Hearing What They Don’t Say: How to Read Body Language

By Robert Half January 26, 2015 at 3:10pm

Ever wonder why it’s so much better to talk to someone in person versus over the phone? There are a number of reasons, but being able to interpret their body language is without doubt a key one.

The ability to decipher what your coworkers and bosses say with their body in addition to what they say with their tongue can help you better understand — and anticipate — their needs. This is the opinion of 97 percent of administrative employees and 94 percent of executives polled in our OfficeTeam guide, Business Sense: Putting Your Intuition to Work.

Body language signs can be found in all areas of the body, so here’s a head-to-toe approach to learning the basics of how to read body language:

1. Head, eyes & face

This is the easiest area to look for body language signs because all of our verbal communication comes from this part of the body.

• A slightly tilted head shows interest and sympathy.
• Direct eye contact usually means confidence and trust.
• Looking away and back repeatedly shows disinterest, preoccupation or impatience.
• A smile that only includes moving the corners of the mouth is usually a “just to be polite” smile and may be false or forced.
• The way to tell a genuine smile from a fake one is to look at the person’s eyes. If the corners of their eyes crinkle, the smile is genuine. (Note: it’s really difficult to fake genuine happiness. This is why the smiles in family portraits always look off—they’re posed rather than genuine.)

2. Arms & hands

Next up is another relatively obvious area since so many of us talk with our hands.

• Extended or open arms usually mean openness to ideas, relaxation and/or excitement
• Conversely, crossed arms often mean discomfort, unease and/or defensiveness.
• Expansive hand gestures indicate passion, either positive or negative.
• Constantly touching one’s face or clothes with one’s hands, or fidgeting with small objects, shows discomfort.

3. Torso & posture

Understanding posture is a big part of knowing how to read body language. The torso’s body language signs are subtle, but they can be very telling.

• A tall, straight and open torso shows confidence and ease.
• A hunched torso can mean tiredness, timidity or defensiveness.
• Mirroring, where a person consciously or unconsciously mimics the actions of their conversation partner, indicates comfort, support and agreement — and it usually starts with posture.

4. Legs & feet

Perhaps surprisingly, people’s legs are the most likely place to look to find out how they’re really feeling.

• Standing or sitting with both feet pointed toward you means interest and connection.
• Pointing one foot out or away telegraphs disinterest and a desire to leave.
• Crossed legs when sitting usually means the person is closed off and unreceptive.
• Shifting weight or shaking one leg shows discomfort, anxiety or stress.

5. Context & individuality

Crossed arms can mean defensiveness or unease, but it could also mean the heat hasn’t come on yet and your coworker is cold. Fidgeting and shifting weight can show discomfort, but if you know your boss likes to think on his feet, it could mean a desire to fuel the conversation with movement. Knowing how to read body language includes judging each sign you see by the context of the situation and that person’s individual quirks.

Which tips helped you better understand how to read body language? Share your favorite body language signs in the comments below.

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