According to researchers, it’s possible to ‘read’ bodies. We all have mannerisms that we’re not even aware of, and they can send out messages to other people. Gestures, posture, head and eye movement, facial expressions, voice qualities – all provide important cues. Body language speaks volumes. Understanding the body language of other people – and being aware of your own nonverbal cues – can make you a better communicator…


1. Face the facts.

Effective communication depends more on how we send and receive rather than what. Although words are important, we are told that they convey only about 7 per cent of the meaning of the messages we communicate. The rate and inflection of our speech accounts for about 38 per cent of the exchange; our gestures and body signals, often unconsciously account for about 55 per cent. These nonverbal messages serve either to reinforce or contradict the message we want to send, for that reason, they deserve our attention.

2. Be aware of posture.

Posture can indicate boredom, interest, or even fear. If seated, sit up straight and don’t cross your legs. Crossed legs and arms could be interpreted as being closed to others’ ideas; both feet should be flat on the floor. Slouching can indicate low self-esteem. If standing, try not to shift body weight from one foot to the other. When listening, lean forward slightly. Though leaning back may be a sign that you’re relaxed, it also may be interpreted as disrespectful – that you are not giving the speaker your full attention. Leaning back with your hands behind your head can convey contemplation or scepticism.

3. Keep control of hand and arm movements.

Pay attention to your arms and hands. Arms folded across the chest can suggest that you are feeling defensive rather than receptive. Clasping your hands in your lap gives the impression that you are in control and making critical evaluations. Don’t fidget, or finger your jewellery, hair, or clothing while someone else is speaking. Such actions can convey impatience, boredom, or discomfort with the subject being discussed. Never point at your listener. Pointing may indicate hostility and aggressiveness. And keep your hands off your hips or risk being seen as arrogant. If you finger your watch, squirm in your chair, or turn to face the exit, you’re conveying a wish to terminate the discussion.

4. Avoid using flamboyant gestures.

Using your hands to emphasise a point can be effective; but, generally, hand movements should be confined to an area about the width of your body. Excessive gestures can be distracting or give the impression that you are out of control.

5. Make eye contact.

Eye contact suggests that you are paying attention and are at ease with the topic. Don’t stare, however; staring may be interpreted as being hostile or aggressive. If you nod your head from time to time, you acknowledge you are actively listening. Note, however, that men and women interpret this body cue differently. For women, nodding means ‘I’m paying attention’; for men, it usually indicates agreement.

Aristotle Onassis once admitted that he normally wore dark glasses when negotiating so that his inner thoughts would not be revealed. Indeed, researchers tell us that eyes reveal a great deal:

  • Darting eyes can convey anxiousness or lack of confidence.
  • A slow blink can communicate that you don’t enjoy being there.
  • Glancing to top right can indicate that you are imagining or making up information.

6. Face the listener directly.

Don’t sit at an angle or face away from the other person – unless you want to appear indifferent or rude. If you’re wearing glasses and look at the listener over the rim, you could be interpreted as evaluative or sceptical. A smile, of course, will show your enjoyment and pleasure.

7. Keep your distance.

When speaking, don’t get too close; otherwise the listener may feel threatened and become defensive. Of course, that technique is all right if your intention is to intimidate. Maintain a distance that allows you to observe the listener’s body language.

8. Use voice volume, tone, and tempo to effect.

Avoid monotone by changing the rate of speech for emphasis throughout the conversation. Also use inflection and moderate changes in pitch and volume to engage the listener’s attention. An incident at the fish market, involving British writer G. K. Chesterton, illustrates the power of voice qualities. In a low, endearing voice, he told a woman waiting on him, ‘You are a noun, a verb, and a preposition.’ The woman blushed. After buying the fish, Chesterton said in a lecherous tone, ‘And you’re an adjective, an adverb, and a conjunction as well!’ The woman slapped him with a flounder.


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