Body Language for EMS: Part 1--Deception Detection Techniques

Reading your patients’ body language can help you defuse potentially violent situations


“Bravo 300, respond to 123 E. Main St. for an 80-year-old female dementia patient, non-emergency transport, family riding along, to Shady Acres Nursing Home.”

After grabbing a quick lunch, you and your partner head for the address. Upon arrival, you back the ambulance into the driveway of a nice, middle-class home in the middle of suburbia. The two of you carry the stretcher inside and are met in the entryway by the 50-something daughter of the patient, who fills you in on the patient’s status. As you enter the family room, you find the patient in a hospital-style bed; you also notice a man, who appears to be a little younger than the patient’s daughter, sitting on the couch. He looks toward you, moves over a little and continues staring out the window. You think nothing of him as you move to slide the patient over to the stretcher. As soon as you touch the patient, the man sitting on the couch comes unglued, flailing his arms around, screaming and getting in the daughter’s face. As you try to get a handle on things you learn the man is the patient’s son and the daughter holds the patient’s power of attorney. The daughter set up the transport and the son clearly does not agree with his sister. As you move toward the door with your loaded stretcher, the son steps in your path, locks the door and menacingly remarks, “You guys aren’t going anywhere with my mother!” Now what? Could this situation have been predicted and avoided?

Anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell, PhD, a leader in body language interpretation who coined the term “kinesics,” states, “The isolation of gestures and the attempt to understand them lead to the most important findings in kinesic research. This original study of gestures gave the first indication that kinesic structure is parallel to language structure. By the study of gestures in context, it became clear that the kinesic system has forms which are astonishingly like words in language.”1

It’s estimated non-verbal communication accounts for 60%–80% of a typical conversation. Unfortunately, years of myths have led to major misconceptions about non-verbal communication. Sometime in the 1970s, so-called body language experts claimed if a person looked up and to the right when asked a question, they were lying.2 That is not necessarily true. Another misconception was if a person could not initiate or maintain eye contact for longer than a few seconds, they were lying.2 In 1985, industry-leading psychologist Paul Ekman, PhD, and his team conducted ground-breaking research that effectively busted these and other body language myths, while at the same time rewriting the proverbial book on the interpretation of emotions and facial micro-expressions.3 One certainty that this research helped to prove was that there is not any one singular motion or action that acts as a guarantee that someone is being deceitful.4 Those who are proficient in the use of non-verbal communication understand that indicators of deception are best discovered by taking into account a combination of whole body language and facial micro-expressions.

Females may have an advantage over males, as it is widely believed by body language experts that women are inherently better at interpreting body language than men. Experts like psychologist Katherine Benziger, PhD, have published breakthrough studies and testing showing the detailed inner workings of the male vs. female brains. This research compares and contrasts not only the left and right sides of the brain, but also the frontal and basal sections, as it relates to a particular area of the brain having natural dominance over whether an individual is a thinker, more inclined to be intuitive, uses feelings more often than others, or allows sensations to get to them through the day.5

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