Last updated: 30 March 2018
Chances are, regardless of what kind of work you do, it involves other people.
Clients, customers, in-house employees, remote workers, partners and colleagues – unless you’re writing a book or you’re engaged in some other solidary activity, chances are, you’re communicating with other people throughout the day.
Oddly enough, though, most of that communication will be non-verbal, done through a person’s body language.
So if you want to know what someone is really thinking – you need to study their body language.
Make no mistake: being able to read body language will give you the added edge. It can give you the reins in any situation because it provides solid clues as to what someone is really communicating.
Meaning you then know how to react and respond – which is an invaluable tool to have if you’re a leader or entrepreneur, wouldn’t you agree?
Intrigued to find out more?
Check out the 7 body language signs below and what they mean so you can start honing your “mind reading” skills.
And since we’re talking about body language, we’ll start at the top (the head) and work our way down.
Body Language Signal #1: The Head
Ever tried to keep your head still for any length of time? It’s pretty hard to do.
You’re constantly tempted to look around. Or to tilt it to one side or the other. Like when you’re thinking about something. Or listening to an explanation.
Watch a person’s head and you can monitor their stress levels. If their head is pointing down, this could be a sign of submission.
Or it could be an unconscious attempt to cover up their throat and protect it. Sometimes this could be because they don’t want to appear threatening, or because they feel intimidated or shy.
What’s interesting about this is that when someone tilts their head down, they’re exposing the crown of the head – the hardest part of the head – which in the animal kingdom is often used for butting.
So this could also mean that the person is subconsciously expecting some form of conflict or resistance.
Regardless of the reason, when someone has their head pointing down, it tends to be a sign that the person is feeling stressed, vulnerable or meek.
However, there are times when this isn’t always the case. Like in long, uneventful staff meetings. Yep, you know the ones!
So if you spot someone with their heads down in this situation, it’s more likely to be a sign that they’re pretty bored. So much so, that the pen on the table, their fingers or shoes are of more interest than what’s been said…
Now we’ve covered how someone’s head looks when they’re stressed or bored… what are some signs someone is feeling good when they’re interacting with you?
Well, one clue is this: if someone’s head is raised, they’re probably displaying an air of confidence – showing you that they feel relaxed and are sure of themselves.
They’re not worried or preoccupied by the chances of any impending conflicts, and are focused on the encounter they’re engaged in.
Body Language Signal #2: Eyebrows
When you run into someone you know, it’s only natural that you greet them. And one of the things you do during that greeting ritual is to raise your eyebrows.
It’s a way of acknowledging that you know the other person. That you have something in common.
And when you do it, the other person often feels compelled to do it right back at you.
But it’s not only people who do it. Monkeys do it too.
It shows that you’re part of the pack. One of the gang.
Interestingly, if you try it on someone you don’t know, they’ll respond as well. They’ll feel like they must know you somehow, like they’re part of your gang. And that will make them raise their eyebrows in the same way.
That’s a good tactic to employ when you’re meeting a potential client for the first time. Or when you’re in negotiation.
If you can get the other person to mirror your “eyebrow flash” – then they might feel that you have something in common. And that could be enough to kick things off on a positive note.
Body Language Signal #3: Eyes & Lips
It’s estimated that your lips and eyes are responsible for about 80% of your facial expressions.
That makes sense when you think about it.
You smile when you’re happy and your eyes light up at the same time. When you’re sad, your lips turn down and your eyes lose their sparkle.
These things happen naturally in most cases. They’re automatic responses to the way you’re feeling.
A person’s eyes can do lots of things. They can wink, blink, gaze off into the distance. They can glance, make eye contact, squint, and stare.
The pupils can even change size and shape.
And when you’re talking to someone, it’s natural to look into their eyes. In fact, maintaining eye contact is regarded as a sign of confidence, as long as it isn’t taken to extremes.
On the other hand, if someone avoids eye contact with you, during a performance appraisal, for example, it could be a sign that they’re feeling defensive or worried.
Or if their eyes are downcast, it could mean that they’re not paying attention to what you’re saying.
They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. Whether that’s true or not, they’re certainly useful for helping you decipher what someone is feeling or thinking.
Or whether someone is telling the truth… as it’s said that when someone looks away when they’re telling you something – they could be lying.
That said, in some cultures, it’s considered rude to look someone in the eye, especially someone more senior. So ensure you take this into consideration… especially before assuming the worst!
And given that you now understand the value of eye contact, you can use this information to make sure you’re sending out the right signals. During a negotiation, for instance, you will want to make sure your eyes are alert.
You want to be making eye contact with whomever you’re speaking to, but without staring or doing anything that might seem creepy or suspicious!
Body Language Signal #4: Neck
Typically, people touch their neck when they’re feeling stressed.
It’s the throat area and, as mentioned above, stressful situations make people want to protect it. How they protect it depends on who they are.
Men tend to fiddle with their collar or tie. Or stroke their chin or beard. Women often touch the front of the neck, just below their Adam’s apple. Or they might play with a pendant or chain.
Pregnant women will often move their hand down to their stomach. It’s another sign of nervousness, of being slightly on edge, and of wanting to find comfort and protect any vulnerable areas at the same time.
Body Language Signal #5: Torso
The torso is the trunk of the body. It’s the part of the body containing all the vital organs.
Torso comes from the Latin word thyrsus, meaning stalk. Like the trunk of a tree or the stem of a plant. And like those other stalks, the torso is quite flexible.
It can twist, turn, bend backward and forward. It’s an area of the body that people have less conscious control over.
Maybe that’s because it’s where the vital organs live, because they’re part of the autonomic nervous system. In other words, they work without any conscious involvement from you.
This lack of conscious control makes the torso a particularly good indicator of body language signals. So if someone turns their torso away from you, for example, that could be an unconscious indication that they want to leave.
Turning the torso away could also mean they’re feeling threatened and are trying to protect those vital organs. It could be a sign that they don’t like you, or that they simply don’t want to engage with you.
In business scenarios, people might turn their body away from you for any number of reasons. Perhaps they’re feeling insecure. Or defensive. Or in a hurry to get away. It’s also possible that they’re hiding something.
Whatever the reason, usually it is a sign that they’re not feeling entirely comfortable or engaged.
That said, you need to weigh up all the signs before jumping to any conclusions or accusing someone of something they might not be guilty of.
Body Language Signal #6: Arms & Hands
The further away from the head you get, the less conscious control there is. And that’s definitely the case with the arms and hands.
Arms and hands are particularly expressive. Your arms can help someone visualize what you’re talking about, either as a measuring device or a gesturing tool.
You can show them how big the fish was that got away, or you can make a fist and hold your arm up to signal victory.
If you’re feeling insecure, you might fold your arms in front of your chest. If you’re feeling super confident, you might open them wide and clasp them together behind your head.
As expressive as arms can be, it’s those things at the end of your arms that take the prize for self-expression.
Human hands are unique in the animal kingdom. They can write, draw, paint, or play a musical instrument. They can wield a sword, or a scalpel, or a chisel.
They can forge steel or fry an omelet. They can hold onto things or let them go. They can squeeze tightly or caress in the gentlest of fashions.
Being so useful and versatile, it comes as no surprise that hands play a huge role in body language.
For example, when people are nervous they might wring their hands together. Or hide their hands from view by shoving them in their pockets.
When they’re feeling fairly confident, they might hold their hands behind their back. This exposes the torso (where the vital organs are) showing a certain amount of poise and self-assurance.
People might drum their fingers on the nearest piece of furniture when they’re feeling impatient or bored (although, they could also be performing the rhythm of their favorite music).
Clenched fists can be a sign of determination. However, clenched fists with thumbs tucked in usually indicate some form of discomfort.
Hand movements can help you spot when people are not engaging during a meeting. Their hands will be fiddling with their clothes, stroking their hair, or manipulating a pen or pencil in the air. Or they might be writing or doodling. In which case, it might be time to wrap things up, or to up the tempo to increase engagement!
Hands can also be combined with other parts of the body to create more complex signals too. Someone who’s lying or hiding something might hold their hand in front of their mouth while talking to you.
Others might scratch their head or stroke their cheek when they’re thinking about how to respond to a question.
Also, when it comes to hand and arm movements, size matters. Large or open gestures often indicate confidence and positivity, while smaller gestures closer to the body can signal insecurity or a defensive pose.
Finger pointing can be taken a number of ways. It can be used to single out someone who has performed particularly well, or to pinpoint someone whose work is below standard.
In many cultures finger pointing is considered rude. It can also be aggressive and condescending, a way of imposing oneself on someone else, like a teacher might do to an unruly student.
When done to a colleague or employee, it comes across as being confrontational, invasive, and possibly even arrogant.
Politicians and public speakers often point their finger in the air when they want to add emphasis to their words. In this context it’s used to demonstrate authority and self-belief and to help persuade the people who are listening to agree with their views and opinions.
Body Language Signal #7: Legs
A person’s legs are good indicators of what they’re really feeling. That’s because they’re furthest away from their head.
The further away from the head they are, the less conscious control you have over them. And that means that it’s much more difficult to “fake” how you’re feeling than it is, say, with your facial expressions.
So you might notice that when someone’s about to leave, their legs leave first. They might also point a foot in the direction they want to go.
It all depends on whether they’re standing or sitting. When standing up, for example, legs open might be a show of confidence and power, since it’s exposing the genital area. A wider stance also has the effect of making the body seem bigger, taking up more space and therefore projecting dominance.
Crossed legs can either be a sign of relaxation or of someone trying to cover themselves up in a defensive pose.
While sitting down, slightly open legs indicate relaxation. Crossing the legs is of course much easier when sitting down. This can indicate a bunch of different things.
Crossed legs that are turned away slightly could be expressing a lack of interest. Legs wrapped around each other might indicate the person is shy or introverted, while someone who locks their ankles together could be signalling fear or uncertainty.
Knees held together might be a sign of anxiety. The same is true when the legs are tucked underneath a chair.
It’s possible that someone can cross their legs when they’re feeling relaxed as well. Although you might notice a very similar pose when they’re desperate to go to the toilet!
And let’s not forget that someone may need to cross of their legs due to their attire. For example, often women wearing dresses and skirts will cross their legs when in view, or position them in a way to ensure they don’t accidentally expose more of themselves than intended!
In which case, it becomes more difficult to decipher the body language of their legs – and let’s be honest – it’s best not to spend too long looking beneath anyone’s waist too long in the workplace!
To wrap up: it’s important to consider the above body language signals in context, as each one on their own could paint a misleading picture of what might be going on.
Also, the key to interpreting body language is to take your time. You need to judge what’s going on over a longer period to avoid jumping to any conclusions.
One great piece of advice is to notice how a person’s body language changes during your interaction with them. That can often tell you more about what’s going on than any single sign or movement.
None of these individual body language signals will give you the whole story.
It’s true that someone tapping their foot could be nervous. But it’s also possible that they’re simply thinking about a song and tapping along to the rhythm that’s going through their mind. Maybe they play the drums and they’re rehearsing a particularly tricky pattern.
The point is that you can’t take anything for granted. You have to take all the signs you see together and use them to assess how you think a person might be feeling.
As mentioned previously, there are cultural issues that need to be taken into account as well. In certain countries, raised eyebrows are considered a sign of sexual interest. Shaking hands is a customary greeting in some places, while bowing fits the bill in others.
Also remember that signals can be universal, or they can be individual and idiosyncratic. Some people love tapping their feet or drumming their fingers. They’re not necessarily nervous, they just enjoy doing it.
As a rule of thumb, when it comes to universal signals, the easiest approach is to focus on the idea of stress and comfort.
When people are stressed, it shows up in their body language. And that’s true of most people, no matter where they come from, meaning you should have a reasonably good picture of how that person is feeling and thinking.