Body Language and Communication
  • Maud Vanhoutte

Body Language and Communication

Impact of body language in effective communication

Are you always wondering “what body language says” about you, or “how body language can affect communication”, or “if body language can be accurately interpreted”? Then, this article will give you some answers to your questions. Don’t expect me to tell you that this gesture means that and that this other gesture means this other thing, it’s not how it works.


Body-language myths and common beliefs


We like when things are simple, easy to understand and constant. For those reasons, you might have heard that people who are crossing their arms are closed to the discussion? What if they are just cold, hungry, or in a comfortable position? Should we assume that this person who you are talking to is lying to you because he or she just scratched its nose? That would be a little simplest and we would all be ‘body-language readers’.


Think about it, if we could really link a gesture to a meaning or feeling, we would have great books and dictionaries listing them. Unfortunately, you can find such books (I haven’t said great ones), and some people will tell you that yes, we can link gestures to specific states of mind. Here is the bad news, it is not true. Trying to interpret gestures and trying to link them to a specific meaning is the biggest mistake you could make when getting interested in body-language.


Body-language is like any other language


You might start thinking that, if we can’t put a label on gestures, perhaps, there is no point to learn more about body language and non-verbal communication. Rest reassured that paying attention to body language is still a very effective way to develop your communication skills to create positive interactions and stronger relationships.


You can not truly understand a gesture without a context and, perhaps, additional gestures and non-verbal signals. When you try to associate a gesture to a specific meaning it’s like taking a word and assuming the full sentence around it. Like any other language, body language consists of words, sentences and punctuation. Each gesture is like a single word and a word may have several different meanings. It’s only when you put the word into a sentence with other words that you can fully understand its meaning. Gestures come in ‘sentences’ and invariably tell the truth about a person’s feelings or attitudes.


Body-language awareness to develop your communication skills


Because body-language doesn’t lie, we often say that we can spot when a person is lying by observing gestures and signals. If you remember the tv show “Lie to Me”, you will see that it is doable, under certain circumstances and that you are not looking at a single gesture or sign to spot a liar. Because you are not Dr Lightman from the tv show, your interest in body language will probably focus on developing more effective communication skills when interacting with others.


Body language awareness for the receiver


When receiving a message, start with your own body language; are you showing interest, making eye contact, nodding, asking follow-up questions?


When listening to others, you can pay attention to their body language to understand their message better. Their body language and non-verbal signals will give you additional information including their level of interest and passion towards the topic. By paying attention to non-verbal signals you can better develop your empathy and spot the signs for discomfort or anxiety, or perhaps impatience and anger. Non-verbal signals will also tell you more about the speaker’s level of assertiveness and self-confidence.

By becoming a great observer you will learn more things about others and develop more effective listening skills. Discover more on our great article 'Do you know how to read body language like an expert?’


Body language awareness for the sender


When sending a message, you will use non-verbal communication to ensure that the receiver is ready to listen and actively listening. If the receiver is multitasking, not making eye contact, and not showing any sign of interest; you are probably wasting your time.


When sharing a message, most people will focus on their words. They will think “What should I say” without paying attention to “How should I say that”. The exact same words in a different context, with a different tone of voice and body language will not have the same impact. Let’s use an example; you are calling your boss to ask if you can stay home with your unwell kid. If your boss is telling you “Do whatever you want” with a kind and calm voice, it probably means, do whatever you want. Now, if your boss is telling you “Do whatever you want” with impatience and attitude in the voice, it might mean, ‘do whatever you want, but I am disappointed and there will be consequences…’


There are two main learning keys to take away from this article:

  • Stop trying to interpret single gestures

  • Start focusing more on “How to say” things rather than “What to say”.


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Maud Vanhoutte



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