Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Dispatches: Observations from the field

Jennifer Grigg   

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In my current role as fire instructor, I’m never at a loss for opportunities to practice and hone my perception skills when it comes to body language and nonverbal communication. 

I’ve been studying the fascinating connection between thoughts, emotions and behaviour, and how it plays out in our everyday interactions for four years and there’s no end to my curiosity. As an introvert, people watching comes naturally, but I’ve also always wondered what makes people tick. What’s going on underneath the surface?

Through body language, I learned that there were things I could control in situations that made me feel powerless, how to project and promote the feeling of confidence, why body language matters in every interaction you have and how it influences those around you.

One of the simplest explanations I’ve come across that speaks to the power of your body language is from Shelly Hagan, author of “The Everything Body Language Book”: “You move your body as you speak, often without thinking about it, and those gestures often define the meaning behind the spoken message.”


Let me give you some recent examples of nonverbal cues that I’ve seen and we’ll dissect the underlying meaning.

  • Cue 1: Aggressive leg movement while writing a test
  • Cue 2: Hand to neck and suprasternal notch
  • Cue 3: Hand up while discussing opposing views 

There are a few points to keep in mind before we assess the meaning of these cues. One, I’ll ask you to practice the cue before going any further because you’ll get a better understanding of what someone is feeling when you demonstrate the behaviour yourself. It’s one thing to think about what it might mean; it’s another thing entirely to feel it.

It’s also important to always consider context. For Cue 1, it’s easy to expect some jitters when writing tests and some nonverbal cues will be more pronounced than others. Ask yourself if the cues you’re seeing fit the situation, understanding that there may be more at play than you realize.

Establish a baseline that gives you an awareness of what people do when they’re not feeling discomfort. What are the individual’s normal tics, mannerisms and traits? If someone normally lifts one eyebrow when they’re talking about the weather or other items of casual conversation, then seeing an eyebrow raise in other conversations doesn’t mean there’s something else going on.

Now, let’s look at each cue and what underlying meaning could be attributed to it.

Cue 1: Imagine yourself sitting down and writing a test. Jiggle your foot quickly. What feeling comes up for you? Nerves? Anxiety? Stress?

Consider context. A gentle jiggle of the foot may be considered “normal” or rubbing the chin with your thumb and finger as you think though a question. Anything aggressive or fast paced is likely a sign of heightened anxiety. In this particular case, I was aware that the firefighter has ADHD and this likely was a factor. It was interesting that he jiggled his foot aggressively while reading the question and stopped as soon as he had the answer. Turns out it helped him to process the information and dispel the added energy he’s experiencing. 

Cue 2: Picture yourself having a conversation and you find yourself touching/covering/rubbing your neck and/or suprasternal notch (the little indent in your collar bone at the base of your throat). What do you think you’d be experiencing? Stress, discomfort, dread? The context would depend on the conversation. Chances are it’s not small talk about the weather or sports if you see this behaviour (unless someone just lost a big bet on the losing team). It’s likely a discussion about something uncomfortable. I saw this gesture demonstrated by an individual a few times in a meeting with colleagues. Suffice it to say, there was a lot going on at the time and much that was unknown. The individual would have had reason to feel discomfort at the time, perhaps because he didn’t like what he had to tell us, or couldn’t give us answers to the questions we were asking.

Cue 3: Picture talking to someone with a different view than yours. Put your hand up in the air. Which way is your palm facing? If it’s facing them, what’s the feeling? Stop/wait a minute/hold up/not listening? If your palm is facing up, how different does that feel? More open, considerate, contemplative? How about if you place your palm face down in the air, what do you feel? Determined? Aggressive? Making a final point? Consider the context. In this case it was a hearty discussion among colleagues. All conversations were respectful and ended amicably. Oddly enough, both people put their hands up in the air at about shoulder level while saying non-confrontational things like “I’m just saying” and “no offence,” but the palms were facing the person they were talking to. They were very much tied to their own perspective and not likely to take the other point of view. 

Learning how to read body language helps you navigate any interaction in a whole new way because it allows you to see intentions and helps you to harness the power of your own.

See examples of any of the above? Let me know! Let’s keep the conversation going. 

Jennifer Grigg has been a dispatcher, volunteer firefighter, inspector and instructor in her three decades in the fire service. She is also a certified body language coach and speaker. Contact Jennifer at or 

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