Body Language

Communication is made up of many things and you may be surprised to learn that verbal communication is estimated between 20-50% of all communication. That is what we hear or say is not even half the message being sent or received. Here’s a quick overview on what to look for and how to apply it.

Another interesting observation of body language is the times at which it is the only form of communication. In our personal lives there are hundreds and thousands of people we pass on the street in a year who we’ve never spoken to yet we have communicated with through eye contact, facial expressions etc. Even being ignored is a form of communication, you interpreted something from it right?

How about at work? Sales people meet new clients regularly and as the first greetings are exchanged a great deal of evaluation is going on. Before the greeting has finished both parties have probably already made a lot of decisions about the other person; who they are, what they are like etc. In meetings and presentations a huge amount of non-verbal communication occurs as ideas/information is shared in an environment not everyone can verbally respond in. Presenters consciously look for body language to gauge the audience response and shape the tempo and content accordingly.

Also keep in mind that we like people who act like we do. The theory is that in exactly the same way as I verbally agree with a statement you make, if I match your body language I am also affirming what you are communicating. So while I verbally agree with your comments on the economy my body language matches yours and shows you I have the same passion, disappointment etc. You shouldn’t copy 100% though for two reasons, firstly it will be picked up on and the person will become self-conscious of it and think you’re strange. Secondly there will be a range of negative signals you don’t want to copy if you are trying to encourage the conversation.

How not to read body language

It’s really important to remember that all forms of communication are open to interpretation. What we see in someone’s body language can be happening for countless reasons. This can include cultural background, age, personality, upbringing and other things not related to the situation such as health issues. I recommend looking for a series of similar signals before making any conclusions. Then the safest approach is to not conclude anything at all! Sure you can have a suspicion but it is best to clarify with the person/people through a question about what you think you have been observing if it’s appropriate. E.g. It seems you are a little distracted, is there a better time and place we can have this discussion?

Examples of Body Language


The way we greet others says a lot about us, our intentions and thoughts on a relationship. Hugs and kisses are quite a different greeting to a hand shake or even just a ‘hello’.

In handshakes, the person who twists their hand to be on top or pulls the hands closer to themselves could be looking for dominance. Someone who places there second hand on top of the handshake might be displaying a warmth or happiness about the greeting. Also placing the second hand further up the other persons arm such as on their lower arm, upper arm or shoulder express an even greater warmth, caring or happiness about the greeting.

Conversations and general body positioning

Either standing or sitting, the person’s body and feet orientation is a big message. How engaged with you or the conversation could be indicated by how directly they face you. Angled away and they may not like you or the content of the discussion, or they are extremely nervous (perhaps by nature). Because most people know they need to be looking at the person they are talking to, you may find observing which way a person’s feet face when talking as a more subtle tell-tale.

Sitting forward in a chair may indicate an eagerness for the topic, or a demonstration of the importance it has and respect for the other party. Slumping back can indicate disengagement, but in a social context it could also indicate relaxation and openness.

Crossing arms and legs may indicate lack of agreement or discomfort with the individual or topic. Arms held in front of the body in various positions indicate nervousness. Also any type of fiddling with sleeves, tie, and fingers are all signs of nervousness. Arms placed behind the body indicate authority or arrogance. Uncrossed legs (but relatively closed) indicate a general openness. Open legs (mostly men) indicate arrogance and aggression.

Two people having a conversation which is important to both of them would probably find themselves facing each other almost exactly and arms and legs uncrossed. If the same conversation was between two men they may find direct engagement too intimate and face slightly away from each other. This may change slightly again depending on if they are standing or sitting.


Generally eye movements to the right (looking right) while talking implies the person is accessing the creative and feelings side of the brain. Eye movements to the left imply the person is accessing memories and facts.

Direct eye contact when talking and listening is generally a sign of honesty, interest and engagement.


Quite often the best way to interpret signals coming from the mouth is comparing the alignment with what you are seeing and the rest of the body. For example a smile which seems only to exist at the mouth and not the eyes would indicate it’s fake. Same applies to a laugh; if someone is laughing but the eyes are scanning the room or the body is tense then it’s also fake. By knowing the person and the situation you are probably best to determine why. It may be a pretend agreement, a need to comply, hidden disagreement.

Other signals that can be picked up from the mouth are around stress and anxiety. Biting fingernails, chewing things, grinding teeth etc can all mean stress and anxiety exists.


Most of you will already easily see the body language coming from the head which includes nodding or shaking and I don’t need to explain them.

Generally downward head positions indicate disagreement or disengagement. Heads held up indicate engagement however if held too high indicate arrogance.

Body language is an extensive topic and that just a taste. The first step to learning is to start taking more notice of what you’re seeing and talking to over with the person themselves or others who may be able to provide insight.

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