Your baseline is how you communicate about non-stressful topics. It's what you might call "normal" movement and style of speaking.
When you've determined someone's baseline, you can start to read that person's body language, which is all about seeing and hearing the deviations from baseline.
Baseline and the factors contributing to it might change depending on the context. For example, your style of relaxed speech and behavior might be different at home and at work. As a corollary, the topics that trigger an emotional response in the two environments might be different. At work, if a direct report says, "No, I don't want to do that," you might feel a wave of stress coming on. But if your 12-year-old niece says, "No, I don't want to do that," it's just another day in adolescent land.
The skill of baselining focuses your attention on the components of a person's movements and characteristic of voice and speech.
Let's say you want to baseline your boss. Here's how you might do it.
The two of you are talking about a trade show coming up. You're doing mostly routine planning so there is no disagreement or anxiety in the conversation. You notice the following:
• When she's remembering how the booth looked last year, she looks up and to the left.
• When she's visualizing the booth for the next show, which should look very different, she looks up and to the right.
Even though reading eye movement to determine whether someone is remembering or imagining isn't foolproof, with a lot of people, it holds up time after time. That is, they look up to one side to recall something they know-it doesn't matter which side-and up and to the other side to construct a visual image. That left-right eye movement is part of her baseline.
Another thing you notice is that she doesn't usually use fillers such as "um" or "like." The only time you noticed her using a few fillers was when she happened to mention the budget for the new booth-maybe that was a source of stress for her.
Next, you see that she normally moves her hands and arms a lot. She seems to punctuate everything she says with raised arms or a pointed finger. What does it mean if you see her on the floor of trade show and she's talking without moving her hands or arms? That's a deviation from baseline and it means she's under stress!
When you're skilled at baselining, you notice big and little expressions. Baselining helps you recognize the details that matter.