What Is Body Language?
Body language is the unspoken part of communication that we use to reveal our true feelings and to give our message more impact.
Communication is made up of so much more than words. Nonverbal cues such as tone of voice, gestures and posture all play their part.
A simple example of body language is a relaxed facial expression that breaks out into a genuine smile – with mouth upturned and eyes wrinkled. Equally, it can be a tilt of the head that shows you’re thinking, an upright stance to convey interest, or hand and arm movements to demonstrate directions. It can also be taking care to avoid a defensive, arms-crossed posture, or restlessly tapping your feet.
When you can “read” signs like these, you can understand the complete message in what someone is telling you. You’ll be more aware of people’s reactions to what you say and do, too. And you’ll be able to adjust your body language to appear more positive, engaging and approachable.
In this article and video, we explore body language some more, and look at how you can interpret it to understand and communicate with people more effectively.
Along with body language Body posture also matters a lot
The Science of Body Language
You’ve probably heard the statistic that only seven percent of a message is conveyed through words, and that the other 93 percent comes from nonverbal communication. This is often quoted out of context and is therefore misleading.
It’s taken from Mehrabian’s Communication Model , which states that body language is more important than tone of voice and choice of words when communicating true feelings. But Mehrabian makes clear that his study dealt only with communications involving emotions and attitudes. So, it’s not applicable in all cases.
However, it does help to explain why it’s so tough to gauge sentiment when we can’t see people – on email or messaging apps, for example. It’s also part of the reason for the rise in use of emojis , even in business communication.
Click here to view a transcript of our Body Language video.
How to Read Body Language
Being aware of body language in others means that you can pick up on unspoken emotions and reactions. It’s a valuable form of feedback, but it can easily be missed if you’re not aware of what to look out for.
So let’s explore the most important nonverbal clues – some with negative interpretations, and others that are positive signs.
Negative Body Language Examples
If someone’s exhibiting one or more of the following, negative behaviors, they’ll 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.
You may encounter these behaviors when you’re dealing with colleagues who are upset, or dissatisfied customers .
Being aware of what these signals mean can help you to adjust what you say – and how you say it. You can show empathy for someone’s unhappiness, for example, explain yourself more clearly, or work to calm a heated situation .
If someone exhibits these signs during a negotiation, focus on engaging their interest and putting them at their ease. Then, if the negative behavior stops, you’ll know that they’re ready to negotiate with you effectively – and more open to persuasion .
Other types of body language can indicate that someone’s bored by what you’re saying. This might be in a presentation, a team meeting, or even a one-on-one chat.
Here are some of the most common signs of boredom (illustrated in figures 2–5, below):
- Sitting slumped, with head downcast.
- Gazing at something else, or into space.
- Fidgeting, picking at clothes, or fiddling with pens and phones.
- Writing or doodling.
|Figure 2.||Figure 3.|
|Figure 4.||Figure 5.|
You can re-engage people by asking them a direct question, or by inviting them to contribute an idea.
Additional signs of negative body language include:
- Nail biting – suggesting insecurity or stress.
- Locked ankles – also associated with anxious thoughts.
- Rapid blinking – which may indicate uncertainty or concern.
- Tapping/drumming fingers – often a mark of impatience or boredom.
- Fidgeting – more evidence that someone’s disinterested or distracted.
Positive Body Language Examples
People also use their body language to convey positive feelings, such as trust, interest and happiness. Spotting these signs can reassure you that others are engaged with what you’re saying and at ease with the situation.
What’s more, by adopting these behaviors yourself, you can support your points, convey ideas more clearly, and avoid sending mixed messages.
Here are three specific ways to use positive body language to your advantage:
1. Body Language for a Good First Impression
Your nonverbal signs play a big part in people’s first impression of you. Here are ways to appear trustworthy, engaged, confident, and calm:
- Have an open posture. Be relaxed, but don’t slouch. Sit or stand upright and place your hands by your sides (see figure 6). Avoid standing with your hands on your hips, as this can communicate aggression or a desire to dominate (figure 7).
- Use a firm handshake. But don’t get carried away! You don’t want it 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 at a time. This will show them that you’re sincere and engaged. But avoid turning it into a staring contest! (figure 8).
- Avoid touching your face. If you do this while answering questions, it can be seen as a sign of dishonesty (figure 9). While this isn’t always the case, you should still avoid fiddling with your hair or scratching your nose, so that you convey trustworthiness.
- Smile! Warm, sincere smiles are attractive, reassuring – and infectious!
|Figure 6.||Figure 7.|
|Figure 8.||Figure 9.|
Now that we have discussed the meaning of body language, let us look at the importance of body language in communication. Imagine a band of chimpanzees in a forest. Though they can’t speak, they use nonverbal cues and body language as major modes of communicating.
Similarly, human beings also use body language in communication along with verbal communication. In the business world, your body language illustrates your confidence and commitment in more ways than you realize.
The importance of body language lies in the manner in which it impacts your personal brand. Whether it’s a job interview, first date or even an average day in one’s life as an employee, how one presents them is important. Positive body language suggests that one is approachable, attentive and open to new ideas and suggestions.
The use of body language in communication is often unconscious. If a person is yawning in the meeting room or tapping their fingers on the table while the boss is talking about the monthly sales goals, chances are that they will be perceived as disinterested and stressed. Improving your posture will give the impression that a person is interested and focused.
The importance of body language is not only limited to formal communication. Changing any negative nonverbal cues will increase your self-confidence and self-esteem. Once you see people responding positively to you as a friend, employee, co-worker or leader, your internal motivation will increase as well.
The importance of body language in communication is evident in public speaking. With all eyes on one person, the speaker is under pressure to be mindful of what they are saying and how they are saying it.
Another important nonverbal business transaction is the handshake. Political and business leaders seal deals with a handshake. A strong handshake suggests confidence and a limp handshake implies the person is disinterested.
Smiling and maintaining eye contact is also important while shaking hands. This shows that you have courage and confidence.
Be mindful but don’t stress about body language in communication. If you have a habit of cracking your knuckles or rubbing the eyes, being aware and consciously replacing it with a positive body movement will do the trick.
Harappa Education offers a course called Building Presence in which you can learn all about the importance of body language. The course also helps you in decoding, understanding and using nonverbal cues for building a brand. Sign up for the course to understand all about body language in communication and build your presence at work.
Here are 10 tips to help you keep your body language positive:
Posture. Keep a relaxed posture whether you are sitting or standing. Keep your back straight but not stiff and let those shoulders relax. This will reinforce the idea that you feel comfortable with your surroundings.
Take up space. You do not have to sprawl out but try sitting or standing with your legs apart a bit. This will signify to others that you are at ease with yourself.
Lean. Leaning in slightly when someone is speaking demonstrates that you are actively listening while leaning away signals that you are disinterested or hostile to the situation.
Arms. Crossing your arms is the visual clue that you are turned-off by what is going on around you. Practice hanging your arms comfortably at your side or bringing your hands together in your lap to show others that you are open to what they are communicating.
Hands. Talking with your hands is an easy way to incorporate gestures into your conversation but be careful not to make it a dance party. Emphasizing words with your hands can lead you to appear more credible and assured.
Handshake. The handshake is one of the most important nonverbal communication cues because it can set the mood for the entire conversation. A firm handshake will give you instant credibility while a weak handshake will make you appear fragile. Take care not to crush the other person’s hand though. Giving someone a death grip will signal to them that you are a bully or overcompensating for something.
Eye contact. Keep your head up and look the person who you are having a conversation with in the eyes both when they are talking to you and when you are talking to them. There is no need to stare them down and remember to blink and look away occasionally. Good eye contact lets others know that you are interested in the conversation.
Affirmative movements. You can show empathy with simple actions of agreement like nodding your head or smiling. These actions let people know that you are on their side and that you can identify with their plight. You can even use laughter when appropriate.
Taking notes. Taking notes lets others know that you value what they are saying and that you are engaged in the conversation. Taking notes is not appropriate though in every situation.
Slower. Take a deep breath, hold it for a second or two, and let it out. Focus on slowing down your speech and body movements a bit. This will make you appear more confident and contemplative. It will also help calm you down if you are nervous.
Picking at something. Whether it is your clothes, your notebook, or your fingernails, just leave it alone. Picking at something demonstrates boredom and disapproval. At the very least, it communicates that you are rude.
On the edge. Sitting on the edge of your chair will communicate that you are literally on the edge both mentally and physically. You can make others feel more comfortable around you by sitting back in your chair and looking relaxed. When you lean into a conversation to appear engaged, you want to lean with your back and leave you bottom firmly planted toward the back of the chair.
Tapping. Do not tap; it is simple. Tapping your fingers, feet, or even a pen indicates stress or impatience.
Objects. Did you know that placing an object in front of your body shows resistance and shyness? Place items that you need at your side to show people that you are not hiding behind them.
Too close. You want to be close to someone when you are having a conversation with them but being in their personal bubble will make them feel uncomfortable and make you look like you do not know basic social cues. Four feet is the appropriate amount of space to give someone who is not a close intimate friend.
Fake smile. People know when you are faking a smile so do not even bother trying. A true smile comes from more than just your mouth. It can be seen in your entire face including your eyes. If you need to smile, try thinking of a happy thought or memory.
Over blinking. Blinking is normal but over blinking is usually a sign of anxiety and nervousness. Practice your blinking habits while looking at yourself in the mirror.