Body language refers to communication without words. It relates to the gestures and facial expressions we use to express our emotions and attitudes.
Body language makes up to 55% of our communication, followed by tone of voice at 38%. We overwhelmingly convey our feelings, not through spoken words, but through body language and the manner in which we use our words. Quite often we are not even aware of what our body language is expressing, but it can greatly influence the way in which our message is received.
Those who are aware of body language signals can pick up on the subtle cues that others may overlook. By learning to recognise some of the patterns, you can improve your empathy and enhance your emotional intelligence.
But be mindful that even as you’re reading other people, they may also be reading you.
Posture refers to the way you carry yourself. When you stand tall, you portray an air of self-confidence. Shoulders and back are straight. The head is held high.
There are several causes of poor posture, including medical conditions, too much time spent hunched over a computer, or simply lack of confidence. If you find yourself slouching, make a conscious effort to straighten your back and assume a strong, confident posture. If you get into the habit of automatically correcting your pose, then it will become second nature in time.
Your head moves frequently when communicating, or listening to a speaker, even though you’re not always conscious of those movements. We nod to indicate interest, or agreement and to punctuate key points in the discussion. We shake our head to reflect disagreement, or disbelief. And we raise our eyebrows, frown and roll our eyes as we listen to the conversation.
However, continual unconscious bobbing of the head may indicate impatience, or that you have tuned out. Leaning the head back and yawning is not only rude, but an obvious sign of disinterest, or boredom.
Your face can display your true feelings, even when you’re trying to hide them.
Most people can tell the difference between a genuine smile, or laugh and a fake one. Someone who is comfortable in the conversation has a slight upturn on their lips. Whereas a person who feels uncomfortable with the conversation, or the information they are providing will tend to touch their face, scratch their chin, or fiddle with their ears, or nose. They may also blink excessively and find it difficult maintain eye contact.
We tend to express shock and disbelief by raising our eyebrows, widening our eyes, and opening our mouth. Alternatively, a blank stare, or wandering eyes can reflect disinterest.
Next time you’re talking to someone, tune in to the subtle clues that their face is revealing and become aware of the unconscious changes in your own expressions.
Eyes are the windows to our soul. Our eyes reveal every sentiment, from happiness to sadness, distrust, anger, fear, and determination. They’re one of the first things we notice and remember about a face.
A confident and interested person will maintain eye contact when in conversation. But poor eye contact can reflect disinterest. It may also be a sign of nervousness, or lack of confidence.
Staring is usually an aggressive, or threatening sign. So from time to time, it’s natural to break eye contact briefly, in order to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of glaring at each other. And when several parties are involved in the discussion, our eyes instinctively move from one speaker to the next.
Perhaps you’re folding your arms because you’re cold, but to another person it might mean you’re feeling defensive. The folded arm posture can suggest a range of attitudes, depending on how you hold the rest of your body.
If you’re deep in thought, then your folded arms may be accompanied by pursed lips and a furrowed brow. But if you’re leaning away from the person talking, and expressing a harsh or blank stare, then this reflects hostility, or opposition. This closed position builds an unconscious barrier between yourself and the person speaking.
In general, it’s best not to fold your arms when talking with someone. Instead, adopt an open, confident stance with your hands behind your back, or if you’re seated then place your hands loosely clasped on the table, or your lap.
The handshake dates back thousands of years to when weapons were carried in the right hand. Shaking hands demonstrated that you carried no weapon, and meant no ill will.
A handshake should be firm and confident, lasting for only a couple of seconds. While shaking, it’s important to smile warmly and make eye contact. In the business world, it‘s appropriate to shake hands with both men and women, but your grip should be adjusted depending on who you’re meeting with.
Have you ever experienced a bone-crunching handshake? Or even worse, the wet fish? These forms of handshake can reveal aggression, uncertainty, or a lack of interest in building connections. Also try to avoid the sanitiser handshake – a quick, minimal contact shake followed by a rapid withdrawal and wipe of the hand.
Hands are one of the most expressive parts of the body, being used for pointing, directing and gesticulating. Sign language practitioners can communicate using only hand signals.
Fidgeting with your hands, such as constantly adjusting your watch, or playing with a pen, can reflect boredom and disinterest. Biting your fingernails, or continually scratching and picking your nails, displays a degree of nervousness, or insecurity.
Placing your hands on your hips can indicate frustration, anger, or impatience. Resting, or cradling your hands on your knees is probably the most appropriate position and shows readiness, confidence, or comfort with the current situation.
We often feel uncomfortable when people stand nearby, and our tolerance of space depends on who we’re talking to. Close friends and family are accepted more readily than strangers and business colleagues.
When someone steps into your personal space, you may begin to feel differing levels of discomfort, depending on your relationship with that person.
If you’re interested in a speaker or topic, you might move closer, and this will generally be viewed as positive body language, as long as you don’t invade the speaker’s personal space. But you may also lean in when you are trying to make a point, and this is not always a comfortable situation.
If you’re not aware of the non-verbal cues your body displays, then you may unintentionally be sending the wrong message.
This is particularly important if you are trying to sell a product, or are lending a supportive ear, or if you’re being interviewed for a job.
Once you have begun to recognise some of the signs, you can improve your communication styles and build stronger relationships. And you can more easily read what others are saying to you.
It’s also important to bear in mind that those from other countries and cultures, or those with certain disabilities may use and understand body language in a different manner to yourself. Under these circumstances, common sense, politeness and open, verbal communication can overcome the challenge.