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Body language

Beyond words - how to decipher the unspoken

What is body language? Body language is the unspoken part of communication we use to reveal our true feelings and give our message more power.

Approximate reading time: 5m 58s

Communication between people is much more than just words exchanged out loud. Non-verbal cues, such as tone of voice, gestures and posture, play a leading role in how people communicate.

A simple example of body language is a relaxed facial expression that transitions into a genuine smile - with the corners of the lips raised and a "crow's feet" past the eyes. Similarly, an example of body language might be a head tilt to indicate that you are thinking, an upright posture to express interest, or hand and palm movements for more persuasiveness. Such as a defensive posture with arms crossed or restless foot tapping are good to avoid.

When you can "read" such "signs" and understand the overall message of what someone is saying to you, you will be more aware of people's reactions to what you are saying and doing. You will then be able to adjust your body language to appear more positive, engaged and approachable.

You can improve your non-verbal communication and body language skills by enrolling in our Introduction to Business Communication course.

In our article and video below, we take a look at body language and reveal how to interpret it to understand and communicate with people more effectively.

The science of body language

You've probably heard the statistic that only seven percent of the message in a conversation is conveyed through words. And that the other 93% comes from non-verbal communication. This statistic is often quoted out of context and is therefore misleading.

It is taken from Mehrabian's Communication Model, which states that body language is more important than tone of voice and word choice in conveying genuine feelings. But Mehrabian clarifies that his research only applied to communications involving emotions and attitudes. So it is not applicable in all cases.

However, it does help explain why it's so hard to gauge sentiment when we can't see people - for example, in emails or messaging apps. This is one of the reasons for the increasing use of emoji, even in business communication.

How to read body language

If you are aware of the body language of others, you can pick up on unspoken issues or negative emotions. Here are some nonverbal signs to watch out for.

Examples of body language from difficult conversations

Difficult conversations are an inconvenient fact of life. Maybe you're dealing with a rude customer, giving negative feedback to an employee, or negotiating a contract.

These situations are often compounded by feelings of nervousness, stress or even anger. And although we try to hide them, these emotions often come through in our body language. If someone exhibits one or more of the following behaviors, they are likely disengaged, disinterested, or unhappy (see Figure 1):

  • Arms are folded in front of the body.
  • Expressionless or tense.
  • Body turned away from you.
  • Eyes are downcast, maintaining almost no contact with yours.

Awareness of these signs can help you correct what you say and the way you say it. In this way, you can make the other person feel more relaxed and open to persuasion (see Figure 2).

The body language of the bored audience

When giving a presentation or working in a group, you want the people around you to be fully engaged. Here are some clear indicators that they may be bored with what you're saying (see figure 3-6):

  • They sit with their heads bowed.
  • They look at something else or into space.
  • They play with side objects, rummage through their clothes or look at their phones.
  • Writing or drawing on slips of paper.

Tip: You can re-engage people by asking them a direct question or inviting them to present an idea.

Body language analysis - radiating positivity

Positive body language supports your arguments, helps you convey your ideas more clearly and avoids sending mixed messages. Here are some basic postures you can adopt to demonstrate confidence and openness.

Body language for a good first impression

These tips can help you adjust your body language to make a good first impression:

  • Stand in an open stance. Be relaxed, but don't slouch! Sit or stand up straight and place your hands at your sides (see Figure 7). Avoid standing with your hands on your hips as this may be perceived as aggression or a desire to dominate (see Figure 8).
  • Use a firm handshake. But don't get carried away! You don't want the handshake to become awkward, aggressive or painful for the other person.
  • Maintain good eye contact. Try to hold the other person's gaze for a few seconds. This will show him or her that you are sincere and engaged. But avoid turning it into a staring contest! (See Figure 9).
  • Avoid touching their face. If you do so while answering questions, it may be perceived as a sign of dishonesty (See Figure 10). While this is not always the case, you should still avoid fiddling with your hair or scratching your nose to instill confidence.

Tip: It's easy to miss some of the subtleties of body language. Observe carefully and with empathy.

Examples of body language to achieve effective public speaking

Body language can help you engage people, quell presentation nerves and demonstrate confidence when speaking in public. Here are some tips to help you do just that:

  • Use a positive internal attitude. Sit or stand up straight, with your shoulders back and arms outstretched at your sides or in front of you (see Figure 11). Don't be tempted to put your hands in your pockets or slouch, as this will make you look disinterested.
  • Keep your head straight. Your head should be straight and level (see Figure 12). If you lean too far forward or back, you may appear aggressive or arrogant.
  • Practice and perfect your posture. Stand relaxed, with your weight evenly distributed. Keep one foot slightly in front of the other to maintain your posture (see Figure 13).
  • Use open hand gestures. Extend your arms out to the sides, in front of you, with your palms facing the audience slightly. This indicates a willingness to communicate and share ideas (see Figure 14). Keep your upper arms close to your body. Be careful not to gesticulate too much, otherwise people may focus more on your hands than your ideas.

Tip: If you notice your audience's concentration waning, lean forward slightly as you speak. This suggests that you trust them, and will help regain their attention.

Body language in interviews and negotiations

Body language can also help you stay calm in situations where emotions are running high, such as a negotiation, performance review or job interview. Follow these suggestions to diffuse tension and show openness:

  • Use mirroring. If you can, mirror inconspicuously the body language of the person you are talking to. This will make him or her feel more at ease, and you can build rapport. But don't copy his every gesture because you will make him feel uncomfortable.
  • Relax your body. Maintain the impression of calm by keeping your hands still and breathing slowly. Look interested. If you're asked a tricky question, it's okay to briefly touch your cheek or stroke your chin. This shows that you are considering your answer (see Figure 15).

Tip: Body language expert Amy Cuddy recommends taking a "power pose" for two minutes alone before a stressful situation. This changes the hormone levels in your body so you feel more confident and less stressed. Her mantra is, "Tune in until you're happy with your state."

Virtual body language

You can apply much of the above body language guidelines to video calls as well. You'll just have a little less space - and body - to work with! Here are a few ways to show your enthusiasm and help your conversation participants feel comfortable and receptive to your ideas:

  • Set up your camera properly. This means being close enough to show interest, but not too close to enter people's virtual space. And leave room for gestures without bumping into the screen!
  • Tidy up your workspace or find a quiet spot for the video call. This will minimize distractions that can take your eyes off the participants.
  • Maintain eye contact. Look into the camera as if you were looking someone in the eye. If the conversation is a group, looking around at the participants will allow you to look without staring.
  • Use a positive facial expression. If your face is front and center in the video conversation, maintain a slight smile throughout. Raise your eyebrows to show engagement, and avoid frowning.

How do you use your body language?

The tips given in this article are a good general guide to interpreting body language, but they will not apply to all situations you find yourself in.

For example, people may have different cultural backgrounds, and positive gestures in one country may be negative in another and get you in trouble. When you have to communicate with a member of an unfamiliar culture, do your "homework" and study the most basic rules for communicating with members of that culture.

So think about how you use your body language and avoid making assumptions! If you get mixed signals from someone, ask them what they think and what they want to convey. After all, interpreting body language should be a complement to speaking and listening carefully, not a substitute for it.

What to remember?

Body language is a set of non-verbal signals that you can use to convey your feelings and intentions. These include posture, facial expressions and hand gestures.

Your ability to understand and interpret other people's body language can help you pick up on unspoken issues or feelings in others. You can also use body language in a positive way to add strength to your own verbal messages and improve your negotiation success greatly in any life situation. And that's great, isn't it!

Sign up for our trainings that will improve your skills and contribute to your success!

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