Understanding Body Language

Picking Up on People's Nonverbal Signals

Understanding Body Language - Picking Up on People's Nonverbal Signals

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The body language you use can make you look alert or indifferent.

Lauren sighed. She'd just received an email from her boss, Gus, saying that the product proposal she'd been working on wasn't going to be signed off after all.

It didn't make any sense. A week ago she'd been in a meeting with Gus and he'd seemed really positive about it all. Sure, he hadn't made much eye contact, and he kept looking out of the window at something. But she'd just put that down to him being busy. And, he'd said that "the project will probably get the go-ahead."

If Lauren had known a little bit more about body language, she'd have realized that Gus was trying to tell her that he wasn't "sold" on her idea. He just wasn't using words.

In this article, we'll define what is meant by body language, and how you can read and interpret it to understand people better and communicate with them more effectively.

What Is Body Language?

Put simply, body language is the unspoken element of communication that we use to reveal our true feelings and emotions. Our gestures, facial expressions and posture, for instance.

When we are able to "read" these signs, we can use it to our advantage. For example, it can help us to understand the complete message of what someone is trying to say to us, and to enhance our awareness of people's reactions to what we say and do.

We can also use it to adjust our own body language so that we appear more positive, engaging and approachable.

How to Read Negative Body Language

Being aware of negative body language in others can allow you to pick up on unspoken issues or bad feelings. So, in this section, we'll highlight some negative nonverbal signals that you should look out for.

Difficult Conversations and Defensiveness

Difficult or tense conversations are an uncomfortable fact of life at work. Perhaps you've had to deal with a difficult customer, or needed to talk to someone about his or her poor performance. Or maybe you've negotiated a major contract.

Ideally, these situations would be resolved calmly. But, often they are complicated by feelings of nervousness, stress, defensiveness, or even anger. And, though we may try to hide them, these emotions often show through in our body language.

For example, if someone is exhibiting one or more of the following behaviors, he will 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.

Figure 1.

Body Language

Being aware of these signs can help you to adjust what you say and how you say it, so you can make him feel more at ease and receptive to your viewpoint (see figure 2).

Figure 2.

Body Language

Avoiding Unengaged Audiences

When you need to deliver a presentation, or to collaborate in a group, you want the people around you to be 100 percent engaged.

Here are some "telltale" signs that people may be bored or disinterested in 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.

Figure 3.

Body Language

Figure 4.

Body Language

Figure 5.

Body Language

Figure 6.

Body Language

When you notice that someone is disengaged, you're in a better position to do something about it. For example, you can re-engage her by asking her a direct question, or by inviting her to contribute an idea of her own.

How to Project Positive Body Language

When you use positive body language, it can add strength to the verbal messages or ideas that you want to convey, and help you to avoid sending mixed or confusing signals.

In this section, we'll describe some basic postures that you can adopt to project self-confidence and openness.

Making a Confident 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 will make you appear larger, which 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 or, worse, painful for the other person. If it does, you'll likely come across as rude or aggressive.
  • Maintain good eye contact. Try to hold the other person's gaze for a few seconds at a time. This will show her that you're sincere and engaged. But, avoid turning it into a staring match! (See figure 9.)
  • Avoid touching your face. There's a common perception that people who touch their faces while answering questions are being dishonest (see figure 10). While this isn't always true, it's best to avoid fiddling with your hair or touching your mouth or nose, particularly if your aim is to come across as trustworthy.

Figure 7.

Body Language

Figure 8.

Body Language

Figure 9.

Body Language

Figure 10.

Body Language

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Public Speaking

Positive body language can also help you to engage people, to mask presentation nerves, and to project confidence when you speak in public. Here are a few tips that can help you to do this:

  • Have a positive posture. Sit or stand upright, with your shoulders back and your arms unfolded and at 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. You'd practice your presentation beforehand, so why not practice your body language, too? Stand in a relaxed manner, with your weight evenly distributed. Keep one foot slightly in front of the other – this will help you to maintain 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 to share ideas (see figure 14). Keep your upper arms close to your body. Take care to avoid overexpression, or people may pay more attention to your hands than to what you're saying.

Figure 11.

Body Language

Figure 12.

Body Language

Figure 13.

Body Language

Figure 14.

Body Language


If you notice that your audience's concentration is starting to slip, try to lean slightly forward while you speak. This suggests that you are taking them into your confidence and will help you to regain their attention.

Interviews, Negotiations and Reflection

Body language can also help you to stay calm in situations where emotions have the potential to run high – a negotiation, for example, or a performance review. Use the following tips to defuse tension and demonstrate openness:

  • Use mirroring. If you can, subtly mirror the body language of the person you're talking to. This will make him feel more at ease, and can build rapport. But don't copy every gesture that he makes, as this will likely make him feel uncomfortable, or that you're not taking him seriously.
  • Relax your body. It can be difficult to keep emotions at bay, particularly in nerve-wracking situations such as an interview or appraisal. But you can maintain the appearance of calm by keeping your hands still, and by avoiding fidgeting with your hair or touching your face.
  • Look interested. As we suggested above, touching your face or mouth can signal dishonesty. But, it can also demonstrate that you're thinking. So, if you are asked a complex question, it's OK to briefly touch your cheek or stroke your chin. This will show the other person that you're reflecting on your answer before you respond (see figure 15).

Figure 15.

Body Language


While the tips covered in this article are a good general guide for intepreting body language, it's important to remember that they won't necessarily apply to everyone. This is particularly the case if someone has a different cultural background from you, for instance.

Avoid making generalized assumptions. If you're getting mixed signals, check that your interpretation of the person's body language is correct by asking him questions and getting to know him better. After all, the ability to interpret body language is a complementary skill, not a substitute for listening to and understanding people.

Key Points

Body language refers to the nonverbal signals that you use to communicate your feelings and intentions. It includes your posture, your facial expressions, and your hand gestures.

The ability to understand and to interpret body language can help you to pick up on unspoken issues, problems or negative feelings that other people might have. You can also use it in a positive way to add strength to your verbal messages.

Negative body language includes:

  • Folded arms.
  • Tense facial expression.
  • Body turned away from you.
  • Poor eye contact.

Positive body language includes:

  • Open body position (arms unfolded).
  • Upright posture.
  • Relaxed and open facial expression.
  • Arms hanging relaxed by the sides.
  • Regular eye contact.

Photographs in this article © Mind Tools/Gez Page.

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Comments (57)
  • This month Yolande wrote
    Hi SandeepPrasad,

    I'm not sure if it's body language as much as it is an unintentional bodily reaction to an external stimulus or situation indicating either fear/anxiousness or excitement/ anticipation. Something interesting to think about - thanks for asking!

    Mind Tools Team
  • This month SandeepPrasad wrote
    Trembling is that part of body language?
  • This month Yolande wrote
    Body language is interesting, complicated and not always what we think it is!
    An important takeaway from this article is that you should never make generalised assumptions and decide another person's body language definitely conveys what you think it does. Take the context, situation, your assumptions, your filters and cultural differences into consideration too.
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