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Learning Non-Verbal Cues & Body Language

An insight into the origins of our specialist training and consultancy services that focus on the human landscape, adding an extra layer of protection to your front line.

Learning Non-Verbal Cues and Body Language: My Journey to Understanding Communication

It’s dusty — not sandy … And by dusty, think of talcum powder rather than an unpolished shelf. Whenever you think of sand (or at least whenever I thought of sand), you always picture small grains of rock, usually by a body of water and frequented by holiday makers and quadrupeds carrying small children…..although I did see a couple of donkeys. No, deserts are not all sandy.

The scene – I am in my early twenties, a fresh-faced, naive sprog on my first operational deployment to Afghanistan as a Royal Marines Commando. We’re gathered in a tent awaiting the arrival of a mysterious figure who is going to teach us about HUMINT (HUMan INTelligence). What we are expecting is a young Jason Bourne/ Idris Elba type who can tell us the best way to drink a dry martini, but what we get is mid-fifties, pasty guy who looks like he walked into the wrong room 30 years ago, and has never been able to leave since.

“We all play a part in this game, and for some of us we play multiple.”

He then proceeded to tell us that one of his roles was a Doctor, helping people regardless of who they are friend or foe, but that his close proximity to the enemy, coupled with his ability to gain information attracted the attention of the lesser known areas of the armed forces…..and gave him another role. He now has a parallel career within the forces, one as a doctor and the other as a HUMINT operative or agent handler, and because of our proximity to the enemy we would be in a prime situation to highlight any potential HUMINT sources to him.

He proceeded to take us through (on a very basic level), some of the techniques used by intelligence officers to identify targets, build rapport, employ elicitation and influence people who may be able to help defeat an obscure enemy. The parts that I found particularly interesting were the use of nonverbal cues and body language, something I had never really given much thought to before.

We were shown how reading the direction of someone’s legs and feet, or the distance between two individuals can tell you a lot about the dynamic between them; whether you’re dealing with an individual who is friendly/hostile, open/closed etc. I left the tent with a buckshee “tick in the box” saying that I had had an “Introduction to HUMINT Operations” and went back to work.

Skip forward a few days later and I am tasked with setting up a snap VCP (vehicle check point) on a vulnerable point of the road. A vulnerable point or VP is characterized by a number of things that leave anyone traversing through it, vulnerable to attack. This can be a choke point or bottle neck, obvious crossing points or areas that are overlooked by high buildings or mountains.

So, with the dust and heat in the air of the raging Afghan desert, we set up our check point. It’s my job to be the “chatter”, keep the occupants of the vehicle engaged, gleam information from them and identify any suspicious activity while our search team work their way through the vehicle. The first car comes round and I raise my weapon and signal the driver to stop and turn the vehicle off. I get Mo, our ‘terp’ (interpreter) to tell the occupants to exit the vehicle. I went round to the driver side, my weapon raised and started talking.

What I immediately noticed, was that the driver wasn’t looking at me, but instead he was glancing over his shoulder towards the other members of the team. He then proceeded to shout angrily at Mo, explaining that he was late for a wedding, and we were wasting everyone’s time. We then spent the next 20 painstaking minutes searching this guys car and trying to get anything that resembled a simple dialogue out of him. There was nothing, his story matched the trinkets in the car and off he went.

As he drove off, I was reminded of the principle of “ego suspension”, and it got me thinking — what, would I do if I turned the corner and saw a bunch of armed youngsters pointing their guns at me and ordering me to stop…….. I’d be at best a little scared, confused maybe……and if it was the 3rd time this month….maybe a little p@*sed off. So I changed things up …

I moved the VCP slightly, with cut offs out of view placed on the bend of a corner acting as gate keepers that would be triggered as someone drove past. I put an overwatch in place to cover any gaps between the entrance of the VCP and the search area, allowing a clear line of sight for an approaching vehicle once they have entered the check point. Next I slung my weapon, removed my helmet, sunglasses and removed anything covering my mouth.

These seemingly small changes meant that drivers approaching me would be able to see (in their eyes anyway) a clear entrance and exit to the check point, the increased distance meant that the driver would see me and be able to assess me from a safe distance allowing them time to process what was happening. They would also be able to see that whilst my colleagues were armed, I was not, they could see my eyes, mouth and be able to assess my level of threat towards them*.

As they approached I would smile, use an open posture and give any directions with open palms or “palm up” gestures. Once they have stopped the vehicle and were no longer deemed a threat I would approach the drivers side, crouch so we were at eye level and open up a dialogue. By meeting them at eye level I would be starting the engagement on their level, giving them a feeling of neutrality and appearing non threatening (relatively speaking). My initial pitch was along the lines of this:

“Wow, nice car — I have a similar one back home, how does it drive?”

“Thank you for being patient, but as you know there have been a number of instances of insurgents using vehicles like this in the area and the local elders have requested assistance to avoid any violence.”

“This will be over a quickly as we can, with your help we will be done in a matter of minutes and we can all be on our way … Now will you please step out of the vehicle so my team can do a search?”

This introduction did a number of things. It providing affirmation and validation to the owner of the vehicle (I love cars, and love people asking about my car), it demonstrated empathy, employed sympathy, and gave the person a clear timeline with an incentive to cooperate. Next, I explained to Mo that his role was going to change.

I had noticed that whenever I used an interpreter, I would end up with a 3 way conversation which felt disingenuous. I wanted to make sure that I could have as close to a normal conversation with the people I stopped despite the language barrier, meaning eye contact, face to face, and without any physical barriers between us. Granted this is difficult when you don’t speak the language, but I tried anyway.

I made sure that I (A) was facing the target person (X), Mo (B) (the interpreter) would be stood next to them just behind their left shoulder out of eye shot. He would explain to whoever we were talking to that they should keep eye contact with me and not look at Mo. Mo in turn would mirror the vocal tones of both me and the target, and gently prompt them if they ever broke eye contact with me to look at him.

What happened next took me by surprise. After about 30 seconds of gentle prompts and reminders to bed in this new way of communicating something just clicked. It was as if there was no language barrier and no third person, we were just talking. The people we were chatting to just opened up and relaxed, their body language was more natural, the conversation flowed and the average time to conduct a full search dropped. The best bit about this though, was that as the conversation flowed, so did the intelligence. We identified key areas for high enemy activity, gained vital intelligence on potential targets and were told about siting’s and a suspected cache in the local villages.

My experience that day highlighted to me the importance of being able to read Nonverbal cues and Body Language, although on a very basic level, it changed my perspective on communication within different contexts and has been something I have sought to learn more of in the years since. My attention turned to practical applications for NVC and Body Language within military and security settings, exploring techniques to speed up rapport building, gaining trust and more efficient communication. I started to look at the power of body language and how it can be used to diffuse volatile situations, or conversely escalate them in a controlled manner when necessary.

Combining this with my knowledge of cultural sensitivities, verbal cues, persuasive tactics, interpersonal dynamics and psychology has been incredibly successful — I have seen first-hand how these subtle changes can alter the dynamic and bring about positive results. It was my experience in Afghanistan that really opened my eyes to the power of NVC and body language, but since then I have been able to put this knowledge into practice on a daily basis, making sure that communication is effective, efficient and that it is used to achieve the desired outcome.

Since leaving the military I have gone on to expand on the use of NVC within the security environment. Working with teams to improve their ability to detect threat, hidden weapons, drugs and identify where power plays are being used in groups. This has helped to identify high value individuals from crowds, identify when people are under duress and improved the overall ability for individuals to communicate with people.

Author: Gary Simpson, Director of Training, Special Projects Group

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