When you watch people, strangers or people you know, look at them for more than just recognizing who they are. Look for a moment longer and try to get a feel for their mood or current attitude. We are not talking about trying to read every person in a crowd. It is very helpful to see when someone is showing signs that they are upset, angry, hostile or aggressive. These signs start out fairly subtle, but are pretty plain to people who are even a little bit used to looking for them.
There are many books out there on reading body language and facial expressions, and you can certainly research much more on the subject. It is not necessary to become an expert on the subject to look at someone for a few seconds and get a feel for whether they might be in a foul mood. It is easier when you know them and are familiar with their normal state.
One particular trait to watch for is the person who is looking around to start trouble. Bullies show their predatory instincts by scanning around actively and studying people they consider might be good targets. This should be a warning flag to you. It is pretty obvious, and is pretty easy to spot – as long as you are looking!
A bully, or bullies, might have taken up a spot and are ‘on the hunt’ for a good target. The part to look for is when they spend more time scanning around outside their group than talking with each other. Picture in your head a group of lions sitting on a hill watching for a nice, tasty antelope to happen along. If you see this, then stay relaxed and calm but move along and get out of their sight quickly.
The goal of watching people and reading their body language is to get a feel for their mood and intentions. Your instincts will almost always warn you when someone is up to no good. In fact, we recommend not getting too caught up into researching tiny details of body language because they can distract you from using your instincts to get a good impression of someone’s mood.
You should practice every day, which is easy and even fun. Look at people you know and try to get predict what mood they are in. You will have to do this before you talk with them. Observe them for a few moments and guess their mood, then greet them and chat a bit to see if you were right. Once you talk with them, their mood should be pretty clear and you will find out how close you were.
If you try it with strangers, you won’t be able to confirm if you were right but it is still fun practice and you can do it almost anywhere. The more you play around with it, the better you will get. Before long you will be able to spot people who are: relaxed, happy, nervous, upset, or in any number of other moods.
When you have built up this skill, people who show signs of aggression and anger or have the intention of causing trouble will stick out like a sore thumb. Your instincts will tell you something is wrong. It is up to you to listen and heed those warnings.
Years ago when I worked one of my first security jobs, a seasoned pro showed me how well someone could hone these skills. We went from working the door in a bar to helping sort out getting a PA system set up. He never stopped scanning despite working on an unrelated task. He was particularly interested in those entering the room because he already sized up the patrons who were there. A man walked in and he quietly leaned over to me and said “Watch that guy. I guarantee by the end of the night we will be carting him out of here.” He didn’t look any different than any of the other patrons. He was dressed similarly, although he did walk in alone. He wasn’t scowling, or appeared to be carrying a weapon. I asked if the pro knew the guy from a previous encounter, but he hadn’t ever seen him ever before. There was something in his body language that told the pro that this guy was not here to enjoy a beer and some music. Sure enough, a few hours later we had to throw the guy out because he got aggressive.
I can still picture the guy’s body language, it was so subtle that it would not raise an eyebrow to most people. That old pro not only knew to look at every person coming into the bar but knew the body language to look for. Not even sure he could describe what it was either, he just knew it when he saw it and it gave us a heads up to take caution.
Eye contact and body language are huge factors in self-protection. You may wonder why I use the term self-protection instead of self-defense. Quite simply, they apply to two very different things. Self-defense describes the physical skills you use when in physical conflict. Self-protection describes the skills you use to avoid physical conflict. Self-defense is what you need to employ when your self-protection skills have all failed.
A great start to building self-protection skills are mastering eye contact and reading people. It’s pretty easy and fun to do.