How to Read Body Language and How to Perfect Your Own

Wednesday 5. 2018

Reading body language is something that many of us really wish we could do, and it can prove particularly useful in the world of work. When it comes to understanding what’s really going on or getting a grasp on someone’s true feelings, it can be second best to reading minds. Many people have their own instincts surrounding some of the more basic signals, but there are a few others that are a little harder to detect. Read on to see whether any of your colleagues exhibit the following tell-tale signs, and to discover what they mean. We’ve also included some tips to help you harness what your body is saying.

The Simple Stuff

 There are a few behaviours that obviously mean something, and are known around the world. These include:

Making eye contact

We’re not the only creatures to use eye contact as a means of subconscious communication – species all across the animal kingdom use it to signify pretty much the same things. It displays engagement with another person, whether for good reasons (perhaps we’re really interested in what they’re saying or we’re attracted to them) or bad ones (we’re squaring up to fight them – either figuratively or literally). Make eye contact with your colleague to either show your support for their ideas or to warn them not to take something further unless they’re prepared for you to object.

Shrugging

This gesture is so widely recognised that we knowingly and regularly parody it. Lifting and dropping the shoulders is a universally understood signal meaning “I don’t know the answer” or “I don’t get it”. Because it comes as part of human nature, it’s a pretty casual response and is sometimes considered quite rude – so if someone shrugs, they could be pretty unguarded and comfortable with the people around them.

However, it can also be used as a “throwing off” gesture by someone who is uncomfortable with the current conversation or who does not wish to be asked certain questions; in this case, a stiff shrug is a means of attempting to evade further discomfort by offering up a quick “cover-all” response.

A shrug and a smile can display to confused colleagues or friends that you don’t understand either, but that’s ok.

Furrowed brow

A frown is a well-known sign of anger, stress or frustration – usually shown by the eyebrows drawing together and pulling downwards with wrinkles or “furrows” between them. Other signs of these emotions include a clenched jaw and a tight neck showing prominent jugular veins. It’s best to try and avoid displaying this expression if you can, as it may just reveal to people that something is getting to you. However, it’s an instinct that is difficult to hide!

Big, broad gestures

A wide stance and large, loose arm movements often symbolises a person’s sense of power and success. These sort of behaviours usually occur when the person is in a positive mood and feels invincible. Politicians, managers and other leaders utilise them as a way of instilling confidence in those who work below and alongside them. You can do so too.

Lots of hand gestures

You may have heard the term “talking with your hands” – referring to the act of gesturing actively while talking. This behaviour shows that the speaker feels passionately about what they are saying, whether in a positive or negative way, or is feeling inspired. This is another technique that is utilised by public speakers to keep their listeners attentive and make them respond with their own sense of enthusiasm. If you have a big presentation coming up, think about using – but not overusing – this technique.

Open palms

Whether during speech, while undertaking everyday tasks or at rest, having relaxed, open palms is recognised as showing a lack of stress or animosity and indicates that you have nothing to hide either physically or metaphorically. Be sure to keep your hands open without engaging the muscles if you want to be trusted and to seem friendly and benign.

Dig Deeper

Here are some examples of body language that you may not have realised were significant:

Is their full face engaged?

If only part of a person’s face is displaying an expression, that expression may not really be genuine. This might be true of a forehead-only frown without the jaw engaging, or a smile where wrinkles don’t show around the eyes. If you want to reassure a person that you truly are happy about something when you aren’t really being 100% honest (for example, if you find yourself in a situation where you receive a misguided birthday present), remember to make sure you include your eyes in the smile!

Are they touching their face ?

Touching the face is a display of nervousness. It may stem from the instinct to hide behind something if we’re afraid, but fiddling in general is a natural sign of not feeling completely comfortable. Absentmindedly scratching, cracking knuckles or picking at fingers can be indicators of nerves too. If you wish to appear confident and self-assured, just sit still. Some people put their hands in their pockets to hide their busy fingers, but you’ll appear more trustworthy if your hands can be seen.

Are their legs crossed?

If so, this could reveal resistance to something that’s happening, or someone nearby. However, letting the legs fall open can be perceived as laziness or a lack of self awareness. The best approach in order to appear engaged is to keep both feet on the floor and your knees together.

Are they staring into your eyes?

Prolonged eye contact may come across as pretty creepy, but it can occur for a number of reasons. The person in question may feel naturally awkward and might wish to instil confidence in you – for example, a candidate at a job interview may do this to show that they are both engaged and engaging, and nerves might have persuaded them to take it a smidge too far. It may also be that they are lying and trying to appear convincing, or they might be struggling to stay focussed on what you are saying. Vary your eye contact if you wish to appear honest and switched on.

Are they mirroring you?

If it looks like someone is copying how you’re sitting or standing, it’s usually a good thing – as it probably means they sense they’re on the same wavelength as you. If you want to make someone feel at ease with you and bolster their confidence, subtly mirroring their body language is a good idea.

How do they indicate things?

Seeing how someone points is a good way of understanding them. A tight, closed fist and a straight index finger is actually a signifier of someone being – or trying to be – aggressive and authoritative. Gesturing firmly at something with the whole hand is a way of being direct but less domineering, while a more relaxed hand and a finger that isn’t straight suggests the person is vague and non-committal.

Are their eyebrows raised?

Often seen as a show of surprise, in actual fact raised eyebrows more commonly mean that someone is experiencing discomfort. This may just mean that they feel awkward, or they could be ill or in pain. If you want to appear relaxed, make sure you know what your eyebrows are doing!

Do their gestures oppose what they say?

It may seem surprising, but the way people move often directly betrays what they are saying. If a colleague is telling you something affirmative while unconsciously shaking their head, pay more attention to what they do than what they say – it may be that they are lying or don’t believe their own words! Because of this, it’s always a good idea to try and keep your head still while you are talking.

Of course, everyone’s body language is different and the above guide should not be taken as gospel in every case. However, it’s definitely worth thinking about what you’re doing physically when you’re in the workplace, or with friends, as you might be showing them more than you’re telling!