Becoming Bedouins of Body Language

By Andrew Grant

How many shades of brown?

Last week we were dropped in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere, and all we could make out as far as the eye could see was endless desert. I was beginning to wonder if we had made a mistake. We had planned a four day desert trek, not really comprehending that the trek would be through, well – desert… just desert! It was 9:30am, and although it was the middle of winter in Egypt, the heat was steadily building and sweat was already dripping down my forehead. The four-wheel drive took off and our Bedouin guide Fraej pointed in to the west. “This way,” he said, and we started walking obediently. There was only sand, and rocks – all brown, all the same.

Egypt desert

As we made it over the crest of the first hill, pleased to have reached our first milestone, we looked ahead hopefully, but the new view looked exactly the same as it had before. More endless brown desert. After one hour of walking the kids asked not so patiently, “How much further?” I was trying to discern: did they mean how far until the whole 4-day trip was complete, or how far until lunch, scheduled for 4 hours’ time? I wondered how to best answer to keep their motivation going. But luckily I was saved from having to answer, as we suddenly we stopped while Fraej pointed to a pile of rocks.

“3,000 year old Bedouin grain stores,” he told us. We were a little underwhelmed. To us, it was just a pile of rocks, not some sophisticated symbol of a great past civilisation. But soon the children started to notice the little things, such as the perfect curve of the round surfaces, the clever tunnels with carefully positioned lintels that served as entries, the fact that all the doors faced in the same direction. Fraej told us a little about Bedouin life, and explained in more detail how the doors were all turned away from the wind, and in this way the pile of rocks was gradually transformed into a fascinating testament to ancient ingenuity.

40 days and 40 nights

We moved on through dirt and sand, imagining ourselves wandering the desert for 40 days and nights in a soul searching quest – but ultimately hoping lunchtime would come soon. The midday sun started beating down on us relentlessly, and even walking beneath a cliff could do little to help as there was limited shade to protect. My mind started wandering off and focusing on the heat and the risks – how if something happened, no one would be able to find us. It felt like we were literally in the middle of nowhere. Again Fraej brought my mind away from the negatives and back to appreciating the present experience by pointing out the different types of rocks we were passing, explaining how each of them were formed.

At first I could not see anything but sand and rocks. Perhaps it was my stubborn refusal to appreciate and acknowledge the subtleties in my environment. Yet as the day moved on and the sun tracked across the stark cloudless sky, I noticed the colours started to change and the textures morphed. As more details were pointed out to me, I also noticed that there were in fact a multitude of different shades of brown: brown carefully blended with a mix of oranges, pinks, reds, black and white. I started to see patterns appearing in the rock formations, and before we knew it we were leaving the long flat stretch of sand and entering a tiny crack in the mountain – a deep canyon with amazing undulating folds of coloured rock that must have been carved out millions of years before.

Sand is not just sand

At the end of the first day’s long hard trek, when the sun went down and darkness fell, our Bedouin friend told us stories around the campfire of how the tribal people had survived living in the desert. After that first initiation day, as the hours in the days went on, my mind was gradually freed from the usual restrictions and the limited areas I had spent 47 years focusing my thoughts on. I started to see things I had not originally seen. Sand was no longer just sand. A tree was not just a tree, it became part of an incredible living oasis, a miracle in the desert. Water became a precious and highly appreciated commodity. The simple details suddenly took on paramount significance.

What astounded me most was the intimate knowledge the locals had of their surroundings. From initially knowing and understanding nothing, through to being able to start see the desert through their eyes in just a few short days, I was not quite an expert, yet no longer a complete novice. I can only imagine what years of honing your skills would do. In the Bedouin’s case is has been a matter of survival. If this skill is not learned and passed on it becomes a life and death issue, and repeated learning and continually drilling deeper can open up whole new worlds.

The art of survival

In the area of innovation, one often needs to remove the cloak of experience to be able to see things in a  new and fresh light, and we focus a lot on this concept in our work on developing creativity. But perhaps in other areas, like in the desert, the more one knows the more one sees.. Experience survives and thrives. A trained, disciplined, searching mind sees things others cannot, each step deeper allows you to see more of what you previously couldn’t see.

This particularly seems to apply with learning the art of survival in relationships, particularly through understanding the subtleties of body language. Reading individuals and group dynamics are skills we all need to learn. Those with Autism or with Aspergers Syndrome have poor social skills and find it difficult to survive in social situations, for example, because they are unable to learn to read these subtleties. Each time they are placed in a social situation and receive feedback about what is appropriate they fail to learn and adapt. It is as if they spend a lifetime in the desert and still only ever see brown rocks and sand.

People clues, not just task focus

Whilst most of us have developed some social skills, it is essential for leaders and team workers to hone them more intensely, and it is something that needs to be worked on constantly. Reading people can be the work of a lifetime, as there are so many variations in experience to learn. Understanding group dynamics is something often missed in the heat of an argument, or the complexities of a meeting. We are often so task obsessed, choosing to focus more on the outcomes and what needs to be achieved and forgetting to notice what is happening with the people in the group. Many leaders are blind to this as they press on passionately with their stretch targets for the new year, or the need to complete a project by a certain date, forgetting to recognise that if they don’t have the team on side it might never be possible to reach any goal.

School is often no different. In the need to produce results teachers can focus on delivering as much content as possible, failing to read that most students are not engaged in or excited about the topic – or perhaps failing to recognise if there are clues about the specific needs of the individual children in the class and how they might be able to connect with the topic. If only my geology teacher had helped me to learn to appreciate rocks through immersing me in different geographical experiences rather than have me rote learn the different types of rocks, then maybe I would have followed the fleeting idea of becoming a geologist. And it would certainly not have taken me as long to appreciate my desert experience! But sadly I couldn’t wait to finish matching rock names to rock types in my final exams before leaving the boring brown rock experience behind me forever.

Are you a social survivor?

In the same way that the Bedouins of the Sinai desert have learnt to read the environment and see the smallest details that most of us fail to see, understanding group dynamics and developing people reading skills can take a lifetime of conscious effort. So many problems could be solved and potential issues avoided if staff were more motivated and communicated more effectively, if meetings ran more efficiently and politics were evaded, if leaders slowed down and took the time to read their teams to more closely involve and engage them.

The benefits of reading body language for survival, based on our learning experience from the Bedouins, can include:

  • Appreciate the need for survival: Learn to recognise that it will only be possible to survive and thrive in challenging environments where you appreciate the need for reading individuals and groups.
  • The more you look the more you see – take the time to look: Look for subtle but important changes in body language – in expressions, communication, behaviours etc. At first they may be hard to find, but a trained mind will learn to spot them.
  • Learn to recognise the subtle differences: Someone trained in body language can actually see what are called ‘micro’ expressions that may only appear for a millisecond, but can reveal so much. Learn to pick up on these micro expressions and their meanings and adjust your strategy and conversation to ensure the intended outcome is reached.

As the book ‘Influencer’ warns us, “Often humans react to their immediate environments as if they were on autopilot. They don’t pause to consider how their immediate choices reflect their ideals, values, or moral codes… when we make horrific and costly mistakes, more often than not we’re not choosing at all… The solution here is to reconnect. Turn off the autopilot. Stop, think, be aware.”

Are you able to not just survive, but thrive in the contemporary corporate desert?

Thanks to Desert Divers Dahab for our Safari in the Egyptian Sinai desert

“Becoming Bedouins of Body Language” by Andrew Grant 2009 (with editing by Zoe Grant) .This article may be republished as long as links are posted back to and the authors acknowledged.

One Response to “Becoming Bedouins of Body Language”

  1. Zoe says:

    Interesting article and i think whoever edited it you should definalty hire, she seems pretty cool :)

Leave a Reply