Beyond Words – How to Read Unspoken Signals
Communication is made up of more than just the words we use. It's maintaining eye contact with the person you're talking to, slouching on a video call, or your hand movements as you speak.
Nonverbal cues such as tone of voice, gestures, and posture all play their part. In this article, we define what body language is – and how you can interpret it to understand and communicate with people more effectively.
Click here to view a transcript of our Body Language video.
What Is Body Language?
Put simply, body language is the unspoken element of communication that we use to reveal our true feelings and emotions.
It's the relaxed facial expression that breaks out into a genuine smile – with mouth upturned and eyes wrinkled. It can be a tilt of the head that shows you're listening, sitting or standing upright to convey interest, or directing attention with hand gestures. It can also be taking care to avoid a defensive, arms-crossed posture, or restlessly tapping your feet.
When you can "read" signs like these, you can understand the complete message of what someone is telling you. You'll be more aware of people's reactions to what you say and do. And you'll be able to adjust your body language to appear more positive, engaging, and approachable.
The Science of Body Language
You've probably heard the statistic that only seven percent of a message is conveyed through words. And the other 93 percent comes from nonverbal communication.
It's taken from Mehrabian's Communication Model, which also states that body language is more important than tone of voice and choice of words when communicating true feelings. But Mehrabian makes clear that his study dealt only with communications involving feelings and attitudes. So, it is not applicable in all cases.
However, it does help to explain why it's so tough to gauge sentiment when we can't see people – on email or messaging apps, for example.
How to Read Body Language
Being aware of body language in others means that you can pick up on unspoken issues or negative emotions. Here are some nonverbal signs to look out for.
Body Language Examples From Difficult Conversations
Difficult conversations are an uncomfortable fact of life. Perhaps you're dealing with a rude customer, giving an employee negative feedback, or negotiating a contract.
Situations like these are often complicated by feelings of nervousness, stress, or even anger. And, though we may try to hide them, these emotions often show through in our body language.
If someone is exhibiting one or more of the following behaviors, they'll likely be disengaged, disinterested or unhappy (see Figure 1):
- Arms folded in front of the body.
- Minimal or tense facial expression.
- Body turned away from you.
- Eyes downcast, maintaining little contact.
Being aware of these signs can help you adjust what you say – and how you say it. That way, you can make the other person feel more at ease and open to persuasion (see Figure 2).
The Body Language of a Bored Audience
When delivering a presentation, or collaborating in a group, you want the people around you to be fully engaged.
Here are some clear indicators that they may be bored by what you're saying (see Figures 3-6):
- Sitting slumped, with heads downcast.
- Gazing at something else, or into space.
- Fidgeting, picking at clothes, or fiddling with pens and phones.
- Writing or doodling.
You can re-engage people by asking them a direct question, or by inviting them to contribute an idea.
Body Language Analysis – Projecting Positivity
Positive body language supports your points, helps you convey ideas more clearly, and avoids sending mixed messages.
Here are some basic postures that you can adopt to project self-confidence and openness.
Body Language for a Good First Impression
These tips can help you to adjust your body language so that you make a great first impression:
- Have an open posture. Be relaxed, but don't slouch! Sit or stand upright and place your hands by your sides (see Figure 7). Avoid standing with your hands on your hips, as this can communicate aggression or a desire to dominate (see Figure 8).
- Use a firm handshake. But don't get carried away! You don't want it to become awkward, aggressive, or painful for the other person.
- Maintain good eye contact. Try to hold the other person's gaze for a few seconds at a time. This will show them that you're sincere and engaged. But avoid turning it into a staring contest! (See Figure 9).
- Avoid touching your face. If you do while answering questions, it can be seen as a sign of dishonesty (see Figure 10). While this isn't always the case, you should still avoid fiddling with your hair or scratching your nose, so that you convey trustworthiness.
It's easy to miss some of the subtleties of body language. So, check out our Body Language Video for more advice on how to interpret and convey signals effectively.
Body Language Examples for Effective Public Speaking
Positive body language can help you to engage people, mask any presentation nerves, and project confidence when you speak in public. Here are a few tips to help you do this:
- Have a positive posture. Sit or stand upright, with your shoulders back and your arms unfolded by your sides or in front of you (see Figure 11). Don't be tempted to put your hands in your pockets, or to slouch, as this will make you look disinterested.
- Keep your head up. Your head should be upright and level (see Figure 12). Leaning too far forward or backward can make you look aggressive or arrogant.
- Practice and perfect your posture. Stand in a relaxed manner, with your weight evenly distributed. Keep one foot slightly in front of the other to help hold your posture (see Figure 13).
- Use open hand gestures. Spread your hands apart, in front of you, with your palms facing slightly toward your audience. This indicates a willingness to communicate and share ideas (see Figure 14). Keep your upper arms close to your body. Take care to avoid overexpression, or people may focus more on your hands than your ideas.
If you notice your audience's concentration dip, lean slightly forward while you speak. This suggests that you're taking them into your confidence and will help to regain their attention.
Body Language for Interviews and Negotiations
Body language can also help you stay calm in situations where emotions run high, such as a negotiation, performance review or interview. Follow these suggestions to defuse tension and show openness:
- Use mirroring. If you can, subtly mirror the body language of the person you're talking to. This will make them feel more at ease, and can build rapport. But don't copy their every gesture or you'll make them uncomfortable.
- Relax your body. Maintain the appearance of calm by keeping your hands still and breathing slowly.
- Look interested. If you're asked a complex question, it's OK to briefly touch your cheek or stroke your chin. It shows you're reflecting on your answer (see Figure 15).
Body language expert Amy Cuddy recommends striking a "power pose" for two minutes, in private, before a stressful situation. It tricks your body's hormone levels so you feel more confident and less stressed. Her mantra is, "Fake it till you become it." You can read our full review of her book "Presence" here.
Virtual Body Language
You can apply much of the body language guidance above to video calls, too. You'll just have a little less space – and body – to work with! Here are some ways to show your enthusiasm and to help make call attendees feel comfortable and receptive to your ideas:
- Get your camera set up right. This means you're close enough to show interest but not too close to invade people's virtual space. And leave room to gesture without hitting the screen!
- Tidy your workspace or find a quiet area for your video call. That way, you'll minimize distractions that could take your eyes off attendees.
- Maintain eye contact. Look into the camera as if you're looking into someone's eyes. If it's a group call, looking around the participants will let you gaze without staring.
- Use facial expressions. Your face is front and center on a video call, so maintain a slight smile throughout. Raise your eyebrows to show engagement, and avoid frowning.
How Do You Use Your Body Language?
The tips given in this article are a good general guide for interpreting body language, but they won't apply to everyone.
For example, people may have a different cultural background from you, and positive gestures in one county can be negative in others.
So, reflect on how you use your body language – and avoid making assumptions! If you're getting mixed signs from someone, ask them what they're thinking. After all, interpreting body language should be a complement to talking and listening attentively, not a replacement for it.
Body language is the range of nonverbal signals that you use to communicate your feelings and intentions. These include your posture, facial expressions, and hand gestures.
Your ability to understand and interpret body language can help you to pick up on unspoken issues or negative feelings in others.
You can also use body language in a positive way to add strength to your verbal messages.
Photographs in this article © Mind Tools/Toby Phillips.
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