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Front Page - Friday, January 24, 2020

Chattanooga Body language expert will offer tips at CBA event

Van Natten

The mounting noise from politicians could make 2020 a banner year for earplug manufacturers. Donna Van Natten won’t be them, though. She says she can turn off the sound while watching the presidential debates on TV and still know what’s going on.

Van Natten doesn’t read lips – unless they’re smiling or pursed. Rather, she’s regarded as an expert in the science of nonverbal communication. To her, the facial expressions, hand gestures and body posture of the candidates say more than their words.

And Van Natten is going to teach her clairvoyant ways to the attorneys of the Chattanooga Bar Association in an upcoming seminar.

“So much of what people do in groups and why they do it is expressed without words,” Van Natten, a Chattanooga resident, says by phone from Orlando International Airport. “You can understand them just by watching them.”

Known as the Body Language Doctor, Van Natten’s second book, “The Body Language of Politics,” landed in bookstores around the country this month. In the timely tome, she aims to cut through the chatter to help her readers identify the nonverbal cues she says reveal who’s lying and who’s being sincere.

“It’s easy to pick your favorite candidate without really thinking about it. However, it’s critical for us to be intentional about our choices based on reading the candidates’ body language, which will either support or challenge their verbal messages.”

The presidential debates have given Van Natten enough material for a sequel, should she and Skyhorse Publishing want to rush one out before November. Van Natten was especially intrigued by the squabble between Democratic candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, which was rooted in a 2018 conversation during which Warren claims Sanders told her a woman couldn’t win the presidency.

“Using a split screen, we were able to watch Warren and Sanders as the moderator asked questions. Specific to the claim of a woman winning the presidency, Warren flashed a quick smile as the moderator asked Sanders about the claim,” Van Natten explains. “This quick nonverbal revealed Warren’s delight with Sanders being asked the question on national television.”

Sanders denied making the comment. After the debate, Warren refused Sanders’ outstretched hand and the two appeared to have a tense exchange. Although the broadcast did not include the audio, it was later revealed that Warren told Sanders she felt as though he called her a liar on national television.

“The lack of a handshake was a big tell,” Van Natten says. “But more than the pullback was how Warren stroked her other hand, which I think indicates hurt feelings.”

While Warren and Sanders were making headlines, former vice president Joe Biden was using the science of body language to his advantage, Van Natten says. “Biden is a master of flashing a smile and not saying anything. We all know what smiles mean, and he has great teeth, so why not flash them?”

Also interesting to Van Natten was the body language on display as the candidates lined up to greet the audience after the debate. In this case, Van Natten feels the women fared even better than Biden’s beaming face.

“The men placed their hands across their loins, which suggests protection, whereas both females had their arms at their sides, which said, ‘I have nothing to hide,’” Van Natten continues.

The science of body language harkens back to the 1950s when psychologist Albert Mehrabian found that the impact of a message is 7% verbal (words only), 38% vocal (tone and inflection) and 55% nonverbal.

In her CBA seminar taking place at Chambliss Law, 605 Chestnut St., Wednesday, March 4, 1-4:30 p.m., Van Natten will use Mehrabian’s pioneering research as a starting point for discussing how communication is less about what people say and more about how they look when they say it.

“Some of the people who do what I do focus on helping lawyers select a jury, but I concentrate on helping attorneys to understand their own behavior,” Van Natten explains. “I want to help them think about how they’re presenting themselves and enable them to become better communicators.”

Van Natten is planning to cover a lot of ground, including hand placement, color choices, grooming and clothing. “These things are a reflection of whether or not we care about ourselves,” she says. “If we don’t care about ourselves, then we can’t care about anyone else.”

Van Natten will also be offering tips on handshakes – a topic she says is of great importance.

“Back in the day, a good handshake got you the tractor loan. Today, if someone has a terrible handshake, you might not like that person,” she says.

Van Natten is going to dive deep into the topic, discussing why men prefer to not shake a woman’s hand and the importance of a woman having a good handshake. “When a woman has a good handshake, it puts men at ease and it shows other women they can do it, too,” Van Natten says. “The seminar will teach younger females how to have equal footing and allow them to try it in a safe environment.”

Van Natten has also been known to discuss comfort zones, the secret power of wearing glasses and the tricks to appearing confident not just above the waist but below it as well. “Are you sitting at a wooden desk, or is your lower body exposed because you’re sitting at a glass desk? We give a lot of attention to the hands and face, but you want to be aware of what’s going on below the hips, too,” she notes.

Van Natten says her goal will be to teach the attorneys the rules no one else has. “They’ll be able to use what they learn at work and elsewhere,” she says. “The information will have a lot of application.”

Van Natten says picking her out of the crowd the afternoon of the seminar will be easy. “I’m 6 feet tall but I wear three-inch heels,” she laughs. “That’s intentional. I also have a great handshake.”

The CBA will open registration for Van Natten’s seminar in the coming weeks. In the meantime, the Body Language Doctor offers a simple caveat: “We enjoy watching people, but it’s important to remember they’re watching us, too.”

More about Van Natten is available at bodylanguagedr.com.