest of Austin, Texas, where she enjoys outdoor adventures with her family.

About TREW Marketing

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