Interview with Colin Blalock, Master of Body Language

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Colin Blalock & Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk

Colin Blalock & Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk

The guest of honor on our most recent Business Radio X Atlanta’s Most Trusted Advisors show is a perennial contender for “Nicest Former IRS Agent Alive.” Colin Blalock is also a prominent leader in the Georgia CPA scene and a partner at Atlanta firm Jones and Kolb, with a host of accolades to his name, but we didn’t want to talk to him about that. Instead, Bonnie and her co-host, Ryan “Redhawk” McPherson, wanted to plumb the depths of Colin’s considerable knowledge about body language and the many ways it impacts business interactions.

Colin began his study of body language many years ago, by accident. He stumbled onto a copy of The Secret Languages of Success: Using Body Language to Get What You Want (link to this book and others at the bottom of this post) while browsing the sale rack at Barnes and Noble in search of a book that filled his current need for escapism. Within a few pages he found scenarios he recognized from his daily interactions and was hooked. Not only was the content riveting, but as Colin pointed out, the book “has 31 rules, and accountants love rules.”

Bonnie: And numbers. There you go.

Colin: And numbers, absolutely. It had them both. So I would read those three or four rules, and I’d go in the next day and say, “Okay, how many of those did I see today?” And I was absolutely fascinated. So I read a couple more books, and I started doing presentations, and the more I did the presentations, the more it came to my mind what was happening. The people that are successful do it anyway.

Ryan: Unnaturally or naturally?

Colin: Naturally. You don’t know you’re doing it. People pay attention to 7% of what you say. The tone, that’s 38%. Fifty-five percent is your body language, and you don’t know what you’re doing.

Ryan: And even though the other person receiving that body language still may even not know they are interpreting it consciously, or using that to affirm a thought, or to relate to someone else.

Colin: Exactly. When was the last time that you met somebody, they said the right words, they smiled, and you walked away and said, “You know what, I just don’t feel right with that guy. He gives me the…” You’re reading the body language. Will Rogers said it best, “Never miss a good chance to shut up.” Just look at the body language. Look at what somebody is telling you. You’ll be absolutely amazed.

Bonnie: So it’s almost kind of like what we, women in particular, will call that gut feeling, without realizing exactly what it is that’s giving us that gut feeling. It’s really the body language that’s doing it and we’re just interpreting that as, “Yeah, that guy’s a little sleazy. I think I’ll move on.”

Colin: Exactly. And ladies are much better, initially, at body language. Again, the more I looked at it, the more I looked at CPAs, [the more I realized] we need to be able to communicate. It doesn’t matter how intelligent you are, how much you know, if somebody doesn’t feel comfortable with what you’re saying, if they can’t understand it. And if you can’t tell whether they understand it, you have a problem. I wish somebody had done this for me 35, 40 years ago. I would probably be in the same place, but I would have had a lot more fun.

Bonnie: And you probably would have avoided a thing or two that you stumbled into on the process, too, because by being able to read body language, you get down to motives, and you get down to what people really are feeling, even though they may be saying something completely different.

Colin: Right, and when you’re sitting and talking with somebody, you get that uneasy feeling, this sort of helps you understand why you’re feeling that way.

Ryan: Well, this leads us into another question. How about some good first steps one could take to begin to understand not only their own body language, but [that of] others they meet? Are there things that give you away? Common body language mistakes that people make that you can easily tell that they are kind of unscrupulous or perhaps not telling the truth.

Colin: Paul Ekman said it best, “There’s not just one item.” You have to benchmark people, and you have to understand what their norm is so that you understand where they are. But there are some ways that you can impress people and/or have them open to what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. And that starts from the very first flash. The flash is the eyebrow flash, and when you see somebody and it’s a friendly meeting, your eyebrows will flash up and then wrinkle, and you know that it’s a friendly meeting. Here is the key, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a CPA, a businessman, a mom, a dad…

Ryan: A truck driver.

Colin: Truck driver. Anybody. If you will flash, you’re letting people know it’s a friendly call, but you have to flash at the right time. If you flash too early, they miss it. If you flash too late when you’re within three or four feet, they say, “Wait a minute, did I spill something on my shirt, or my pants? What’s going on?”

Ryan: It relays or conveys another meaning behind it depending on the timing of it.

Colin: Exactly. So six to ten feet away, you flash, and if it’s a friendly call, you return the flash. And then, there are several other things that I wouldn’t go right into. You need to know whether you’re dealing with an introvert or an extrovert. How can you tell?

Ryan: I would imagine a lot of the CPAs fall into the introvert category.

Colin: Absolutely, but when the CPA is working with a client, is the client an introvert, or is this client an extrovert? And it’s important to know because you have to deal with them differently. I’ll tell you the way I would look at it. I can tell whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert once we meet, because we’re gonna walk up, we’re gonna flash, we’re gonna exchange glances or gazes, then we’re gonna break our eyes, and when you break your eyes, you’re either gonna look down to the left or down to the right. If you look down to the left, you’re probably an extrovert. If you look down to your right, you’re probably an introvert.

Ryan: Is that across the board? Because I can kind of go back and forth a little bit.

Colin: That’s the point. And basically what it is is there’s something called an ambivert, that when you have to be, you can be an extrovert, but when you are in an unfamiliar place, you may be an introvert.

Ryan: I think that’s what I am. I can kind of go one way or the other.

Bonnie: I would fall in that category, too.

Colin: A lot of people do, but you have to understand where you are. Here is why you need to know that. An introvert, you have to pull stuff out of him. You have to get them talking to understand where they’re going. If he’s an extrovert, I have to corral him back down. It’s like herding cats. You’ve got to get him back focused on what you’re talking about. Just by the way he broke his eyes, I can tell whether he’s an introvert or an extrovert. There’s an easy way to do this, and people listening, you can do this at home, and we’ll get you two to do this here. Hold your hands straight out in front you, look straight ahead.

Ryan: Palms up.

Colin: Palms up, look straight ahead. Now, look at your left hand and look down at your right hand. Don’t turn your head, just cut with your eyes. One way will feel comfortable, one way does not feel comfortable. I’m sure there’s an exception, but for the most part, that’s who you are. It hurts when I look to my right. Sometimes you’re forced to be an extrovert from a business standpoint, but if you know who you are and you know what you’re doing, you know what you’re relating to somebody else.

Ryan: So let’s go beyond the hands, the eyes, the face, and then the rest of the body. The shoulders, even all the way down to the feet are important to understand someone.

Colin: Actually, the feet are some of the most important when we get there. From my head to shoulders, it’s one of those things you can tell if somebody is dejected. You can tell if they’re sad, you can tell if they’re not confident in what they’re doing by their posture. The more you have straight back posture, the better off you’re gonna be. There are eight different handshakes. Each handshake means something, and you can tell where somebody is going just by, to start with, the handshake. Some of them, you don’t do on a first meeting, some of them, you definitely do on a first meeting.

And depending on what the status is of where you are, you use the handshake. For example, the normal business handshake, straight ahead, thumb into thumb, and you pump about two or three times, and you’re done. That’s the normal business handshake. If somebody comes…put their palm down so that you have to your put your palm up, they’re being dominant.

The reverse of that is if they go with their palm up, that’s called a submissive. They’re letting the other person be dominant. I’ll give you a great example when you use that. I have somebody that comes to me, and the IRS has given them a hard time, just beaten around the head and the body. We’re not in this together. It’s not the regular business. They don’t need me to dominate them. They need me to help them. I’m there to serve, and just by giving them my hand in a submissive standpoint, they understand that I’m not trying to rush at them, I’m trying to help.

The other handshakes, or the one that you normally don’t want to do is the glove where you put your hand on each side.

Ryan: Yeah, the double handshake.

Colin: The double handshake. On a first meeting, that’s very, very, negative, and I ask people, “Who does that?” Normally people say, “Politicians.” First meeting, and they’re saying, “Hey, we are in this together and I’m all there with you.”

There are a couple of other handshakes. One is the dead fish, and I love to do this in person with somebody. I get people to come up in my presentation and I give them a dead fish just to see how they react. What you do with a dead fish?

Bonnie: Recoil from it, generally.

Ryan: It kind of repels you a little.

Colin: You want to wipe your hand off and walk away and say, “Yuck!” What I tell people to do is if you get a dead fish, you can’t do anything about it at that moment, but later when you know you’re going to leave, you know you’re going to get another dead fish. Take your other hand, and don’t do a glove, but help place it into the palm of your hand, give a decent handshake, and then get out of there.

Ryan: So like grab their wrist a little bit or forearm a little bit, pull them in, then do a firm handshake?

Colin: Exactly. And then you’re gone. The other couple of other shakes, if you haven’t seen somebody for a while and they’re a friend, you’ll shake their hand and you’ll do a double-touch. You’ll either hit them on the elbow, hit them on the forearm. If they’re really good friends, you’ll shake their hands and pop your shoulder. That’s where ladies hug, but on the first meeting, you don’t come up and hug.

Bonnie: Most of the time.

Colin: Most of the time.

Bonnie: I’m kind of a hugger.

Colin: That’s an extrovert coming out. But that’s just some of the things that you need to be aware of, what you are telling people just by the way you are shaking hands.

Bonnie: You were talking about the politicians earlier, and I think you mentioned Bill Clinton. I think I’ve seen this before where you shake hands and they grab the elbow of the hand you’re shaking. What is that communicating?

Colin: Normally, if they do that, they know the person, and if it’s the first meeting, you don’t do that, but if it’s the second meeting when you hit and touch them on the forearm or on the elbow, it’s just the connection. But we talked about elbows. If you want to have really good service at a restaurant, when the server comes up, when you’re talking to him, placing your order, just touch their elbow, don’t grab it, just touch the elbow. Making that physical contact makes the experience much more personal for the server, and you get much better service.

Ryan: Just the elbow? Don’t touch anything else?

Colin: Just the elbow. I did this presentation at Georgia State, and this one young lady walked up and she said, “I’m a server.” She said, “I make more tips than anybody in my restaurant and nobody knows why. I didn’t neither, but now I know. My grandmother told me that somewhere in the meal, walk up to the people and just slightly touch them on their shoulder and say, “Is there anything I can do? Is everything okay?” Just the personal touch. She said, “I make 25% more than anybody else.” I said, “Well, are you going to go back and tell people?” She said, “Oh, no. Not on your life.”

Ryan: She had natural people skills, just good soft skills to go out there, and she didn’t know why she was making more tips. That’s it. Very insightful, for sure. So, reach out and touch someone, ladies and gentlemen. Touch them on the elbow to let them know that you’re there to help them and support them, whether you’re being served or you’re serving.

Colin: Exactly.

Bonnie: So tell us about the feet. You were teasing that earlier.

Colin: Well, a couple of things. Somebody comes walking past your office, and you’re sitting at your desk, and you look up, and their feet are going down the hall, and they’ve turned their body, and they look and say, “Ryan, I need to talk to you about something.” Well, they do, but not now. They’re not interested in doing it right then. They’re just putting you on notice they need to talk. If they are standing there with both feet facing you, they’re talking about now.

Ryan: So, if they turn to face you, and feet square to you, shoulders square, eyes looking at you, “I need you now.”

Colin: Exactly. Now, let’s take this into a business setting. You’re in a conference and you see two people you want to meet, and you start walking up to them, and they both turned their torso and say, “Hi, how are you?” But their feet stay pointed to each other, you’re not part of that conversation. They don’t want you to be part of that conversation. Go do something else, come back later. If they want you to be part of the conversation, they will take their foot a step open so that you have a triangle so that they are facing both people, then you’re welcome to come in the group.

[And here’s] another key point. The distance that you stay away from people depends on what level of familiarity you have, what level of discussion you’re gonna have. If it’s a personal relationship, they are going to be 8 to 10 inches away from you. That’s personal. If they’re 12 inches, it’s private.

As you move out, it gets a little bit better. Social is 4 to 12 feet. If you were to watch a group, the group would be about four feet apart, and if it gets so big that they are more than 4 or 12 feet, it will splinter and become two more groups, just because people feel comfortable. There’s a difference in where you are, and I’m making sure people understand, I’m talking U.S. customs.

Ryan: That’s right. Internationally, some other rules apply, for sure.

Colin: Absolutely. Well, in Europe, much like New York City, there are so many people that their regular space is 12 inches. And I tell people this, it’s called European Walls. You get somebody from down here talking to somebody from Europe or the New York, and they’re in your face and you move, and they move, you move and they move.

Ryan: Like, “Get out of my business.”

Colin: Yeah, and then they’ve got you backed in a corner, and they’re right there, and all you want is space, but they feel comfortable. You know why you don’t see people’s face in the elevator? You are in their personal space.

Colin: And then there’s the public space, 12 to 15 feet. When you’re walking down the street, you want to know what’s around you, and you’re not gonna walk right beside somebody and step with them unless you are with them if you can keep from it. There’s a difference between space in Atlanta, New York, and Helena, Montana. In New York, you are nose-to-nose. One of my shareholders just got back from a trip to New York with her family. She said, “I have never seen so many people in my life. And it was 12 o’clock at night at Times Square.”

Ryan: People everywhere.

Colin: Absolutely. Here, we have pretty good space and we shake hands. In Montana, you are more apt to wave at somebody…

Ryan: From across the street, right?

Colin: Yeah. And then to shake hands, there is not anybody there. I saw more people my first day back in the office than I saw during an entire week that I spent in Montana. So you have [to] relate [to] where you are and what makes sense for you.

Bonnie: And I would imagine you have to read that other person’s comfort level and adjust yours accordingly. If you are really trying to create a relationship or create a comfort level with that person, you know what, you kind of have to let go of yours a little bit sometimes. “Okay, I’ll live with this close talking.”

Colin: Exactly. That’s because they are used to it, and they are comfortable, and if they are comfortable and you understand it, you are okay. If you don’t understand it, you get this weird feeling, “Give me some space.”

Ryan: I think a lot of this would come into great play for hiring managers, HR departments, that sort of thing, so they can begin to understand not only the people they bring on staff, but their own staff even more closely.

Colin: And I think they do a really good job at that. Most people who have been in HR for a while have picked that up. And when they do the interview, they’re not really looking at what you say, it’s how you say it, how you make contact, are you confident, are you able to discuss things in the in a proper and professional manner. So, all of that applies. I tell people there is a neat game you can play. The next time you are sitting around with a group of guys, Ryan, take your right hand and put it in your pocket. Just put it in the pocket. Within about two or three minutes, you are going to have two or three other guys with their hand in the pocket. I love to go holiday parties, and I’ll walk up to the table where the food is, and I’ll lean on the table and nibble, and talk to people that come up. Within about four minutes, I have three or four people leaning on the table, and I walk out and say, “God, I can’t believe that really works. It really works.”

Ryan: So, the other people are subconsciously looking for clues to follow, it sounds like.

Colin: Right. If it is a positive meeting, they will mirror your actions. Ladies normally don’t have the pockets. What they normally do is they put their left foot forward, or the right foot forward… Well, whichever one they put forward, the other people will put forward. I tell people that you can do that for fun. Now, let’s talk about doing it for profit. You are in a meeting, and the person gets to a serious point, and he leans in, you should lean in. If he leans back, you should lean back. If you stay leaning in, it might make him uncomfortable. If he puts his right hand on the table, you put your right hand on the table. If he crosses his leg, it’s Simon Says.

Ryan: Match and mirror.

Colin: You’re mirroring. Now, that’s sort of bad to say how you should do that, but let’s look at it from a true standpoint. If he is saying something that is important, and it’s important enough that he is leaning in, you should lean in to make sure you understand it. If he is comfortable enough to lean back, you don’t want to keep him on edge, you lean back. So it is really helping that individual feel comfortable communicating with you.

Ryan: But if I’m consciously always making decisions based on the other person’s actions, then I’m losing a little bit of my own kind of leadership position or authoritative position, wouldn’t I?

Colin: Well, again, it depends on who you are what you are trying to do.

Ryan: I kind of just want it to happen naturally. I don’t want to have to be so, “Okay, I got to move my hand here now. Now, I’ll need to move my other hand. Oh, lean back.” It seems a little calculated.

Bonnie: And I was going to say the same thing, only if I were the one speaking and I suddenly noticed that it would feel like someone is mimicking me as opposed to trying to make the communication go more smoothly, especially if it’s that calculated.

Ryan: So I guess there is a little art to it, I suppose.

Colin: It is more of an art. I’m not saying do Simon Says. It gives you the wrong impression. At the same time, if somebody is leaning forward to say something important, you need lean forward. And if you are still leaning forward and they lean back, then that’s almost saying, “Hey, I’m expecting him to say something else,” and the guy may not be wanting to say anything else. So it is a professionalism that is not immediate, it’s just you need to know what is happening.

Ryan: So what’s next for you? Are you are going to read some more books? Are you going on some more speaking tours? What’s next?

Colin: Well, I have just done this presentation four times this year so far. I’m going to be doing it for a couple of colleges, and that’s one of the things I’ve done a lot. If I can help a student understand what he’s conveying, it makes a lot of sense. All the instructors tell you, “Look him in the eye and let him know that you want the job,” and that is absolutely right. But I will tell you, and I tell the students, “Don’t stare. Break your eyes. Don’t keep looking at me because if you are just staring at me, there is no way in the world I want to work with you on a daily basis. Blink. Let me know that something is there.”

If you want to take somebody out of their conversation, it doesn’t matter whether they are talking or you are talking, cut your eyes to the left or the right. Just look like you are looking behind you. It will take them out of their conversation. They’ll say, “What’s wrong? What’s gaining on me? What’s happening?” If you want to take them completely out of their concept, break your eyes looking up. When you look up, you say, “Oh, I can’t believe.”

Ryan: It’s kind of rolling your eyes.

Colin: Like you’re rolling your eyes. And that just destroys a meeting. Now, do you want to do that? Well, it depends. Talk about negotiation. I was in an IRS audit. We were talking about a very technical issue. A guy had a great point, but he started the staring contest with me, which you don’t want to do. But I started staring away for about three or four seconds, and I just cut my eyes looking up, like, “I can’t believe you’re that dumb.” It took him completely out of his thought process. Later, he dropped the issue. He had a great issue and he just dropped it. That’s all because of the eyes.

Ryan: For sure. And in the army, three second rule, they said. So, a female soldier, you’re only allowed to look for three seconds. Any more than that, it could be considered sexual harassment. Similar in business or when meeting someone, don’t stare. It can make someone uncomfortable.

Colin: To a couple of other things, one is the smile. If you are in a meeting and you smile, that can be great, and it can help the communication if you do it at the right time in the right place. If you do it at the wrong time, if they are telling you something really serious and you are smiling, wrong connection. I tell people when you are in a group and they ask a question and you don’t know the answer, you know what most people do? They smile. “That’s a great question, but don’t ask me. Just don’t ask me.”

Bonnie: Just move on.

Colin: Move on. Absolutely, that’s it. Another good example is you have a teenager that needs to have some counseling, and you’re sitting there talking to them, and you think you are making a great point, and all of a sudden, they break out with that little smile. What you’d really like to do is take a two-by-four, pop them upside the head, when they wake up, the smile will be gone, they’d be listening, they’ll be okay.

There are things like that that you need to be aware of. The eyes. When you tell a lie, your eyes dilate. I never could understand why I couldn’t play poker very well. Well, they did studies, and they had some really good poker players that played professional poker players, and the professional poker players beat them like 90%, 87%, 88% of the time. They put dark shades on the really good poker players, [and] it dropped like 82% just by taking the eyes out.

Bonnie: And that’s why they are frequently wearing sunglasses when you watch those poker games on TV.

Ryan: I think all of this can be applied, for sure. So any last-minute thoughts from you, Colin?

Colin: One other quick thing: if you want to keep somebody talking, the best thing you can do is just nod your head. Don’t say anything, just nod your head. I had a friend of mine who had a serious, serious problem. There was no answer. He wanted to go to lunch and get my opinion. I love to talk. I bet you I talked three minutes, five minutes out of an hour, and most of that was repeating his last comment or his last question, and all I did was shake my head. We got through lunch, he said, “Colin, that was the best discussion I have ever had. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate it.” It allowed him to verbalize his problems, how’s he is going to approach them, and I gave him no real advice except I listened.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably as fascinated by Colin’s discussion as we were. You can find the entire interview on RadioX, where you’ll also hear Colin recommend some of his favorite books about reading and using body language. Be sure to join us next time too, as we tackle another interesting topic to help you and your business!

Links to reading material referenced during the interview (contains affiliate links):

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