Joe Navarro’s Ten Body Language Guidelines

How do you become good at reading body language? In Joe Navarro’s best-selling book What Every Body is Saying he outlines some important rules for anyone who is trying to get better at reading other people. In his book he calls these the ‘Ten Commandments for Observing and Decoding Nonverbal Communications Successfully’. These are rules everyone can use to get better at understanding the thoughts, emotions and intentions of others. In many ways they are the building blocks on which much of his work is built. In this short article we will examine these ten rules, which will give you a good grounding in what Joe Navarro considers some important foundational skills.

1. Be a good observer of your environment

In order to understand and apply what you are learning in body language, you must first learn to be a good observer of the environment around you. Many people look but don’t see what is right in front of them. Regardless of whether you are at work or in a social setting, becoming a good observer of the environment around you is a key first step to applying any skills you may have in reading others.

2. Context is key

Whenever you are trying to understand nonverbal behaviour or body language, you must first consider the context. By context I mean what is happening around you at the time you observe the behavior. Are you at a bar or in a police station? Are you at home with your partner or in a work meeting? People act differently in each of these different situations. Understanding the context will allow you to calibrate the nonverbal behavior you are seeing. And of course, in different contexts, people will act differently. So, you must always be recalibrating for different contexts and what you would consider typical behavior for people or a specific person within that context.

3. Recognize nonverbal behavior that occurs everywhere

While body language is always culturally specific, there are some behaviors that you will see in most people. An example would be when people press their lips together. In context, this will often signal that someone is troubled, or that something is wrong. Understanding these different behaviors and what they mean can be a very useful tool for anyone wanting to become a better observer and student of nonverbal communication.

4. Learn to recognize idiosyncratic nonverbal behaviors

Idiosyncratic behaviors are those behaviors that are unique to an individual. These are important to understand because these can form a part of a person’s baseline and should not be taken out of context. For example, for some people they always play with their hair. It is not a behavior you should jump to conclusions about when you see it in such a person because this is idiosyncratic to that person. Once you know this you can focus on other behaviors you observe.

5. Baselines matter

Baseline matters. Someone’s baseline is the behaviors you observe in someone under normal circumstances. It is how they typically stand, sit and interact with others. It consists of their idiosyncratic behaviors as well as general demeaner. Only once you have a measure of someone’s baseline can you hope to understand changes in behavior that you observe. Additionally, you also need to recalibrate and understand different baselines in different circumstances. For example, someone’s baseline at home with their family may well be very different to that same person’s baseline in a business meeting or while out socially with friends.

6. Look for clusters of body language signals

While sometimes you may have only one signal to go on, it is always better to look for groups or clusters of body language signals. This will enable you to be more accurate as you work out what the different behaviors are telling you. If they are showing consistent signals of discomfort, for example, then you are more likely to be accurate in your assessment than if you only have one behavior to go on.

7. Changes in behavior can be more important than the behavior itself

Changes in behavior can often be very revealing. It is sometimes at the moment that you see a change in behavior, such as a swinging leg suddenly stop swinging, that you can home in on the context in order to understand what the person is thinking or feeling. These changes in behavior can be observed in both adults and children and when they occur it is usually at crucial moments that can reveal much about what is going on with that person.

8. Recognize false or misleading nonverbal behaviors

Not all behaviors you witness will be genuine. Knowing the difference between authentic and inauthentic body language and facial expressions is important to work out what someone is thinking and feeling, including whether they are deliberately trying to mislead others. There are many ways to understand when you are seeing inauthentic body language, including by understanding what genuine signals look like. Genuine expressions of emotion in the face, for example, will have certain characteristics, many of which may be absent if someone is trying to imitate those emotions.

9. Learn to recognize signals of comfort and discomfort

Joe Navarro focuses on one element of body language in particular – that is understanding the differences between signals of comfort and discomfort. By understanding what you are viewing in this context, you can in turn interpret much of what you are observing. Ask yourself, are the behaviors you are observing in someone else either related to comfort or discomfort and if so, why? The answer to that question will help you hone in on and understand what the person is really experiencing.

10. Be subtle about observing others

You may be the best observer in the world, but if you can’t do it subtly then you may as well give up now. If others are cognisant that you are observing them then that will affect their behavior. They may feel uncomfortable, and you may see sign of stress or pacifying behaviors. Learn to use your periphery vision to observe what is going on around you. And most of all practice, practice, practice. Like any good skill, you will need to practice observing others to get good at it. Before you know it, you will be observing everything going on around you without you even realizing it at all!


Joe Navarro’s ‘ten commandments’ are useful reminders about some of the fundamentals of how to best observe and decode nonverbal communication. Understanding the intricacies of body language and nonverbal communication can take many years of study. Joe Navarro has spent a lifetime perfecting his skills but will frequently remind his students about the importance of the basics, including these ten key rules. Students at his Body Language Academy by Joe Navarro practice using these rules throughout the program. For anybody interested in the study of body language, however, these simple guidelines can help to open up the world of nonverbal communication and provide clear direction on what is important. For more information visit jnbodylangagueacademy, where you can learn more about body language programs.

David Stephens is the Program Manager and Senior Mentor at the Body Language Academy by Joe Navarro. He is a world-leading body language expert and mentors students and organizations from around the world to help them better understand and apply the principles of nonverbal communication and decision making in everyday life.