Canadian Firefighter Magazine

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Dispatches: Learning body language

January 14, 2020
By Jennifer Grigg

Hi, my name is Jen. I used to be an anxiety-ridden, socially awkward, insecure introvert. Suffice it to say, two essentials for navigating life did not come easily to me — people skills and confidence — which are two things also essential to success in the fire service and I settled into my place on the sidelines from a young age.

I’m glad I didn’t know that I would also spend a lifetime learning to live with mental health issues that ran in my family.

Finding my calling
I began my career in the fire service in 1992 as a dispatcher and then joined the volunteer fire department in 1997 after attending college for fire protection engineering. In the fire world, I felt at home and comfortable in my own skin, something that I’d longed for much of my life.

I’d found my calling.

However, not long into the start of my 20 plus year career in the fire service, I struggled with processing some of what I was exposed to as a firefighter and it compounded issues from childhood trauma that I’d never told anyone about.

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At different points over the course of my life and career in the fire service, I was experiencing difficulties with relationship issues and mental health challenges including things such as hypervigilance, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, PTSI and PTSD.

My journey has a happy ending as I no longer struggle with any of those issues, but my story is not unique. Our stories vary but have many similarities. The one thing we all have in common is that mental health doesn’t discriminate. I say I’ve overcome my struggles, but they’ll always be a part of me. The difference now is that they no longer have power over me.

I left my full-time job as an instructor at the Ontario Fire College in 2017 and started studying body language and human behaviour because I’ve always been fascinated by what makes people tick. It’s a tool I’ve used myself to overcome anxiety and build confidence, but soon I recognized how it can help others.

I learned tools that helped me communicate more effectively, build resiliency, be more present and foster engagement. I learned how to read people and see indicators of high and low power body language and behaviour. I studied the science behind our thoughts and how they translate and show in our body movement.

Finding body awareness
Being aware of your own body language and understanding how to read others is another tool to add to your tactical toolbox, a tool for interpersonal interactions and effective communication.

Here are some interesting tips about body language:

  • Sixty to 93 per cent of our communication is nonverbal. It’s not the words we say, it’s everything else that we’re doing with our facial expression and body movement that conveys information.
  • If you think someone may be having a hard time, don’t settle for what they say when they say “I’m ok.” Having an awareness of body language is a tool you can use to gauge how people are really doing and read emotions and feelings beneath the words.
  • In defeat or low power positioning, we roll our bodies in and take up as little space as possible. We often bow our head in shame and cross our arms in front of us to protect our most vulnerable body parts. It’s as if we are trying to shield ourselves from incoming attacks or not be noticed in our time of shame. People who are feeling good about themselves have open, expansive body language and naturally take up space.
  • Men and women are socialized to express emotions differently. For the most part, women express emotions freely and vividly. Men, on the other hand, tend to suppress facial expression of emotion and signal their attitudes using their bodies. This creates a problem for women who expect to see cues of empathy on men’s faces. The key to mirroring a man’s behaviour is understanding that he doesn’t use his face to signal his attitudes – he uses his body.
  • The limbic system is a very honest part of the brain. When we’re feeling sad, mad, scared or out of control there will be almost simultaneous cues in the body that occur beyond our control and awareness.
  • Blocking is a term used to describe when a person wishes to distance themselves from a distressing stimulus, for example our arms folded, hands over the head or eyes or using an object in an unconscious effort to shield themselves.

This is powerful to understand. When armed with an awareness of how to read body language, you’re better equipped to not only monitor your own nonverbal cues, but also to respond more effectively to the needs of others.


Jennifer Grigg has been a dispatcher, volunteer firefighter, FPO inspector and instructor. She is now a resilience and empowerment coach and certified body language trainer. Contact Jennifer at jennygrigg312@gmail.com or jennifergriggcoaching.com.


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