Communication consists of far more than just the words we say. During our conversations, and even when we're not speaking at all, our postures, gestures, and facial expressions offer others an additional insight into what we are thinking.
These non-verbal cues continually happen when people interact. They can be both positive and negative and can be knowingly or unconsciously given.
To work effectively with people, it's important to be able to look past what you hear and to recognize cues in your colleagues’ body language. It's also helpful for you to know which examples of body language you display to others, and how these might affect your professional relationships.
Displaying positive body language can help to strengthen relationships with others, lead them to more willingly trust what you are saying, and allow them to feel respected and heard by you.
Here are some examples of positive body language and what their use can mean.
If someone makes a gesture of open hands it can indicate that they are open and honest as a person. This gesture can be used to emphasize the importance of what is being said, or simply to show that the person making the gesture is approachable and welcomes other people to speak to them.
Turning the palms to face upwards with the hands open in this way can also indicate submission. Historically, a gesture of open hands showing the palms was intended to demonstrate that no weapons were being carried or concealed. Therefore opening your hands can show that you are not a threat and that you are ready to have a conversation.
Standing up straight shows confidence and self-belief. If you stand up straight people will believe that you are capable in your role and that you know what you’re doing. They will feel more comfortable coming to you for help and may see you as being approachable in general.
When a straight stance is relaxed and is combined with facing openly towards the people you are in conversation with, it demonstrates that you are self-assured and that you are listening to them with respect.
Eye contact can be used positively to show confidence, trust and to promote open conversation. If you regularly look someone in the eye during a conversation it shows that you mean what you are saying. It can also be used as a turn-taking cue to show that you are ready to hear what the other person has to say.
It's important during conversation to break eye contact at intervals to show that you are respectful and that you do not present a threat.
It is usual to look away more while you are talking and to make more regular direct eye contact when listening to the other person to show that you are being attentive to their thoughts.
Nodding while someone speaks shows that you are focused on what they are saying and are listening respectfully to them. It can show that you agree with what they are saying or just that you are acknowledging that their thoughts or opinions are valid.
Tilting the head to the side shows again that you are listening attentively and that you are considering what they say with respect, whether you agree or disagree with them. Nodding and tilting the head during conversations are positive and respectful gestures that indicate approachability and openness.
Smiling at someone shows that you are friendly, open, approachable, and likable. It also shows that you like and respect the person you’re smiling at and will help to strengthen both personal and professional relationships.
When you smile at someone it can indicate that you are attentively listening and this can encourage friends or colleagues to be more confident about sharing their opinions or suggestions with you. Of course, the smile should be natural and not come across as nervous or forced.
People who smile genuinely and who come across as being approachable are likely to be more successful working within a team, as they will be regarded as likable and respectful.
People will be more likely to be willing to discuss problems with someone approachable, which will lead to more productive discussions and better resolution of issues.
Negative body language can be damaging for professional and personal relationships as its use can indicate defensive feelings, lack of interest in the other person, or dishonesty.
Negative body language can be used unintentionally and can betray what you think about what you are saying or about the person you’re speaking to. Here are some examples of negative body language to look out for or to try and avoid using with others.
Crossing the arms over the chest is considered a defensive posture. It shows that you are closed off and unwilling to enter into a discussion with someone, almost as if you are drawing a firm line under a conversation or cutting it off before it begins.
This might be because of a lack of confidence in your thoughts or abilities, or it could show that you are unwilling to listen to others.
Someone with crossed arms gives the impression that they disagree with the person they are in conversation with. It shows an unwillingness to have their opinions changed and can make them seem quite unapproachable.
Tapping the fingers or feet can indicate impatience, boredom, or anxiety on the part of the tapper. If you tap your fingers while having a conversation with someone, they might get the impression that you don’t have time for them, or that you want the discussion to be over.
It can seem that you're not listening at all. Tapping the feet can give the same impression to others, and it can also lead them to see you as being nervous, jumpy, or lacking in confidence.
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Crossing the legs, much like crossing the arms, can be perceived as a defensive posture. If someone crosses their legs at the ankles during a conversation, it can indicate dishonesty or insecurity and may lead the person they are speaking with to have difficulty trusting them or having confidence in what they are saying.
Crossing the legs at the knees can also give the impression of a lack of confidence or of being closed off from the conversation.
If the crossed legs are also then pointed away from the other person it can indicate quite a strong discomfort either with the topic of the conversation or with them personally.
While it can appear threatening to maintain continuous eye contact or stare at someone, avoiding eye contact altogether is certainly not a positive gesture. If you avoid eye contact when talking with or working alongside someone, it can indicate that you lack confidence or that you have something to hide.
Avoiding eye contact sends a clear message that you are not open to conversation and that you don’t have respect for or interest in what others might have to say.
It might seem obvious that frowning is an example of negative body language and should be avoided. However, people often frown without realizing they are doing it, if they are lost in thought or concentrating on what is being said, for example.
It doesn’t necessarily mean they are angry or upset, even though it might look like it. For many people, frowning occurs when they are listening intently, and so is not intended to be negative at all.
It's therefore important to be aware of your facial expressions and to check in with yourself when you’re listening to others to see if this is something you do.
Bear in mind too that if someone is frowning at you while you are speaking they might not mean to give the impression that they are cross or dislike what you’re saying. They might be very interested in your point of view and be considering it thoughtfully.
Being aware of body language and facial expressions and what they can mean when interacting with other people is important, both personally and professionally. It's also worth bearing in mind that somebody language cues differ in their meaning in different cultures and that sometimes it is possible to misread the meaning behind some gestures.
Understanding the body language cues of others, however, can help you to understand and work with them more effectively, as you’ll be able to see when they might be feeling uncomfortable, for example, or when they are confident in their setting or their relationships.
Being self-aware is also helpful, as you can monitor and adapt your gestures and expressions to make yourself more approachable to others, show them that you respect them, and mark yourself as a good listener and team player. Being knowledgeable about both positive and negative body language cues can certainly work to your advantage.