How To Read Body Language

What people say is often less important than their non-verbal communication.

Lisa B. Marshall
4-minute read
Episode #130

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:

  1. Eye contact – Does the person normally maintain direct eye contact or do they tend to look away?

  2. 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”)?

  3. Posture and gestures – Do they typically use hand gestures? Or do they tend to keep still?

  4. 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?


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.