Body Language – The Basics
Everything we do and every gesture that we make is open for interpretation others. Yes, sometimes we can misinterpret and sometimes we can over analyse. However, our non-verbal communications are clear indication of our true feelings, emotions and intentions.
Take Each Situation on Merit
Before we get started, let´s make a point that this is not an exact science. For instance, it´s often said that people with folded arms are distancing themselves or are not interested. In some encounters that may be so but they also might just be comfortable. There is also no concrete evidence that someone who looks you in the eye is telling you the truth, although the common perception is that they are.
Most of us have been in a situation when you really didn't believe what someone was saying? You just knew that something wasn´t right. Now I don´t mean facts and figures. I mean that this person was saying one thing but your inner self told you that it wasn´t true.
The reason for this is, although we are listening to the verbal communication, we also pick up on non-verbal cues through the other person’s body language.
By becoming more aware of body language (yours and others), you can more easily understand the hidden message and communicate more effectively with them.
I am not talking about reading minds but I am talking about reading a given situation better.
There are times when we send mixed messages. We say one thing yet our body language reveals something different. Non-verbal language affects how we act interact with others. Sometimes these cues are gentle and subtle and other times glaringly obvious;
List of cues
- Lack of eye contact (looking at the ground)
- Fidgeting with clothes or objects
- Body or feet facing the door
- Arms folded and slouched in the chair.
- Nervous irratic movements
- Hunched posture
First Impressions and Confidence
Think about a first encounter you had with someone in the past.
What were your first impressions of this person?
- Did they look confident?
- Did they appear nervous or anxious?
- Smiling and engaging?
- Did they glance at you quickly and then look down at the floor?
- Was their handshake strong or weak? (culturally specific)
- Did they fill you with confidence?
- Did you want to be associated with them?
- Did you want to avoid them?
Observing people when you first meet them will reveal some tell-tale signs that what they are saying and what they mean may be two entirely different things.
Appraisals and Difficult Meetings
Think of a time when you were in a difficult meeting. Maybe a performance appraisal or disciplinary meeting. In an ideal world, both you and the other person would be open and receptive to hearing what each other has to say, in order to conclude the meeting successfully. However, very often that´s far from reality and the person on the receiving end is very defensive.
But how can you tell if the person is being defensive without them saying a word?
- Hand/arm gestures are small and close to his or her body.
- Blank facial expressions.
- Body is physically turned away from you.
- Arms are crossed in front of body.
- Eyes maintain little contact, or are downcast.
Working with Groups and Disengagement
Have you ever delivered a presentation, and had a sense that people weren't really buying into what you had to say? Or facilitated a focus group on bringing departments together but people appeared bored?
Ideally, when you stand up to deliver a presentation or work with a group, you want everyone engaged. However, this often depends not just on the content but on the presenter also.
You can achieve active engagement from the group even with the most mundane message if you know what signs to look for.
- Staring at the wall or out of the window
- Blank expressions
- Fiddling with objects
- Checking mobile phones
- Doodling on paper
- Slumped in the chair.
When you pick up that someone appears not to be engaged in what is going on, you can do something to re-engage him or her and bring their focus back to what you are saying, such as asking them a direct question.
Lies or Nerves?
Of all the non-verbal body language that we may observe, being able to tell whether a person is lying or not will stand you in good stead.
- Eyes maintain little or no eye contact.
- Hand or fingers are in front of his or her mouth when speaking.
- Body is physically turned away from you, or there are unusual/un-natural body gestures.
- Breathing rate increases.
- Complexion changes such as in colour; red in face or neck area.
- Perspiration increases.
- Voice changes such as change in pitch, stammering, throat clearing.
As with all non-verbal language, it's important to remember it´s situational specific. Just because someone appears a little red faced and is fidgeting doesn’t mean they are lying. They could just be very nervous.
What you can do is use these cues to clarify certain points by asking further questions. Realising that the other person is feeling a little uncomfortable with the situation and trying to relax them may open them up enough for you to be able to get to the bottom of the situation.
Some Final Thoughts
Please remember that different people react or respond to situations differently. Some people may appear disengaged when in actual fact they are just nervous and unusually quiet. Furthermore, the world is a wonderful cultural mix. Whereas some may wear their heart on their sleeve and be quite animated, others are more relaxed and conservative.
Not everyone will act the same and so being aware of body language is a skill that you should aim to pick up over time, through engaging in a variety of situations.
Practicing people watching will develop your skills. You can try it anywhere and you don´t have to be able hear the conversation and you won´t always know if you are assessing the situation correctly but it will help develop your skills.
Do you have any experience of picking up on vital non-verbal cues that has helped you deal with a situation better?
Thank you for taking time to read this article
As always, all comments and suggestions are welcome. Leave them in the box below
*There will be a follow up article on “A Cultural Perspective on Body Language”