What Is Body Language?
Put simply, body language is the unspoken element of communication that we use to reveal our true feelings and emotions. Our gestures, facial expressions and posture, for instance.
When we are able to "read" these signs, we can use it to our advantage. For example, it can help us to understand the complete message of what someone is trying to say to us, and to enhance our awareness of people's reactions to what we say and do.
We can also use it to adjust our own body language so that we appear more positive, engaging and approachable.
How to Read Negative Body Language
Being aware of negative body language in others can allow you to pick up on unspoken issues or bad feelings. So, in this section, we'll highlight some negative nonverbal signals that you should look out for.
Difficult Conversations and Defensiveness
Difficult or tense conversations are an uncomfortable fact of life at work. Perhaps you've had to deal with a difficult customer, or needed to talk to someone about his or her poor performance. Or maybe you've negotiated a major contract.
Ideally, these situations would be resolved calmly. But, often they are complicated by feelings of nervousness, stress, defensiveness, or even anger. And, though we may try to hide them, these emotions often show through in our body language.
For example, if someone is exhibiting one or more of the following behaviors, he will likely be disengaged, disinterested or unhappy (see figure 1):
- Arms folded in front of the body.
- Minimal or tense facial expression.
- Body turned away from you.
- Eyes downcast, maintaining little contact
Being aware of these signs can help you to adjust what you say and how you say it, so you can make him feel more at ease and receptive to your viewpoint (see figure 2).
Avoiding Unengaged Audiences
When you need to deliver a presentation, or to collaborate in a group, you want the people around you to be 100 percent engaged.
Here are some "telltale" signs that people may be bored or disinterested in what you're saying (see figures 3-6):
- Sitting slumped, with heads downcast.
- Gazing at something else, or into space.
- Fidgeting, picking at clothes, or fiddling with pens and phones.
- Writing or doodling.
When you notice that someone is disengaged, you're in a better position to do something about it. For example, you can re-engage her by asking her a direct question, or by inviting her to contribute an idea of her own.
How to Project Positive Body Language
When you use positive body language, it can add strength to the verbal messages or ideas that you want to convey, and help you to avoid sending mixed or confusing signals.
In this section, we'll describe some basic postures that you can adopt to project self-confidence and openness.
Making a Confident First Impression
These tips can help you to adjust your body language so that you make a great first impression:
- Have an open posture. Be relaxed, but don't slouch! Sit or stand upright and place your hands by your sides (see figure 7). Avoid standing with your hands on your hips, as this will make you appear larger, which can communicate aggression or a desire to dominate (see figure 8).
- Use a firm handshake. But don't get carried away! You don't want it to become awkward or, worse, painful for the other person. If it does, you'll likely come across as rude or aggressive.
- Maintain good eye contact. Try to hold the other person's gaze for a few seconds at a time. This will show her that you're sincere and engaged. But, avoid turning it into a staring match! (See figure 9.)
- Avoid touching your face. There's a common perception that people who touch their faces while answering questions are being dishonest (see figure 10). While this isn't always true, it's best to avoid fiddling with your hair or touching your mouth or nose, particularly if your aim is to come across as trustworthy.