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How to read what clients aren’t saying
How to read what clients aren’t saying

Jan 02 2024 / Round the Table Magazine

How to read what clients aren’t saying

Understanding body language can transform client relationships.

Topics Covered

Without saying a word, clients may be communicating that they’re not moving forward with your suggestions at that moment. If you keep blindly plowing forward with them in the same way you were, you risk losing their buy-in permanently. Because they’re not talking, you may not realize that the prospects or clients may be confused or have questions about what you’re saying. Understanding nonverbal communication can help you see when a client is putting on the brakes. 

“Most communication is unspoken, and I have learned that the ability to read what people don’t say in words but say with their body language is incredibly important in getting them to say yes,” said 20-year MDRT member Alan C. Kifer, CFP, LUTCF, of Scottsdale, Arizona, USA.

Understanding what nonverbal clues to look for can signal an advisor to adjust their pace and match where the client is, which increases trust. 

Missing body language signals is like missing a crucial part of the conversation.

“With body language, the first thing you do is ask them a question and pause to let them think,” said Elke Rubach, LL.M., CLU. “In virtual meetings, you know people are confused when they start looking at the screen and squint. Or they may lean back or sink in their chair. That body language indicates you’re going too complex. You may need to stop, rewind, restart again and say, ‘Let me phrase this in a different way,’” said Rubach, a six-year MDRT member from Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Furthermore, when you’re talking to a couple, pay attention to the nonverbal cues of both people. “I have stopped and asked the spouse who clearly is lost, ‘Do you have any questions? Am I being clear enough?’” Rubach said. 

Missing body language signals is like missing a crucial part of the conversation. 

Kifer recalled a married couple who came in to see him for the third time. They were interested in a plan yet had not committed, and Kifer wasn’t sure why. Then, while Kifer was talking about long-term care expense solutions, he noticed the wife crossed her arms in a defensive posture. Kifer stopped and said to her, “I know you had a very bad experience with long-term care. It may happen again with you or your husband. I want to keep the bad experience from happening, but I want you to have a solution about how you’re going to pay the bills. I want you to get the care you want, delivered by who you want and delivered where you want. That will keep it from being a very unpleasant experience. Is it OK if we explore this and let’s ignore insurance for the moment?” 

That pivot changed the whole feeling of the meeting. 

“All of a sudden, her arms unfolded, she adjusted herself in her chair and she said, ‘I think I’m OK now to talk about this,’” Kifer said.

That example shows how understanding body language can help you solve a problem for a family, Kifer said. You’re able to answer the unasked questions and build rapport and trust, which allows you to be on the same page as clients. 

Establishing a relationship 

Building rapport is more than saying the correct combination of specific words. It’s how you’re saying them and what you’re doing with your body when you’re talking. 

“We love having rapport with each other,” said Edward Franklin Marshall, APFS, a six-year MDRT member from Shrewsbury, England, UK. “We may or may not consciously understand and acknowledge this. What we do know, though, is when we feel comfortable and when we do not. We also know who we feel we can trust and who we do not.”

Marshall recommends these techniques for establishing this bond: 

Physical mirroring. “Physiology is 55% of our communication,” Marshall said. “We can mirror clients when we physically copy their posture, facial expressions, hand gestures and movements — including their eye blinking and eye contact.”

Furthermore, mirror how a client is sitting, such as if they’re sitting back or leaning forward.

“If they’re gesturing with their arms, join in. If they’re more reserved and introverted, make them feel at ease by quietening your body language down,” Marshall said. “This causes their body to say unconsciously to their mind ‘Hey, they’re just like me. I like that.’ It’s undeniable to the nervous system.”

Match their voice. Matching clients’ voices means mimicking the tone, tempo, timbre (quality) and volume of their voice. Notice if a client speaks loudly, quickly, slowly or with an upward inflection. By matching their voice, “you’re now connecting more effectively by speaking in a manner that your clients immediately feel comfortable with because you sound like them,” Marshall said.

Match their breathing. Establishing rapport can also be helped by matching the pace of your client’s breathing, including matching the inhale and exhale of their breath in an unconscious synchronicity, according to Marshall. However, one caveat to remember is different cultures have different body language cues. If you’re dealing with a client from another culture, learning what their body language and gestures mean in the context of their culture can be important. Kifer recalled one client from another country whom he inadvertently offended through his gestures. 

He recommends reading books and doing additional research. It can take time to learn how to accurately read body language. When you’re working on improving this skill, check yourself for accuracy and verify what you think the person’s body language is telling you.

Suggested reading

  • “What Every Body Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People” by Joe Navarro 
  • “You Can’t Lie to Me: The Revolutionary Program to Supercharge Your Inner Lie Detector and Get to the Truth” by Janine Driver and Mariska van Aalst. Driver was also a 2023 MDRT EDGE speaker and is featured in a video on mdrt.org/decode-the-new-body-language
  • “How to Read People Like a Book: A Guide to Speed-Reading People, Understand Body Language and Emotions, Decode Intentions, and Connect Effortlessly” by James W. Williams 

Body language tips

  • Crossed arms and legs — Suggests defensiveness, anger or self-protection, although not always. Some people cross their arms when they’re cold. For some people, it’s a preference for how they sit. Women often cross their legs when wearing skirts or dresses. Always be aware of context.
  • Leaning and distance — Generally, we lean toward those we like and away from those we don’t.
  • Hiding one’s hands — When people place their hands in their laps, pockets or put them behind their back, it could suggest that they are hiding something.
  • Lip biting or cuticle picking — When people bite or lick their lips or pick their cuticles, they are trying to soothe themselves from feeling under pressure or in an awkward situation. 

Source: Psychology Today