Reading body language can tell you more than words
You are well-prepared for a difficult meeting. Halfway into the meeting, after presenting some of the key messages, you observe the room is quiet. Are you relieved, or is it the calm before the storm? Are you able to tell the difference just by reading your audience’s body language?
Paired with listening skills, non-verbal communication skills can help you understand others better and give you a complete picture of what they feel and what remains unsaid.
A good way to learn how to read body language is to first understand the signs of the individual body parts, and then put them together to form the bigger picture. Add this to what is being said as well as the situation, and you will capture a complete picture. Let’s go through some body parts and how they contribute to an overall interpretation.
Eyes can tell!
It is amazing how expressive eyes can be. Here are some general rules:
- Looking left is generally associated to accessing memory. When combined with looking up, this is a sign for recalling facts. Combined with looking down, it often signals self-talk or rationalisation. Often this can indicate someone is checking an outward view against their own views. Looking left generally indicates a rational process.
- Opposed to that, looking right generally indicates creating, imagining, guessing and so on. When asked for facts, looking right can indicate someone guessing rather than recalling knowledge or even lying (always consider additional body language signs). Looking right and down means accessing feelings; whereas, looking right and up is more associated to creating and imagining.
- Widening eyes as well as dilated pupils often means interest or appeal.
- Rolling the eyes upward is one of the most-known signs and surely is not a positive sign; that generally indicates frustration.
- Direct eye contact is often positive. When speaking, it generally is associated with honesty; however, since most people know this, it can also just signal fake honesty. When listening, this shows interest in the topic.
Be careful to interpret too much into eye contact. One, this is the most-known sign, so people will be inclined to be unnatural about this. Second, there are big cultural differences in direct eye contact in that most non-western cultural tends toward less direct eye contact, in particular when there is a power distance. This is only a short excerpt of the amazing interpretations when it comes to the eyes.
Dr. Paul Ekman is most likely the biggest authority in the field of facial expressions. His book Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life is very comprehensive on this topic.
A comprehensive read on body language can be found on the web.
A popular book on reading body language is written by ex agent Joe Navarro What Every BODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People.
Another popular book is The Definitive Book of Body Language by Barbara Pease
Expressions of the mouth
Let’s come to the facial expressions of the mouth, which are not only a source of verbal but also plenty of non-verbal communication
- How do you know if someone is smiling genuinely or faking it? One of the best signs is to see if their eyes wrinkle. Genuine smiling will wrinkle eyes, whereas a fake smile won’t. While there are several different forms of non-genuine smiles, they generally stand for feelings held back or disagreement.
- Opposed to that, a true smile is, obviously, a positive sign of relaxation and building rapport. Genuine laughing is extremely powerful. It can dismantle attempts of holding back feelings and opinions.
- A high-pitch laugh generally indicates nervousness or an attempt of building up empathy or hiding uncertainty.
- A number of signs of the mouth can reveal inward-directed feelings. Biting on a pen, nails, lips, chewing gum or bringing other objects close to the mouth denote a feeling of self-comforting. This is not the same as a negative emotion and can give you a sign to spend a bit more time on assurance.
- Pursing lips generally stands for thoughtfulness but can also be a sign of feeling upset or sulking. Again, pretty interesting, heh?
Signs of the head
Next are some general signs of the head. Most of these will not be a surprise to you.
- Head nodding generally means agreement. Slow head nodding can mean agreement and attentive listening.
- Shaking a head generally means disagreement. The stronger it is, the stronger the opposing view.
- Head tilted to the side generally is seen as thoughtfulness, attentiveness and listening. This is often referred to as a female gesture.
- Head down is often connected to negative feelings and can range from disagreement, criticism and also defeat. If you are a manager seeing one of your staff in such a position, particularly when you are talking to them, I encourage you to ask about their opinions. It can point out strong feelings that are being held back due to fear.
By investigating the source of these non-verbal signals when you see them, you’re using body language in communication to improve work relationships.
Arms and hands can be very telling
In particular where people control their mimic strongly.
- The general rule is the more crossed arms and hands, the more it will indicate disagreement, defensiveness and even hostility, in particular when combined with a clenched fist.
- With this said, overlay individual signs of people. Many people find crossed arms simply relaxing and self-comforting. The better you know a person, the easier it will be to distinguish this from negative feelings.
- Rapid, abrupt movements of hands, especially a chopping move, can show strong emotions and generally will emphasise what has been said. This is well-known, so many people train to control their hands; therefore, you need to be careful not to interpret too much into it.
- There are all sorts of gestures with arms that demonstrate self-protection or self-assurance like holding a stack of paper, a mobile device, playing with a watch, etc. especially when done with both hands. For example, if you have ever been to a conference where you didn’t know anybody, chances are you grabbed a drink and held it for a longer time than you normally would have. It is an attempt to hide nervousness. Similar is the case if you go to a bar, and you are the first of your friends.
- Many people give away signs with finger-pointing. In some cases, this is simply emphasising what has been said (when finger points in the air), but it can also be an aggressive sign (when pointing at a person).
- Fingertips touching each other or one’s face are often a sign for thinking when listening. Fingers touching the nose or mouth while speaking is often a sign for exaggeration or even lying.
Signs of the legs
As a large part of the body, legs will give away signs of emotions and also have a large influence on how the upper body is positioned.
- Most forms of legs close to each other, even if not crossed, can indicate caution, alertness and stress, but also interest or anticipation. It is useful to combine this with other signs.
- Uncrossed legs are generally associated to openness.
- Openly-crossed legs (called figure 4 leg cross) generally indicate independence or even stubbornness. More open legs, uncrossed, take it a step further and display arrogance or even aggressiveness. The same holds true for open leg standing.
- Crossed legs paired with crossed arms are a pretty strong sign of insecurity, disagreement, caution or even fear.
- A person leaning forward at a meeting table with legs pointing back is a clear sign for someone who wants to say something.
The art of reading body language is to know individual sign and put several of them together to form an overall picture. The risk, and what doesn’t work, is to seek out individual signs and see it as a confirmation of something you have already assumed (i.e. “He has been looking to the right-up; I knew he was lying.”) Nope, clearly not the way to go! The other word of caution is being aware of cultural differences. While there are many similarities, the methods described here hold in particular true for Western cultures.
How to tell between fake and genuine
People savvy with non-verbal communication skills may employ tactics to fake it
Here is a trick about understanding body language that is not widely known: how to best identify learned and faked body language. Genuine movements come prior to the verbal message.
Say someone wants to “pretend” they are very passionate about something and underpin it with strong hand movements. Their words will come first or at the same time as the hand gestures.
Genuine non-verbal signals come first. Depending how well the speaker controls themselves, it can come 5 seconds to 60 seconds prior. If you observe well, you can predict a speaker’s emotional state a few seconds before it comes through their voice.
I recommend not to interpret negative things while learning how to read body language. Rather, see any negative expressions of body language as a sign that you need to understand the other person’s emotions better by asking. For example, very little facial expressions combined with tense or tight non-verbal signals should clearly prompt you to ask questions and understand the other person better. You can use the right type of questions to find out more.
Understanding body language gives you a great opportunity to understand people on a deeper level. Use this knowledge of body language in communication to connect better to others.
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By Murat Uenlue, PhD, PMP, 2013.