Do you know how to read body language like an expert?
The surprising truth about non-verbal communication.
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.
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:
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
You could just assume that your team member is hiding something from you, leading you to question his professionalism and commitment. You could also jump to the conclusion that he has self-confidence issues explaining his behaviour; leading you to question his ability to successfully convince new clients.
So, what is really happening with your team member? I don’t know, and you can’t know either until you ask him or her. These physical signs and reactions do not translate a particular and typical state of mind or situation. It could be that your team member is not prepared for the meeting, or that he is trying hard to impress you, or maybe he is simply just shy or he’s having a bad day. You can ‘guess’ discomfort, but you can’t ‘read’ the reasons and the meaning behind it.
You are not the only person trying to ‘read’ body language that misunderstands the signs. Most people associate gestures and mimics with feelings and emotions. This article will help you avoid some common misinterpretations that you may face daily.
Case Study Two part 1: body language observation
Let’s take another example, you have been given the task to do a presentation to your peers and public speaking is not something that you are comfortable with. You are feeling anxious to present in front of a big audience of experts. You are trying to avoid eye contact with the people you know but still can’t help peeping at their reactions while you carry out your performance.
Now, are your peers smiling? Frowning? Are they even listening or are they more focused on their phones and computers?
Case Study Two part 2: body language interpretation
Your peers’ approval matters: if they seem happy, you can assume that your presentation is a success and you will most likely get good feedback. However, how many times have you felt that way and still got bad feedback? How could your peers have smiled during the whole presentation and be that critical on the feedback forms? Well, it seems that you didn’t interpret your peers’ body language properly.
How many of you heard that crossing your arms means that you are close-minded or close to the discussion. Really? What if it was just a comfortable posture? What if it keeps you warm? What if you are starving and trying to avoid noisy stomach gurgles?
So, can we really ‘read’ body language?
Can we really read body language? What do scientists say?
Scientists also observe body language in order to ‘read’ it. This is why they came with these primary facial expressions linked to primary emotions.
Find out the 6 primary emotions in those facial expressions
Scroll down to see the answers
So did you get that right? Yes? Awesome then, it might mean that you can read body language!
Let’s try again with this video from Youtube: Who’s the liar
Who’s the liar?
The guy on the left for sure! No, just joking, you knew it; it is the guy on the right!
What if I tell you that none of them is lying?
Trying to read body language from one gesture is like trying to get a sentence’s meaning with just one word
So, who can guess the missing words below?
Like any other ______________, ____________ consists of ____________, ____________ and _____________. Each _______________ is like a single _______________ and a _________ may have several different _____________. It’s only when you put the ________ into a __________ with other ________ that you can fully understand its _____________. _________ come in ‘_______’ and invariably tell the ________ about a person’s ______ or _________.
No one can, and it is the same when you are trying to read body language. 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.
So why should we keep trying to read body language if we misread it most of the time?
Humans are social by nature, we need to be part of a group of people and we often mimic the people around us. In return, we expect others to behave the same as we do. When we see an expression on someone’s face or body, we interpret it as if it was us. We add our own meaning, interpretation and filters to the situation. We simply assume, with the knowledge we have, what’s the situation here? The problem is that too often, we don’t have enough knowledge to properly read and understand the situation because we look at it through our own eyes, not from the other person’s perspective.
Why body language matters
By trying to focus more on body language signals, we stop, pause, and observe. Indirectly we develop our listening skills and we start focusing on others rather than us. Just by trying to pay more attention to our own body language as well as others’, we improve our communication skills and relationships. So it doesn’t matter if you don’t know exactly what happens and why, what matters is that you are trying to pay attention to others and to develop self-awareness. By doing so, you are already developing your empathy and working on your personal development.
The first step to manage body language better: Self-awareness
In order to improve your body language signals to avoid being readable as an open book; you need to be aware of those signals. So I guess it is time for transparency and honesty. What could go wrong with your body language signals and messages? Nothing? Are you sure?
Can you remember the last time you felt very angry with someone or something? How was your body language? And what about your voice? Would you like to manage a similar situation better in the future? How awesome would it be to watch your body language to avoid yelling at someone or to avoid using this sarcastic tone of voice?
To do so, simply go back to regular situations when you usually lose your cool and express yourself loudly. Then ask yourself, what was the trigger? How can you better deal with your emotions to avoid such communication signals? That will also work for situations when you over-showed emotions such as sadness, impatience or any emotion. Working on body language and self-management is directly related to Emotional Intelligence. In order to deal with your own body language better, you need to develop your emotional intelligence, especially your self-management skills.
Second step to manage body language better: trying to understand others
This part is a bit more challenging. As stated before, we are always observing, judging, and interpreting. However, to receive body language signals more effectively, we need to try to put our own judgements, assumptions and perceptions on pause to truly focus on the situation or the person. That is a doable exercise that you will not master in a heartbeat, it is a long-term process. It is about opening your perspective and trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes: “What is there for him/her?”, “Why would he/she say that?”, “How it feels to be in this position?”. Rather than just focusing on you and the consequences for you.
Being able to focus on body language (both your own non-verbal communication as well as others’) helps you start every kind of social interactions with a genuine advantage:
- Those observing non-verbal signals will constantly gather feedback and information from their audience regardless of its size (one-on-one or larger assembly), its composition (casual or professional) and of the nature of the exchange (presentation or conversation). This feedback and information then allow you to adapt your behaviour accordingly to keep your audience focused and entertained. In addition to this huge advantage, you will also seem to be more charismatic and easy to listen to.
It transforms casual listening into active listening, meaning that body language observers will pay more attention and be more receptive to the ongoing conversation or presentation. By observing body language signals in addition to verbal signals, you will show others interest and respect.
Some non-verbal signals will become more easily understood with fewer misinterpretations. Like everything else, you just get better at it with practice!
By trying to pay more attention to non-verbal signals you can help sensitive people feeling better. Some people are pretty shy and uncomfortable with emotions display or with sharing their thoughts and feelings. By getting that through their body language, you can better know when you can and when you can’t engage in a discussion or ask further questions. Again, you will not necessarily get the why, how and where, but you will notice the distance and the unsaid to prevent you from intruding or invading someone's personal space.
Body language across cultures: the cultural differences in body language
You probably didn’t miss that crucial aspect of body language observation, it differs across different cultures. Yes, sadness expressions might be similar across different countries, happy people will most likely look like happy people with a smile on, however, some differences can lead to misinterpretation, miscommunication or worst, conflicts.
Cultural differences can also explain how we express our emotions differently through our body language. Like anger and sadness are not expressed in Japan when they are largely expressed around the Mediterranean Sea… Si, si, you should see a Spanish mama under strong emotions!
Despite the globalisation that has started last century, fortunately, the world is still full of various customs. Depending on the culture, common gestures do not have the same meaning. The following pictures show how a gesture you make can be misinterpreted when you go abroad. You don’t even have to travel to see differences!
Being aware of someone’s cultural background and the differences with your own cultural background can be very helpful for your interactions.
The essentials to remember
The essential to remember about decoding body language is that you can never be sure of your interpretation. You can never assume that you can read someone’s exact thoughts, moods and feelings simply based on one single gesture. Remember that you would need to understand the context and the situation, and you would also need to know what is the chain of events that led to the movement they did. Even if you ask multiple questions to the person, you might still not have all the necessary information to understand clearly the person’s reaction. Remember, you have your own filters and perceptions; we all have a different vision of the world.
Of course, the more you know about a person, the easiest it will be for you to understand his or her mood according to body language signals; however, even there, you could be wrong if you jump to a conclusion too fast. Remember, you can sadly smile or cry because you are happy… One single gesture doesn’t mean anything. I am not necessary lying when I scratch my nose, it might simply be itchy.
When observing others’ body language, always try to spot several hints. If someone is suddenly frowning, crossing their arms and sitting back on their chair, you probably want to assume that this person is unhappy with the chain of events. Indeed, those 3 indications match so it is safe to try to assume this person’s emotions or thoughts. What is this person is simply confused? What would be more constructive here would be to pause and ask this person if she wants to say/ask something. We can’t tell that this person is closed to the discussion; maybe this person is simply confused and needs some clarification.
Always remember, reading non-verbal signals is not an exact science; you need to be careful and stay away from making hasty judgements.
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