How To Tell What Someone Is Really Feeling — Just By Looking At Their Lips

Take lip reading to the next level.

How To Read Body Language — Just By Looking At His Lips getty

Knowing what a client is thinking is critical to closing a sale. Knowing what your boss is thinking is critical to obtaining scarce resources for your projects, or for getting a day off. Knowing what your spouse, friends, and family members are thinking is critical to influencing their behaviors. 

No one can read minds, but you can come close by observing nonverbal gestures and learning how to read body language. For example, our lips often speak louder than our words.


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1. The Lip Purse

A lip purse display is a slight, almost imperceptible, puckering or rounding of the lips. This gesture signals dissension or disagreement. The more pronounced the purse, the more intense the disagreement. Pursed lips mean a person has formed a thought in their mind that is in opposition to what is being said or done.

Knowing what a person thinks gives you an advantage; the trick is to change their mind before they have an opportunity articulate their opposition. Once an opinion or decision is expressed aloud, changing a person’s mind becomes more difficult due to the psychological principle of consistency. Decision-making causes tension to some degree. When a person makes a decision, tension dissipates. They are less likely to change their mind because to do so would mean admitting their first decision was a bad one, thus causing increased tension. Maintaining an articulated position causes less anxiety than going through the decision-making process repeatedly, no matter how persuasive the arguments for change may be. In other words, when people say something, they tend to remain consistent with what they said.


2. The Lip Bite

Another technique to “read a person’s mind” is to watch for a lip bite. A lip bite is a soft biting or tugging of the upper or lower lip with the teeth. This nonverbal gesture indicates that a person wants to say something but is hesitant to say it. People typically are hesitant to express themselves because they think what they are about to say will offend the person they are talking to, or make themselves look bad.

Salespeople can quickly identify the topics their customers are having difficulty with and then employ strategies to overcome any potential buying obstacles. Employees will know what topics are sensitive to their supervisors. Knowing that your spouse or friends object to something you said will allow you to communicate more effectively going forward.

Prompting people to fully express themselves is as easy as making an empathic statement. Empathic statements begin with, “So you,” followed by the topic or idea that causes them anxiety. For example, “So you think the product I’m selling costs too much.” Empathic statements create a non-threatening environment in which people can openly express themselves. If an empathic statement is off the mark, people will likely correct the assertion and share the real reason for their anxiety.

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3. Lip Compression

Lip compression occurs when the upper lip and lower form a tight seal, often obscuring the lips. Lip compression has a similar meaning to the lip bit, but with a more negative connotation: People want to say something but they compress their lips to prevent the words from coming out.

As an FBI Special Agent, I often saw suspects compress their lips right before they confessed. Using an empathic statement such as, “So you have something to say but you really don’t want to talk about it,” can prompt reluctant people to open their lips and express themselves.  

When you talk to people, look at their lips: If you see a purse, change the person’s mind before they articulate their objections. If you see a lip bite or a lip compression use an empathic statement to discover why the person is anxious about what you are saying. When you use these techniques, people will often remark, “How did you know what I was thinking?” 

RELATED: 5 Subtle Body Language Clues That Someone's In Deep Psychological Distress


Jack Schafer, Ph.D., is a behavioral analyst for the FBI and the author of The Like Switch: An Ex-FBI Agent's Guide to Influencing, Attracting, and Winning People Over. Read more of his work on Psychology Today.

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