• Maud Vanhoutte

Do you know how to read body language like an expert?

The surprising truth about non-verbal communication.

body language

Body language foundations

In our modern world, communication is changing very fast but body language has always been around. Our body language and non-verbal gestures convey subtle messages to others about our feelings, our emotions, moods, and thoughts that you may or may not want to reveal.

Fear, anger, surprise, or sadness, for example, are different emotions leading to different gestures and body language signals. Today, we recognise that applying the knowledge of non-verbal behaviour in practical settings allows us to communicate more successfully than just relying purely on spoken words. Your body language’s specific actions and gestures usually correspond to your mental states. When you experience a positive inner state of mind, your body language will be more likely to reflect positivism and openness. In the opposite, if you are experiencing a negative state of mind, your face might be more ‘closed off’, your smile disappear and your entire body might portray a more negative outlook.

When studying body language we usually have two goals:

1. Being more aware of our own body language to communicate more effectively

2. Getting a better understanding of others through body language

By improving your understanding of body language, observing how your body conveys messages, and recognising how your moods and emotions are reflected in your gestures and expressions, you will already experience better relationships. The point of knowing body language is for you to become aware of the non-verbal communication, both your own and others’.

The link between body language and emotions

Body language signals are stronger and more revealing when we experience a strong emotion. We might not have much to express when we talk about the white wall that’s in front of us at work. “I have a white wall in front of me” might not be a sentence where you will convey a lot of emotional charges. Although, could we? Could we start getting passionate about this white wall and everything that we could pin there? We could start seeing this white wall like a painting canvas waiting for our art. I guess this just shows us that what we experience in our mind is unique to us. If I start getting excited by this white wall when saying “I have a white wall in front of me”, without additional explanation, my co-worker might look at me with a funny face, not knowing what is happening with me… But, that is not my point, although, it is still an interesting path to explore.

My point was that if I am talking about something that I am not passionate about, I might not convey a lot of emotions when communicating. However, when I am under strong emotions, positive or negative, my body language will be more vivid and complex. I may be able to show my happiness or frustration through my voice, facial expressions and gestures.

That’s what Albert Mehrabian stated with his formula. According to Albert Mehrabian’s

researches, when communicating feelings and attitudes, only 7% of our message passes through our words, with 38% going through the voice and 55% through the body language.

New Reflections

This equation doesn’t tell us that our words are worthless; it invites us to focus on ‘how to say things’ more than just ‘what to say’.

How to read body language like an expert?

We are constantly trying to ‘read’ body language: we observe, assess and judge people and situations, does that make us judgemental and close-minded? No, be reassured, this is not the reason. We observe, assess and judge, simply because we need to stay safe, it is a survival instinct. Trying to ‘read’ and decode body language is only one way to assess our environment. We observe people, compare them and their body language with everything/everyone we know, to decide if they represent a danger or not. Sometimes our guesses are right, sometimes, we misinterpret body language gestures and signals; which leads to misunderstandings and miscommunication.

Before being able to read body language, we need to know what to read/observe. To do so, you will want to focus on the 8 primary elements of body language.

The 8 primary elements of body language are:

1. Face

2. Eyes

3. Posture

4. Gestures

5. Voice

6. Movement

7. Touch

8. Appearance

  • Case Study One part 1: body language observation

So now that you know what to observe, let’s have a look at a probable situation. Imagine this, you are in a meeting with a team member who can’t clearly express his ideas. He is waffling (voice), shaking (touch) and getting lost in explanations and details. He doesn’t make eye contact with you (eye), he is not smiling (face) and his movements are static (movements) apart from his hands that he is nervously agitating (gestures).

  • Case Study One part 2: body language interpretation