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

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.

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.

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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.

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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.