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Reading Body Language

Estimated Lesson Time: 4 minutes

Recently I was at a social event where I was engaged in a casual conversation with another guest. As he was talking to me, my children were getting antsy and wanting to go. I frequently, but politely, glanced over at them, giving them the “one moment” hand signal and turned my body toward the door, while still making eye contact with the other guest who was still talking to me. After what seemed to be at least five minutes, my son had dropped his pizza on the floor allowing me to interrupt the other guest, excuse myself, and rush over to assist my son. Although I did not speak the words, my body language was screaming, “I really have to go now” for several minutes; the other guest who was doing the talking just did not see it. Result: an awkward situation that could have easily been avoided.

It is said that over 90% of communication is more than just the words we use, and 60% of our communication is nonverbal, or body language. It is also believed that nonverbal signs have about five times more impact than verbal ones. To illustrate, imagine yourself meeting two new people. The first person coldly says, “Nice to meet you” while not even making eye contact with you. The second person says nothing but looks on you with a warm smile and open arms, then proceeds to give you a compassionate hug. After you say to yourself, “okay...this is weird,” you realize the spoken words or lack of spoken words actually meant very little. The ability to read or effectively interpret body language can

  • help you to close more sales by allowing you to detect apprehension and excitement in prospects
  • help you in your personal life by allowing you to detect when others are interested in you
  • help you detect when people are being dishonest with you
  • help you to become a more effective communicator
  • make you a better poker player

In general, having the ability to read body language is an important part of success.

Body language can be both a natural and a learned behavior. Some body language is cultural as in the handshake or the bow. Some body language does appear to be natural, such as the facial expressions that represent our emotions. Some body language, such as dramatically removing the spectacles to show intense interest, is picked up from watching movies. In reading body language, it is important to understand that it is more of an art than a science; that is, just because someone folds their arms does not mean they are being defensive—they could just be cold. It is up to you to use other indicators such as your common sense to know the difference.

Here are just some of the more common nonverbal signals and their generally accepted interpretations.

  • Body not facing you while speaking: let me go!
  • Looking at watch or clock: bored
  • Doodling: bored
  • Foot tapping: anxious or bored
  • Open body (neither arms nor legs crossed): open mind, acceptance
  • Arms or legs crossed: defensive, not accepting what you are saying
  • Starting to walk away while talking: do not want to spend time talking—in a hurry
  • Fidgety hands: nervousness or lying
  • Shifty eyes: lying (although science has not established this, this is still common perception)
  • Leaning in: interested
  • Leaning away: uninterested or disagreeing
  • Hands behind head while leaning back in chair: confidence, superiority, accomplishment
  • Hand covering mouth: nervous, lying, bad breath
  • Slouching / head down: lack of confidence, lack of enthusiasm

Once you can read body language, you can also use body language to project the image or emotion you desire. For example, expressive individuals use their whole body when speaking. This makes them appear more interesting and enthusiastic. If you are giving a sales presentation to a prospect, you want to avoid shifty eyes and covering your mouth while speaking. Since people tend to mirror body language, if you want someone to accept what you are saying, don’t cross your arms or lean away.

Just as it is important to listen actively, it is important to watch actively, or listen, with your eyes, as well as your ears. People more often say what they mean with their body language than they do with their words. Be a more effective communicator by becoming a keen observer of body language.


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 Some discussion questions (some may not apply to this lesson):

  • Have you implemented this idea in your life? How has it been working for you?
  • Do you have any interesting stories related to this lesson? Do tell!
  • What do you admire most about this person? (success biography days)
    From the Course:
    Personal Development
    Year To Success
    Bo Bennett, PhD

    (14 ratings)
    Personal Development : Personal Transformation
    Offered by VirversitY
    $19.95 FREE
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