Mind

Body language expert Suzanne Masefield reveals how she learned to read people

As a child body language expert Suzanne Masefield could never understand why people didn't say what they meant - she could see what they were feeling!

By Emma Clifton

If you want to be aware of your limbs, sit opposite a body language expert for a while.

For instance, if you have your finger and thumb resting on your chin, that's a good thing – you're listening, you're engaged. But if that finger makes a move towards your mouth, it might mean you're keen to change the subject or you're having negative thoughts about what's being said.

Cross your legs or arms and you're closing up, making you less grounded in the conversation and more likely to make the wrong decision. But then if you get too comfortable and start slumping down, it might indicate that your energy levels are dipping too far.

Even if you're not opening your mouth, it doesn't mean your body isn't holding a conversation of its own. And there to interpret it is Suzanne Masefield.

A body/mind analyst, micro-expressions trainer, clinical hypnotherapist and executive coach, Suzanne's job description is more of a sentence than just an answer. She's also a best-selling author of the guide Align, Expand and Succeed, and the new young adult novel/teaching tool Eddie Motion and the Tangible Magik. Oh and she has designed a successful app. Basically, she's a human Swiss army knife for all your emotional needs.

It is this unique set of skills that has taken Suzanne to some very unexpected places: speaking alongside Sir Graham Henry at a New Zealand Rugby conference, teaching all the coaches how to build their physical presence on the pitch.

Or rejigging SkyCity's entire surveillance and security teams by helping them spot deceptive or cheating behaviour at their crowded gambling tables. Or being brought in to analyse Bill English and Jacinda Ardern's body language during last year's leaders' debate. The client base is as varied as the job itself.

But while these skills have proven useful in her adult life, it wasn't the easiest road to get there.

Growing up, Suzanne found out pretty quickly that her powers of observation were different from other people's. She remembers constantly getting into trouble walking with her mum on the way to church as she pointed out – as kids do – the idiosyncrasies of the world around her.

Unlike most children, however, she could see a little deeper into the people she came across and into their hidden lives. "I couldn't understand why people would say something that was the opposite of what they were feeling, because I knew what they were feeling," she recalls.

"I'd often say it out loud to my parents – which was quite embarrassing for them. It was very confusing to me as a child."

When Suzanne was young, her mum battled through a debilitating depression, leaving Suzanne – the eldest – to look after her brothers and sisters for three years. It left her angry for a long time, and the entire family went through counselling to help cope with it. However, in hindsight, Suzanne believes, it put her on the path she's on now.

"If it hadn't been for my mother being so ill, I wouldn't have seen the need to explore all this. Because I didn't want to end up like that."

The second piece of the puzzle that saw Suzanne change tack was when she, too, suffered from burnout in the middle of her high-powered corporate career in public relations for the music industry.

"It was a stake in the ground for me to go, 'Okay, something has to change.' I had a fantastic job, got paid loads of money and I was completely disconnected. All that unexpressed emotion from growing up hadn't been dealt with. That's when I started studying how the body works, so I didn't get sick again."

She started a wellness business in the UK, then studied to become a counsellor after she moved to New Zealand (she married a Kiwi, hence the move down under). In her mind, counselling was a complementary skill for the body work she had already done.

"I understood how when you touch certain parts of the body, the muscle seems to release and then the person laughs or cries," she says.

"Counselling helped me support that; I could create a safe space to help deal with the issues that kept coming up. I found there were limitations in counselling – it can help you find the problem, but you can go round and round in a cycle without necessarily getting off it. It's about the 'why', not necessarily the 'how to from here'."

The mind/body connection will be familiar to a lot of people – if you've ever had a panic attack, for example, you know just how physical the effects of strong emotions can be.

A study at Ohio State University found a 30-minute argument with your partner can slow down your ability to heal by at least a day, because it increases the inflammation in your body. Inflammation is linked to arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Research at the Stanford University School of Medicine proved long-lasting or chronic stress can slow or even stop the body's ability to repair itself, and raise the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. When you consider that these are the diseases currently plaguing the Western world, being aware of the toll your emotions are taking on the body no longer looks like "alternative medicine" – it starts to look like common sense.

"Some people might get a really big physical problem, like a heart attack. For other people, it may come in an emotional problem, like a relationship breakdown, where they turn around and look at their life.

Wake-up calls come in many forms; if you take notice of the first or second one, they might not get too big. But if you keep avoiding them, they get bigger and bigger, so the lesson also has to be bigger for you to take notice."

As someone who has experienced burnout, Suzanne is well aware of what it's like to get a wake-up call. It's one of the reasons she's continued to add strings to her bow over the years.

"One modality doesn't do it – you've got to have a combination of things at different times for different people. For me, counselling wasn't enough, so I studied the body/mind connection. Then I studied hypnotherapy, because I wanted to understand how we get the brain to work in a different way. And then I trained as a coach, which grounds it. So counselling talks about your past and takes you into the why, and, from there, coaching will tell you 'what do I want?'"

It's this question women can struggle with the most, Suzanne says, because they're too busy thinking about everyone else to focus on their own goals. Involving the body, as well as the mind, puts her clients in a better place to not only find out what they want, but create the stepping stones to get there. But it's an investment of time in themselves that women can find tricky, because it's not an overnight process.

"We're a quick-fix society, but anything worthwhile takes time," Suzanne warns. The key, she says, is "repetition, consistency, small increments throughout the day" as opposed to just one big therapy situation."If they pressed pause, connected with their bodies and asked: 'How am I feeling? What is my focus today? What do I need to support myself?' just two or three times a day, life would change."

"Press pause" has been a key message of Suzanne's for years – it's even the name of an app she created to help people connect with how they're feeling and restore some calm during the day.

"It's that mindfulness – getting present in yourself to be in that moment and also focus your mind." It's currently being used by several of the NZ Rugby teams, and 12 different departments at SkyCity, not to mention the glowing testimonials it has received from high-profile people at the BBC, Air New Zealand, Datacom and the international bank company HSBC. The Magic netball team has also signed up for the app as a tool to help with their performance.

So after converting the sporting and business world, which part of the population is Suzanne aiming for next? Young adults – and their teachers. Hence her first novel, Eddie Motion and the Tangible Magik, under her family name Suzanne de Malplaquet.

She describes it as being in the vein of J.K. Rowling and Enid Blyton."I wanted to create that soft nostalgia while having an educational journey, with some magic coming in. The "tangible" is the strategy: practical, logical things that you can do, blended with the "magik", which is the emotional and spiritual."

The spark of an idea first hit her about five years ago, and slowly the characters formed themselves in her head.

Suzanne was resistant to the idea at first; ever the pragmatist, she remembers thinking, "This isn't a good business move, writing a book – and is it a kids' book? Is it a magic book? But my soul would have nothing less."

Last year the idea continued to develop, and the result is a book that takes many of her lessons on confidence and presence, and distils them into a magical "coming of age" fantasy/adventure novel, with the Tangible Magik Toolkit to help the reader manage their emotions and uncover their potential.

It feels, Suzanne says, like the natural next step in getting her message out there, and she's already had glowing feedback from teachers and principals – however, she laughs, the magic aspect works more easily on children than it does on some adults.

She gave it to a friend – a business development manager – for their opinion and was told, "Well, you know I don't like magic, and I don't like Harry Potter… but I think the toolkit at the back is great and I found it really helpful."

Even though her book has become a best seller on Amazon, Suzanne is certainly not in it to create a J.K. Rowling level of fortune. At the time of our interview, she was trying to get it sold on e-readers for 99 cents – "I just want it to get to as many people as possible." And she's donating half of whatever she does make anyway.

The book is dedicated to her nephew, Kit de Malplaquet, the beloved first child of her brother and his wife, who died when he was a baby. The money will go to a charity for grieving parents, and the dedication is helping to keep Kit's name alive.

"If this book can help other children and it's in his name, then what a lovely legacy."

Although the book is aimed at the younger generation, Suzanne believes we all need to take care of our own inner child.

"We all have one inside us that needs support, and we can do that as an adult. But if it's driving us subconsciously, it'll be interacting in all of our meetings."

Suzanne explains this by saying her job requires a lot of public speaking, but she used to find it terrifying. Then she realised she was taking her scared little five-year-old self onto the stage, rather than her adult self, who knew she had the skills to do it. So – and she admits this rates high on the woo-woo scale – she imagined in her head that she had put her five-year-old self on the corner of the stage with some colouring-in books to keep her occupied. "Sounds a bit batty," she says with a laugh. "But it worked!"

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