How To Read Body Language
What people say is often less important than their non-verbal communication.
Imagine walking into your office to find your boss standing with “arms akimbo” – that is, hands resting on both hips, thumbs facing backward, and elbows bowed outward. What would your first reaction be?
Of course, you would instinctively know that you were on the receiving end of a bit of attitude. The point is, without any words, gestures communicate a tremendous amount of information.
Why Reading Body Language Is Important
Words are not enough in communication. In fact, what isn’t said is often more important than what is. Knowing how to read body language can help you:
establish and maintain leadership or a competitive edge
create a more employee-friendly, cooperative work environment
increase your persuasive power (aka, earn a higher salary and close more deals)
hire the best people
So, here are 5 Quick and Dirty steps to read body language:
Step #1 - Observe What's Normal
How does the individual normally act? What does their body usually say? Here’s what you should look for:
Eye contact – Does the person normally maintain direct eye contact or do they tend to look away?
Words and speech patterns – Do they typically have a disfluent pattern (lots of “ums” and “ahs”) or are they smooth? Do they use qualifiers regularly in speech (words like “very,” “somewhat,” “a bit”)?
Posture and gestures – Do they typically use hand gestures? Or do they tend to keep still?
Personal space – How close do they usually stand? Do they prefer barriers between them and conversational partners?
All of us have personal and cultural biases, so it’s important to baseline or determine what is normal for each person before you assign any meanings to their gestures.
Step #2 - Notice Changes
When body language changes, that’s often a signal of something happening. Individual expressions and mannerisms can change gradually over time (with experience, promotions, responsibilities, etc.) or in an instant. The smallest unexpected, unpredictable, gesture can put a listener on alert. That’s why knowing what’s normal is important. Here’s what you should look for:
Are they avoiding eye contact when they typically don’t?
Are they smiling less? More? In a different way?
Are their hands nervous? Jerking? In their pockets?
Are they standing closer or further away?
Is their head lowered, shoulders slumped when normally they’re held high?
Are they talking more loudly? Softer? In broken sentences?
Step #3 - Apply Possible Meaning
It’s important to observe visual cues, along with words and expressions. If for example you observe smiling eyes, direct eye contact, and leaning forward toward you, these indicate positive interest in you and what you have to say. However, no eye contact or limited eye contact may indicate lying, disinterest, or distraction. However, also keep in mind that people who are really shy or uncomfortable in certain situations, may also have trouble maintaining eye contact. It is important to consider what’s normal for every individual before you jump to conclusions.
[[AdMiddle]If you observe tense facial features (flat mouth, pursed lips, eyebrows and forehead furrowed) it might indicate tension, fear, confusion, or anger. On the other hand, it could be that the person has a screaming headache. Scratching the nose, or rubbing the face or neck, tapping fingers, or fidgeting might indicate boredom or wanting the discussion to end. It could also be that they are a person with an attention deficit issue.
Again, the goal of this step is to apply possible meanings when there’s any deviation from the normal patterns of a given person’s body language.
Step #4 - Set a Goal
Next, decide what you want to know. Or, if you are delivering the message, what you want to convey. It is difficult, distracting, and not productive to observe every visual cue. Instead choose a goal so you can focus your attention:
If you want to know if someone is listening, then look to for direct eye contact, open body position, leaning in toward you, relaxed arms and legs.
If you want to know if someone is attracted to you, look for a natural smile, physical touch, leaning in towards you, and extended eye contact.
If you want to know if someone is lying, look for increased fidgeting, shifts in eye contact, frequent touching of the nose or face.
Step #5 - Practice Reading Body Language
Look toward multiple indicators as well as the context to help you interpret body language. It’s important not to assign a meaning from a single gesture.
Knowing how to read body language isn’t difficult once you become aware of what to watch for. Use these five steps to easily interpret body language in any circumstance. First observe what is normal, next notice changes and apply possible meanings, then set a goal, and finally, practice your observation skills.
This is Lisa B. Marshall, The Public Speaker. Passionate about communication your success is my business.
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I wrote a blog post that includes many great resources for developing a conversational style. It was the reason I wrote this episode.