Interpreting body language in the workplace

Many articles written about interpreting body language will state that nonverbal messages comprise over 70% of all communication. These statistics, just like body language itself, require context and interpretation if they are to be accurately understood. However, once you become aware of mitigating factors such as context, gender, and culture, body language can become a powerful tool for understanding intent and conveying confidence, intelligence, and ability.

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The Three C’s of Body Language

01 The psychology researcher responsible for the often misquoted statistics of nonverbal signals, Albert Mehrabian, first published his thoughts in his definitive book on nonverbal behaviors and body language, Nonverbal Communication. Before you jump into the sometimes pseudo-science of reading body language, you must understand the oft-overlooked three pillars of non-verbal communication Mehrabian outlined in his book Context, Cluster, and Congruence.

Context is important because body language can have many nuances. In what environment is the communication taking place? We communicate differently at a dinner party than we do at a funeral. A gesture in one country may mean something very different in another. What is the history of the people communicating? You can see such differences in couples who’ve been together for years versus those on a first date. You should also account for the relationships people may have, such as a boss and an employee. Putting body language in the correct context helps prevent you from jumping to incorrect conclusions.

A second consideration Mehrabian described is clusters. Clusters involve several related body language cues working in concert. A colleague might cross their arms while listening to you, showing they aren’t receptive to what you are saying, but if their teeth are also chattering they are likely cold. Likewise, a yawn can signify someone is sleepy, but if they pair the yawn with looking around the room and tapping their fingers on the table, they are probably bored. Too often, people identify one cue as meaning a single thing when it is working in conjunction with other cues to mean something else.

We’ve all witnessed incongruent communication, often with the word ‘fine.’ A person is visibly angry or noticeably shaken, and they tell you they are fine. Their body reveals far more than their words let on. When the verbal message and body language don’t match, remain aware of the incongruence and look for additional clues why the communication components aren’t corresponding.

Context, clusters, and congruence provide the background for understanding how to read someone else’s body language.

Watch for any telltale signs

“I speak two languages, Body and English.”–Mae West

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Gender and Body Language

While there is quite a bit of universality in body language, there are nuanced differences in how men and women use and interpret it. These are especially important for understanding body language in the workplace.

The most notable example is facial expression, particularly smiling. Society puts extra pressure on women to smile or cheer up. As a result, women tend to smile more than men to fulfill cultural expectations of appearing polite or pleasant. Men generally smile only to demonstrate happiness. 

To make offices more inclusive, leadership must be aware that such expectations can make women feel obligated to adopt an apologetic or obsequious smile to conform to cultural norms. A neutral expression shouldn’t be perceived as threatening regardless of gender.

Another difference in facial expressions is the fact that men are less apt to make eye contact than women are, with some studies suggesting only 30-60% of men do so. Men most often employ a lack of eye contact as a means of conveying someone has less status than they do.

There are some differences in personal space as well, with men usually insisting on more space, even in a group of friends. Men also will use things such as jackets, papers, and coffee mugs to create buffer zones of personal space. Women tend to have smaller personal spaces but will increase the distance with unfamiliar men.

Men and women will also differ in posture, with women tending to close their body language and men choosing wide stances or attempting to increase their size.

Women also use physical contact more than men do, especially with other women. Men are more likely to fidget with their hands than touch someone else. This action might express anything from insecurity to a surplus of energy.

We should always consider gender when reading someone’s body language.


The Most Common Signals for Decoding Body Language — According to Fabrikbrands

Facial expressions: People speak volumes with their faces, using eyebrows, lips, head nods, and even chin position. A raised eyebrow can convey intrigue or doubt and a clenched jaw can reflect anger, stress, or determination. Faces usually provide the most noticeable nonverbal cues.

Eyes: The eyes are often the window to what someone is thinking, reflecting everything from affection to disgust. We look someone in the eye to convey interest, but we can also use it to be challenging or threatening. If someone’s eyes keep looking at the clock, they are likely no longer engaged in your meeting or conversation. Eye contact is good, but don’t overdo it.

Mouth: Reading lips means something different in body language terms. A nervous person might have a twitching mouth. Someone chewing on their lower lip might be stressed. Pursed lips can demonstrate frustration. Smiles and frowns reflect emotions as well as approval and disapproval. The mouth says a lot without words.

Arms and legs: Our limbs can welcome someone in or keep them at a distance. If a person crosses their arms perhaps they are dubious or guarded against what is being said. Someone who crosses their legs in the direction opposite of you might not want to talk to you. Always be aware of the space someone establishes with their limbs.

Posture: The way we stand sends messages. Someone standing erect with shoulders back wants to appear authoritative or dominant. A person in a slumped position usually suggests weakness, guilt, or insecurity.

Gestures: People point, wave, and use their fingers for emphasis, interjections, and a range of supplementary descriptions. When interpreting gestures, it’s especially important to consider context, gender, location, and culture.

“When the eyes say one thing, and the tongue another, a practiced man relies on the language of the first.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

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The Body Language of Leadership

Just as you are reading other people’s body language, they are reading yours. How do you want to be perceived? The signals you send with your face, eyes, posture, and gestures can define you as either someone on the way up or on the way down.

If you want to communicate leadership with your body language, posture is everything and tops the list of many advice articles on how to appear authoritative. Standing up straight with an open body and no crossed limbs makes you look assertive, and according to psychology studies, more attractive.

Be aware of your facial expressions. This is doubly true in video conferences because everyone is staring at a group of faces. While you shouldn’t feel compelled to smile, smiling makes people feel more at ease. However, people might feel uncomfortable if your smile looks fake. We trust genuine smiles but become suspicious of those that are not.

You should think about mirroring other people’s expressions to match the tone of the conversation. Do they look serious? Then so should you. If they are laid back, adopt a similar guise. Look for people nodding their heads as this is one of the best nonverbal cues you have made a connection with that person.

Always be aware of your eye contact. You show respect and interest by maintaining eye contact, but don’t overdo it to the point where someone feels threatened or unnerved

People rarely think of handshakes as body language, but they are literally the body saying hello to someone else. People with firm handshakes are seen as more confident, outgoing, and positive. Just as with eye contact, don’t overdo the firmness of a handshake, as that is a sign of aggression. Practice your handshake frequently and ask for feedback from friends.

Of course, keep the context in mind. Eye contact can mean different things in different countries, as can touching, hand gestures, and handshakes.

There are many forms of nonverbal communication and mastering body language will greatly improve your abilities with the rest. You can employ your body language to appear assertive or friendly and collaborative. You can use it to calm someone down or persuade them. You should always remain keenly aware of all you’re communicating in non-verbal ways. You should also master the skill of interpreting what others are communicating, keeping in mind different cultures and things such as gender will influence body language often in subtle ways. 

Our body language often defines us and is one of the most useful tools a leader can use to understand team dynamics and what’s being said.

For more information on business communication strategies, click on the link to Body Language Part One — The Basics

Common Questions

What are the top communication skills for business leaders?2022-01-03T16:26:04+00:00

Harvard Business School lists three fundamental communication skills for executive leadership:

  1. Ability to Adapt Communication Style – Different communication styles are the most frequently cited cause of poor communication, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. Know who you’re talking to.
  2. Active Listening – Actively engage in conversations with employees, posing questions, asking for details, and taking notes.
  3. Transparency – Speak openly about the company’s goals, opportunities, and challenges.
  4. Clarity – Be clear to prevent communication about priorities.
  5. Ability to Ask Open-Ended Questions – Use TED
  6. “Tell me more.”
  7. “Explain what you mean.”
  8. “Define that term or concept for me.”
  9. Empathy – Acknowledge and understand employees’ feelings.
  10. Open Body Language – Be aware of your posture and how your non-verbal cues may be interpreted. 
  11. Receiving and Implementing Feedback – Requesting feedback is a tool for gaining insight and growing as a leader while building trust with your team.
What is paraverbal communication?2022-01-03T16:26:31+00:00

Paraverbal Communication: “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” Paraverbal Communication consists of 3 areas — pitch, tone of voice, and speed of speech.

Does body language signal engagement?2022-01-03T16:27:09+00:00

Forbes recently published a list of how people behave with their body movement when they disconnect in a meeting or conversation:

  1. They look around the room 
  2. They avoid eye contact 
  3. They stare at their Phone 
  4. They talk too fast 
  5. They don’t respond verbally or nonverbally
  6. They fold their arms or legs
  7. They furrow their brow 
  8. They slump in their chair
What are interpersonal communication techniques?2022-01-03T16:27:53+00:00

Interpersonal communication is the exchanging of information, ideas, and feelings between two or more people through verbal or non-verbal methods. It often includes voice, facial expressions, body language, and gestures.

Friendliness – A friendly tone, personal question, showing interest or a smile encourages open and honest communication

Confidence – Demonstrates conviction and commitment that you will follow through.

Empathy – This shows you are listening and respecting other opinions.


This is one of our executive briefings taken from our series of professional online business short courses from ELL. We have over 100 courses online with over 1,000 hours of e-learning covering a wide range of topics across leadership, management and personal & professional development created by industry experts and learning professionals.

Body Language Basics Part 1

Can you tell if someone is telling the truth just by looking at them? It is a skill that a lot of people do not have. Through our Body Language Basics course you will be given a set of tools to use to your advantage. These tools can be utilised in the office and at home. Understanding Body Language will provide you a great advantage in your daily communications. Our body language course will provide you with a great set of skills to understand that what is not said is just as important than what is said. It will also give you the ability to see and understand how your own body language is being seen. You will be able to adjust and improve the way you communicate through non-verbal communications.

By the end of this short business course on Body Language, you will:

  • Understand the principles of body language
  • Know how to use non-verbal communication properly
  • Understand what people are saying with their actions
  • Improve the use of your own body language

In each of our business courses, you get access to around six hours of e-learning that you can watch, listen and read. There are usually 100 questions and at the end of the course you will receive a certificate of completion that you can use against any personal or professional development requirements. As well as the course, you also receive a FREE e-book that you can read on your Kindle or other e-reader. You also get a FREE audiobook of the course so you can listen to the whole course uninterrupted on your device.

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