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Understanding Body Language and Pre-violent Behaviors

Paul Dusenbery, Curriculum Director, DART 5/1/2023

There are three important components to human communication: Verbal, Paraverbal, and Body Language. Research suggests that body language accounts for about 60 percent of human communication. The remainder goes to paraverbal (voice inflection, tone, and volume) at 30%, and verbal (the words one uses) at 10%. Notice how little human communication is actually a result of what words are used. Body language, therefore, plays a critical role in human communication.

Understanding body language is an important life skill for all of us in our day-to-day interactions with loved ones, friends and colleagues, and strangers. This skill is especially useful for workers in human service occupations; those who George Thompson (Verbal Judo) called “contact professionals”. As with all language, there is lots of room for misinterpretation.

What is body language? It is a type of nonverbal communication in which physical behaviors, as opposed to words, are used to express or convey information. Such behavior includes facial expressions, body posture, gestures, eye movement, touch and the use of space.

It complements verbal communication in social interactions. Although body language is an important part of communication, most of it happens without conscious awareness. It is in fact not really a language in the formal sense with established grammar and syntax.

Work Place Violence Reading body language is an important skill for staff to learn in all workplaces, especially those in healthcare.

Body language is also not universal. For example, the use of hand gestures in one culture may be quite different in others. The same for eye contact. In Western cultures, maintaining eye contact shows increased engagement and interest while in others it is seen as discourteous (e.g., in many Asian cultures avoiding prolonged eye contact is often seen as more respectful). For a deeper look into understanding body language, check out Body Language: What It Is and How to Read It.


Understanding the physical environment, other people, and yourself to respond to dangerous situations.

How does body language relate to perpetrators of violence and their victims? It’s useful to compare how apex predators and human predators choose their prey or victims. In Africa, lions and cheetahs usually attack the injured, the young, or the old in a herd - never the fastest and strongest.

Some predators hunt in packs (like wolves) while others hunt solo (like male lions). Interviews of prison inmates showed a similar approach to selecting potential victims based largely on body language cues (i.e., they looked & acted like an easy victim).

For example, serial killer Ted Bundy admitted in a personal interview in 1985 that “he could tell a victim by the way she walked down the street, the tilt of her head, the manner in which she carried herself, etc.” (Holmes and Holmes, 20090). Read W. Patrick’s blog How Criminals Find Their Most Likely Victims | Psychology Today for more details.

Patrick states that “research suggests the value of situational awareness, and remaining alert and attentive while in public. Proactively taking steps to enhance safety and dissuade criminal activity is an unfortunate but important part of personal safety. Taking the headphones out of our ears and averting our eyes from our phone screens, we will be better able to perceive potential danger, and avoid attracting the attention of opportunistic criminals.”

Body language, like communication in general, is not a one-way street. Both parties involved in an interaction interpret body language cues. The focus of the discussion above was from the perspective of the predator, who was looking for an easy victim. Let’s examine the situation from the victim’s perspective.

He or she may interact with a dangerous predator who is good looking, professionally dressed, affable, or who has a pretend injury. The latter method was in fact used by Bundy on several occasions as he journeyed across the country in his car from Washington State to Florida.

In one instance, his arm was in a sling, and he asked for help loading some groceries in his vehicle. The female victim felt sympathy and agreed to help him. While loading the groceries he knocked her out and drove her to a remote area to be sexually assaulted and killed. Buffalo Bill, the fictional character in Silence of the Lambs, used a similar approach to gain the trust of his victims.

Who would not want to help someone in distress? Killers also impersonate authority figures such as police officers or medical doctors to gain the trust of their victims. One must always be on guard. That’s why situational awareness is such a vital skill to learn.

The following material explores the connections between pre-violent behaviors and body language cues. It is based upon the work of David Landers, a retired police detective from Illinois.

He was the founder of Defensive Training Systems, a research organization that trains people in simplified methods of personal self-defense. He was also a deep undercover narcotics detective from 1989 to 1993 receiving a promotion to Chief of Detectives of the Effingham, Illinois Police Department.

When we observe someone becoming more upset, emotional and becoming less rational, we sense that their brain function has shifted from the logic centers of the brain (called the temporal lobes) to the more reptilian parts of the brain (called the limbic system).

Read DART’s Blog for information about the prevalence of violence in the workplace and how organizations can take steps to develop an effective workplace safety system that incorporates ideas covered in this article such as situational awareness.

Anger and other deep emotions lead people to lose control” or “go off". And with that loss of dependence on rational thought, reactive, subconscious behaviors take over. Some of these behaviors are well known and easily recognized, but others are more subtle and can be much more difficult to detect.

Shaking fists and clenched teeth are examples of the kind of behaviors easily recognized as indicators of agitation or anger. However, they are not good indicators of imminent attack. The very reason that they are familiar to most people is that they are common to individuals who exhibit anger and aggression but not necessarily take that emotion to the level of physical attack. It is not uncommon for people to see this behavior exhibited.

Behaviors exhibited by attackers prior to physical contact are less well known. There is some evidence that, just as these behaviors are unconscious and genetically programmed pre-attack patterns, so it may be that we have inherited the ability to recognize them on some level. It is common to interview victims that state that suddenly, with no real reason that they can articulate, they felt uneasy about their attackers just prior to being assaulted. It may be that we have an inherited precognitive reaction to these patterns in others.

The following is a list of some of the more common of these pre-attack patterns of behavior. It is not a complete list and is not intended to be a foolproof checklist for predicting violent behavior. Many people approach the threshold of aggression, including the exhibition of these behaviors, and do not carry out an assault. Additionally, some individuals will carry out an attack without any of these precursors being present. This list can help gage someone’s level of aggression and to give an early warning of an encounter that might turn violent. The explanations for these types of behaviors vary but they can cast some light on violent human behavior patterns.

Types of Behavior

  • 1. Downcast Eyes; looking rapidly left and right; sudden breaking off of eye contact.
  • 2.Kicking behavior, kicking the ground directly of the aggressor; often with 1.
  • 3. Massaging the large muscle groups, biceps, and upper thighs.
  • 4. Rapid Clenching and Unclenching of Fists.
  • 5. Wiping gestures, such as, wiping the arm from the shoulder down; even more indicative of extreme agitation, wiping from the forehead toward the back of the head.


  • Reduces the level of personal interaction between attacker and victim.
  • Are thought of as methods of spilling off and controlling the mounting aggression
  • May represent an inherited readying process for the use of these muscles for fight or flight.
  • May be similar to 2., or 3., or both
  • May also be related to 1., 2. and 3; eye contact is almost always broken during this behavior.

DART’s WorkSmart training, Resources, and Blog posts can help organizations learn about body language, pre-violent behaviors, and effective techniques to respond to escalating situations. Violence prevention training is essential to maintaining a safe work environment and increasing employee retention.

When all employees learn how to read body language, recognize the warning signs of an escalating situation and know how to properly respond, a dangerous situation can be brought back under control.