8 Cold Reading Techniques – The Quintessential Guide to Nonverbal Behavior

8 Cold Reading Techniques – The Quintessential Guide to Nonverbal Behavior


Cold reading is a set of techniques that allows one to interpret another person’s intentions by reading his or her nonverbal signals.


It is an area that most people find fascinating because it can help one develop a very powerful ability to read others without even having to talk to them.


By deciphering nonverbal behavior one can make judgments about people and adjust one’s behavior according to the scenario one finds himself into.


All the findings suggested here are influenced by NY-Times best-selling book “What Every Body Is Saying,” by former FBI agent Joe Navarro.

From my understanding, the book is considered the bible of cold reading and the author manages to go into a lot of detail with regards to what different nonverbals mean and what their underlying principles are.


For the sake of brevity, I managed to identify the eight most interesting ones that can definitely provide a lot of insight into human behavior.


Cold Reading Techniques – Understanding Nonverbals


Before I delve into the different nonverbals, I want to take a moment to explain why an understanding of nonverbal behavior is so crucial.


In order to do that, we need to take a look at the structure of our brain. According to the “Triune Brain Theory,” the human brain consists of three parts that were developed individually during human evolution [1].

cold reading

The first part is the reptilian brain, which is responsible for instinctual behaviors that can help us stay alive.


The second part is the mammalian brain or limbic system that is responsible for our feelings.


And the third part is the neomammalian brain or neocortex that is responsible for our intelligence and ability to reason.


Most of the nonverbals are regulated by the limbic system, hence our nonverbals somehow betray our emotions.


The limbic brain is the part of the brain that reacts to the world around us reflexively and instantaneously, in real time, and without thought.


Since the limbic part of our brain cannot be cognitively regulated, the behaviors it generates should be given greater importance when interpreting nonverbal communications.


You can use your thoughts to try to disguise your true emotions all you want, but the limbic system will self-regulate and give off clues.


Nonverbals of the feet


This might come out as surprising but the part of the body that can most accurately reflect what the other person is thinking is the feet.


That is because our feet, along with our legs, have been for millions of years our primary means of reaction to environmental threats.


Our limbic brain made sure that, whatever threat we faced, the part of the body that would react first should be our feet.


It is the component of our body that initiates the fight or flight mechanism by either helping us get away when we sense danger or, in case there is no other alternative, to fight and kick.


So, a great piece of advice when starting to observe a person is to think backward compared to what we are used to. Instead of starting our observation at the top of a person and working our way down, we should actually do the opposite.


If you want to decode the world around you and interpret behavior accurately, watch the feet and the legs; they are truly remarkable and honest in the information they convey.


Although there are many interesting feet nonverbals, the most important ones to have in mind are the “Feet Direction” and “The crossed legs.”


Feet Direction


Our most predictable nonverbal behavior is to turn towards things and individuals we like or find interesting. This almost automatic response can be an effective indication while determining whether others are glad to see us or would prefer to be left alone.


When you find yourself interacting with a person, regardless of whether you just met them or not, while you are talking, try and pay attention to their feet.


When two people interact, normally they speak toe to toe. If, however, you sense the other person turning their feet slightly away or repeatedly moving one foot in an outward direction, you can be assured that most probably they want to be somewhere else.


The crossed legs


Crossed legs are usually an indicator of comfort. Usually, we don’t cross our legs when we feel uncomfortable. We also cross our legs when we feel confident and confidence is part of comfort.


An interesting fact about leg crossing and comfort is that if you try and cross your legs while standing you reduce your balance significantly and, consequently, you can’t really protect yourself in the event of a threat. That’s why our limbic brain allows us to perform this behavior when we feel comfortable and safe.


Seated leg crosses are extremely revealing. When people sit side by side, the direction of their leg crosses becomes significant. If I am on good terms with the other person, the top leg crossed over will point toward the other person. If I don’t like a topic the other person brings up, I will switch the position of the legs so that the thigh becomes a barrier.

Image © “What every body is saying”

Such blocking behavior is another meaningful example of the limbic brain protecting us. If there is congruence in the way both parties are sitting and crossing their legs, then there is harmony.


Nonverbals of the Torso


When it comes to the torso, we can anticipate that the limbic brain will diligently try to protect this area of our body, primarily because the torso houses many significant organs such as the heart, the lungs, the liver, and the stomach.


When our brain senses danger, regardless if this real or perceived, it will make sure to send a signal to the torso so it can protect our most vital organs.


And that’s the main way we can decode nonverbals of the torso.


The two most significant ones to have in mind are “The torso lean” and “The torso shield.”


The torso lean


Like the rest of our body, the torso will firstly try to react to danger by distancing itself from it. When someone throws something at you, your first reaction will be to avoid it. The same way, when you are close to someone who is obnoxious or unfriendly you will automatically lean away.


You can understand the connection of two people by the way their torsos connect. If they are sitting near each other and don’t avoid ventral fronting, most possibly they have a great connection.


The torso shield


When individuals try to somehow shield their torsos, we can be almost certain that they fell uncomfortable.


Men, most probably because of their stronger physique, will shield their torsos in subtle ways. A man might play with his watch, or adjust his shirt sleeve, or fix his tie knot. These are all forms of subtle protection that communicate that the male is slightly uneasy at that moment.

Image © “What every body is saying”

Women, on the other hand, will safeguard their torsos in more overt ways. More often than not, a woman may cross her arms over her stomach in an attempt to protect her torso and feel more secure.


Nonverbals of the arms


According to Joe Navarro, arms are quite an underappreciated part of our body when it comes to evaluating nonverbal behavior. Most of us rely usually on facial expressions or nonverbals of the hands in order to investigate the underlying meaning of another person’s actions. Arms, however, can reveal significant information too.


This argument is predicated on that during our evolution, and after we started walking upright, our arms didn’t need to take part in our movement, thus they were free to aid us in other ways.


Carrying loads, lifting us off the ground, defending us, helping us with writing, using tools. These are just some of the moves that have helped humans evolve fast, be agile, and act responsively when they encounter outside threats.


Because of their very close relation to our protection and survival, arms can be counted upon to reveal our true sentiments and intentions.


Two of the most interesting nonverbals of the arms are considered “The regal stance” and “arms akimbo.”


The regal stance


The regal stance is a move we make with our arms when we put them behind our back. It is a move that signifies distance and the intention of the person to seek this distance in order to kind of convey their value.

This move, however, is oftentimes interpreted badly by other people because it communicates that the person exhibiting doesn’t want to be touched. Humans dislike such acts because human touch is considered essential for our overall well-being.


Apropos, as species, we have learned to use touch as a barometer of how we feel. Arm-distancing is a very common way to understand whether a person is experiencing ease or unease in the presence of others. We tend to distance our arms from things we don’t really like. Take the example of a baby diaper. When you try to remove one from a baby you will most probably use as few fingers as possible.


This move, although it seems obvious, it really isn’t. What happens is that our limbic brain is trying to protect us from things that are disagreeable, unhealthy, or dangerous to us. All three fall in the same category and arm-distancing will occur if any of the three occurs.


Arms akimbo


Apart from protection purposes, our arms can also be used as tools to mark our territory. Humans, despite their social nature, are also territorial creatures. That’s why you will most probably experience some subconscious feelings of unease if you spend a lot of time around another person. It’s not necessarily that the other person is vexatious but more that your brain is wired in a way that urges you to seek protection of your territory.


Probably, the most powerful nonverbal projection of territorial display is “arms akimbo.” It is the move where you put your arms around your waist and can be used to establish control or to communicate an “issue” to others.

Image © “What every body is saying”

Despite its “protective” use, it has been argued by researchers that “arms akimbo,” along with some other nonverbals of the arms, like when you raise your arms in the air or interlace your arms behind your head, belong in the so-called power poses. These poses can be extremely effective when facing challenging and stressful situations because their use can increase testosterone and lower cortisol levels [2].

For more information, I suggest watching a TED talk titled “Your body language shapes who you are” by Harvard professor Amy Cuddy.


Power posing is one of the 30 challenges suggested in the “30 Challenges – 30 Days -Zero Excuses” workbook. Check it out if you want to adopt it along with 29 more healthy habits.


Nonverbals of the Hands and Fingers


Among all species, human hands are unique to what they can accomplish. Actually, every human invention that required detail and delicacy has been created with the use of our hands and fingers. They can grasp, scratch, poke, punch, feel, sense, evaluate, hold, and mold the world around us. Additionally, they are the perfect tool to help us express ourselves. They intensify the energy of our conversations and stories and they can also help others unscramble our messages. Needless to say, our hands can betray a lot of our intentions because they can reflect very subtle nuances in our behavior.


Hand movements are also used extensively to enhance our credibility and persuasiveness. Our brain is capable of sensing the slightest hand and finger movement and during a conversation or a speech, if hands and gestures are used effectively, they can empower the delivery of a message.


Although there are numerous ways we use nonverbals of the hands to understand intentions, I am going to focus on how similar gestures, with a small modification, can change our image from a high confidence one to an insecure one. More specifically, I am going to analyze “Steepling and Hand-wringing” and “Thumb displays.”


Steepling and Hand-wringing


Hand Steepling is possibly the most powerful sign of high confidence. It involves touching the fingers of both hands in a way that they are not interlacing and the palms don’t touch each other.

This gesture is called steepling because when we do it our hands looks like the top of a church steeple.

Steepling conveys that you are confident and that your thoughts and position are solid and congruent. It is used to empower the delivery of your message and also to trigger attention.

Hand wringing on the other hand, which is the move where your fingers interlace in the form of a prayer gesture, suggests that you feel unease.


The connection between the two moves is strong since a person can go from steepling to wringing within a matter of seconds and instantly convey a change in mood or a reaction to another person’s comment. It is interesting to notice such things in debates and public speaking events.


Thumb displays


The thumb is the finger that stands out from the rest and its peculiarity has been a great way for humans to express their emotions on numerous occasions. When you have your thumbs up, you communicate approval and positivity.


Additionally, when you have your hands in your pockets and you decide to leave your thumb out, you are subconsciously displaying high-confidence. This occurs most probably because you don’t have a problem allowing a part of your hands that is somewhat different to stand out.


On the other hand, when you decide to hide your thumbs by putting them in your pockets, or within your palms, this might suggest that you experience negative emotions or that you feel under pressure.


In closing


Evidently, our nonverbals will betray our comfort or discomfort during an interaction. Knowing those principles can definitely help you manage your body language but also properly interpret the body language of others.


This article was influenced by my book “30 Challenges – 30 Days – Zero Excuses.” If you want to enhance your knowledge on influence, persuasion, situational awareness, and most of the important aspects that comprise the advanced social skills spectrum, I suggest you try the challenges included in the book.


Also, don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter to get my articles in your inbox on a weekly basis. It is awe-inspiring, free, easy to unsubscribe and some great resources will await you once you confirm your subscription.



[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triune_brain

[2] https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/9547823/13-027.pdf?sequence=1

Featured image: © Talking It Over: Enoch Wood Perry

Adrian Iliopoulos

I am the founder and main contributor at "The Quintessential Mind" - A unique personal blog that offers a holistic approach to self-development. I am striving to create high-quality content by investing in a reality-based form of self-help, informed by a deep understanding of psychology, philosophy and my own personal experiences and social adventures.
Adrian Iliopoulos