How to read body language and gain deeper emotional awareness

September 20, 2021 - 18 min read

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What is body language?

Why is understanding body language important?

How to read body language according to every body part

5 ways to read positive body language

5 ways to read negative body language

Upskill yourself by learning how to read body language

Although we can communicate with our words and tone of voice, there’s another language we all speak. 

And that’s body language.

The way we present ourselves to others via nonverbal communication cues can speak louder than words. A person’s gestures, facial expressions, and amount of eye contact all tell a story.

Learning how to interpret and understand body language helps you better understand your peers. Being aware of your own body language is also important so that you can present yourself in the way you’d like.

Understanding body language psychology isn’t always simple. But we’re going to help demystify the secrets behind body language signs.

Here’s how to read body language and the meaning behind different types of nonverbal communication.

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What is body language?

If you've gauged a friend or stranger’s mood just by looking at their face or gestures they made, you successfully read their body language. 

The body language definition refers to nonverbal cues we consciously and unconsciously use to communicate. It includes all non-verbal communication.

The words we use when speaking make up our verbal communication.

The non-verbal cues that make up a person's body language often communicate more than the words they use. These cues can include:

  • Facial expressions
  • Hand gestures
  • Mannerisms
  • Physical behavior
  • Tone of voice

We’ll look at cues in more detail as we delve deeper into how to read body language below. 

One of the most important facts about body language signs is that we often use nonverbal signals instinctively or unconsciously. 

For this reason, body language can often tell others more about what we think or feel than the words we use.

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Depending on the body language you use, you can encourage the person you’re communicating with to trust you and be relaxed in your presence. Or you can confuse or offend them. 

The types of nonverbal communication you use can even undermine or contradict what you say.

Why is understanding body language important?

So, why is body language important, and what are the benefits of learning how to understand it?

The answers to these questions become clearer when we look at the 7-38-55 rule. This rule is based on the findings of psychology professor Albert Mehrabian. The University of California professor developed the rule in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. 

According to Mehrabian, the spoken word communicates 7% of meaning. Your tone of voice communicates 38% of meaning, and your body language communicates 55% of meaning.

Given how much we communicate via body language cues, learning how to understand them is essential if you’re serious about being a good communicator. When you know how to read body language, you can gain deeper insight into what others are really saying. 

You can also consciously improve your nonverbal communication.

Let’s explore the benefits of understanding body language:

1. Develop your emotional awareness

Being able to read body language signs allows you to better interpret the emotions and moods of other people. This enables you to understand what they really think or feel about something. 

You can then respond to them in the appropriate way.

2. Bond better with your peers

Not everyone is comfortable sharing their true feelings or thoughts. They might be going through family difficulties at home. Or they might feel that no one would listen to them anyway. 

By interpreting people's body language, you can better understand their views. Or you can be friendly and supportive when they need support but don’t feel that they can ask for it.

3. Build trust easier

When you know how to read body language, you know how to use it to build trust

You can consciously use nonverbal cues that indicate you’re being open and honest. You can also avoid the cues that imply you're distracted, dishonest, or hiding something.

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4. Get your point across in the right way

Another benefit of understanding body language is that you can use it to better get your point across. You can consciously incorporate gestures and other nonverbal cues that emphasize your point rather than contradict it.

5. Make a good impression and influence people

Consciously using different types of nonverbal communication can help you appear confident, even if you don’t feel it. You can also emphasize your message and inspire trust, as mentioned. Altogether, this helps you make a good first impression and builds your influence on others. 

How to read body language according to every body part

Learning how to read body language signals isn’t limited to one or two parts of the body. 

Familiarize yourself with these parts of the body that offer important insights into a person and their message.

1. Eyes

The eyes are known as the windows of the soul. They play an important role in face-to-face communication. Take note of body language signs such as:

  • Eye contact: a direct gaze indicates interest unless it’s prolonged, in which case it can be threatening. Looking away frequently or avoiding eye contact can indicate that the person is uncomfortable, trying to hide something, or distracted.
  • Pupil dilation: highly dilated pupils can indicate excitement, attraction, or desire. Constricted, smaller pupils could indicate anger or a negative mood.
  • Blinking: frequent blinking can indicate that the person feels uncomfortable or upset.

2. Facial expressions

Often unconscious, our facial expressions can reveal what we really think about something. 

There is no global standard for facial expressions linked to specific emotions. The meaning behind facial expressions depends on context. However, expressions can indicate a range of emotions. 

Among them are:

3. Arms

A person’s arms can also be used for non-verbal communication. Body language examples of this include:

  • Keeping the arms close to the body to draw less attention
  • Expanding the arms to appear more commanding, larger, or threatening
  • Crossing the arms to indicate feelings of self-protection, defensiveness, or being closed-off

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4. Feet and legs

Our feet and legs aren’t the first body parts that come to mind when we think about types of nonverbal communication. 

However, they also play a role in body language psychology:

  • Both feet pointed toward you or in a V-shape toward you can indicate interest.
  • Both feet pointed away from you, especially in an angled V-shape, can indicate disinterest.
  • Crossed legs may indicate the person feels disinterested or closed-off.

5. Hands and fingers

From excitable hand-flapping to obscene gestures, we can use our hands to express a lot of emotions. Being aware of the hands and fingers is an important part of learning how to read body language.

Examples of using the hands and fingers for nonverbal communication include:

  • Giving a thumbs-up as a sign of approval
  • Using the index and middle fingers to form a forward-facing V-sign to indicate victory
  • Raising a clenched fist to indicate anger or solidarity
  • Clasping hands behind your back to indicate anxiety or boredom
  • Rapidly tapping fingers to express irritation or frustration
  • Standing with hands on the hips to indicate control or aggression

6. Torso

The torso also offers a few important body language examples:

  • An erect posture and open torso (rather than being shielded by crossed arms) can show confidence, assertiveness, and attention.
  • A slouched posture can indicate boredom, disinterest, and being closed-off.

7. Mouth

The mouth makes some of the most important body language signs. Examples include:

  • Smiling to show happiness, approval, sarcasm, or cynicism
  • Biting the lower lip to indicate insecurity or worry
  • Covering the mouth to hide a reaction such as a genuine smile or smirk
  • Pursing the lips to indicate disapproval, distrust, or annoyance

5 ways to read positive body language

Knowing how to read positive body language can help you in business and social contexts. Here are a few things to look out for:

1. Having good posture

If someone is sitting up straight, it’s a sign they’re paying attention to what you’re saying. An open posture also indicates friendliness.

2. Maintaining eye contact 

There’s a difference between maintaining eye contact and staring or glaring. 

If someone makes a healthy amount of direct eye contact with you, it means they’re engaged in the conversation and paying attention. It’s normal for them to blink and look away occasionally. 

If someone stares or glares at you, it’s usually not a positive sign.

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3. Leaning in to listen

Various body language signs indicate that someone is listening to what you’re saying. If their head and torso are turned in your direction and they’re leaning toward you, it means they’re listening

Other positive signs include nodding their head, sitting with arms and legs uncrossed, and aiming an ear in your direction.

4. Keeping the body still

If a person’s body is still, it can mean they’re relaxed. It can also indicate that they’re focused and paying attention to what you’re saying.

If the person’s emotion or attitude isn’t clear from how still their body is, look at the other types of nonverbal behavior on display.

5. A firm handshake

If someone gives you a firm handshake, it’s a sign that they respect you. 

If they were the one to reach out to shake hands, they probably have healthy self-confidence. A firm handshake should not be painful, as that can be intimidating.

5 ways to read negative body language

Your knowledge of body language psychology should also include negative signs. 

When you can recognize the following signs in your audience, you can change tactics or express your message in another way.

If you become aware that you’re using negative nonverbal cues, you can consciously change them to positive cues. This is a way of supporting or encouraging the speaker by letting them know you’re interested — or by disguising the fact that you’re not interested.

In situations where discretion is best, you can use negative types of nonverbal communication to express distrust, disinterest, or disapproval.

Negative body language examples include:

1. Bad posture or slouching

If the person you’re communicating with is slouched or tense, it’s a sign that they’re bored. They might also feel disinterested, threatened, or worried. 

You can use verbal and nonverbal cues to reassure them or to regain their interest.

2. Avoiding eye contact

If someone avoids making eye contact with you, it could be a negative sign for one or more reasons. 

Having a lot of eye movement and not making eye contact may indicate that they’re disinterested or distracted. They might be trying to hide something, or they feel uncomfortable or guilty. 

3. Crossed arms

Interpreting crossed arms is one of the basics of learning how to read body language, as it’s one of the classic negative signs. 

Crossed arms are likely to show that the person feels defensive or closed-off to you and your message. It can also indicate aggression or anger.

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4. Fidgeting and unable to keep still

If someone is fidgeting or unable to keep still, it’s a sign that they are distracted, bored, or uninterested in what you are saying. Stress can also cause fidgeting

Common types of fidgeting include foot-tapping, crossing and uncrossing of legs, or consistently playing with an object such as a pen.

5. Negative facial expressions

A range of facial expressions can indicate negative attitudes or emotions. Recognizing them can help you understand your audience’s actual responses to your message. 

Frowning may indicate disagreement, anger, or confusion. 

Pursed lips usually indicate annoyance, displeasure, and distaste. 

Flared nostrils may show aggression or disapproval. Or they can indicate that the person is making a judgment about something.

Upskill yourself by learning how to read body language

Learning how to read body language, as well as how to use it consciously, is an important soft skill that has many benefits in the workplace and outside of it. Upskilling yourself with powerful communication skills will help you move your career forward.

Reading body language can help you better respond to your audience, whether they’re family members, friends, or coworkers. You can tailor your communication to them when you can identify what engages and interests them.

You can use different types of nonverbal communication to:

  • Repeat and strengthen your verbal message
  • Complement your verbal message
  • Substitute for a verbal message
  • Accent elements of your message

Improve your body language understanding with coaching from BetterUp. Building effective communication skills takes time, but the effects are worth the effort both professionally and personally.

Request a custom demo to get started.

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Published September 20, 2021

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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