Study: Gestures that really convey trust – and distrust
  • sales
  • Blog post

Study: Gestures that really convey trust – and distrust

Most sales professionals have heard anecdotal talk about body language and what it signals. You may have heard, for instance, that if your buyer looks up and to the right, or covers their mouth, it indicates they’re not being honest with you. And if a buyer sees you sending these signals, they might conclude you’re not being honest with them. Or so the story goes.

But much of this conventional wisdom about body language is unsupported by research. Nor is there much evidence that buyers across the board look for such “tells” or take them into account.

But research does show there are behaviors and gestures that play a role in whether a new prospect considers you to be trustworthy.

Sizing new people up

University researchers at MIT, Cornell and Northwestern set up an experiment looking at how “novel partners in economic exchange” – basically, people doing business together for the first time – size up their counterparts.

The researchers set up 43 pairs of strangers and videotaped them talking face-to-face for five minutes. Then the volunteers played an economic game, where they offered tokens to one another in a series of exchanges. If both parties trusted one another, they could exchange a lot of tokens and make more money. But if trust was low, people held onto their own tokens and everyone’s gains were limited.

Later, the researchers analyzed the video and found that certain physical behaviors predicted levels of trust in the game.

These behaviors were associated with low levels of trust:

  • crossing the arms;
  • touching the face;
  • touching the hands together; and
  • leaning back in the person’s seat

And these were associated with higher levels of trust:

  • Smiling;
  • Leaning forward; and
  • Nodding the head

It won’t come as a surprise to salespeople that they should smile, nod and lean in when they’re talking to buyers. But a few of the “low trust” behaviors seem less intuitive – what is it about touching your hands together, touching your face, or leaning back that could create distrust with a new prospect? And is there a larger principle at work here?

‘Avoidant’ vs. ‘affiliative’

There is.

The researchers noted that all of the behaviors that eroded trust were examples of “avoidant” behavior. They literally create barriers and distance. The positive behaviors, on the other hand, were examples of “affiliative” behavior – they signal a desire to connect with the other person.

And that’s the real takeaway from this study. It’s not simply a matter of trying to remember a set of behavioral do’s and don’ts. It’s about your intentions. If you approach your prospect with an “affiliative” mindset – I like you, I want to work with you, I want to help you – your body language will project that attitude.

But if you allow yourself to slip into a more avoidant or defensive mindset – for example, if you’re worried about rejection or assume that the prospect will be suspicious of your motives – your words, actions and even tone of voice will give you away. And that could sabotage a potentially great relationship.

What to do

Here’s how to apply these insights in your interactions with prospects:

  • Approach prospects in an open, optimistic frame of mind. Assume that you’re going to achieve great things together.
  • Stay focused on your prospect, not on yourself. Adopt a mindset of curiosity and focus on what you can do for them, not on what you sell.
  • Use affiliative language: Talk about how “we” might work together, “mutual” benefits and so on.
  • If you do feel threatened or stressed, recognize those feelings and make an effort not to make the kinds of “avoidant” gestures identified in the study: If you find yourself crossing your arms, uncross them. If you find yourself leaning away from the prospect, lean in. Other studies show that what we do affects how we think. So if you engage in the right behaviors, your feelings will follow.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Body language that builds trust with new prospects.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following scholarly article: DeSteno et al (2012). Detecting the Trustworthiness of Novel Partners in Economic Exchange. Psychological Science, 23(12), 1549–1556.


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