Reading body language, or nonverbal cues, as most professionals prefer to call it, can be a useful skill to have. In a professional setting, such as a job interview, meeting, or day-to-day office situations, understanding the nonverbal cues people are giving you can help you understand how they’re reacting to what you’re saying and adjust your behavior if need be.
Reading nonverbal communication cues is a difficult skill to master. While certain facial expressions may seem obvious to interpret, others can be more difficult, and subtle gestures may be more difficult to spot. Additionally, everyone has unique differences and characteristics that make it impossible to know what any one person is thinking all the time. In fact, it's such a difficult skill that some professionals devote their entire careers to studying it.
However, there are some relatively universal cues that can give you a better sense of how the other person is generally reacting to you.
Eyes are one of the biggest giveaways to a person’s state of mind. While people know to turn the corners of their mouths upwards to smile, if that smile doesn’t reach the eyes, it often means the person isn’t truly happy. When someone is happy, her emotions not only reach her eyes, but extend upwards, such that her eyelids and eyebrows will turn upwards.
When someone is engaged in a conversation, she will usually maintain eye contact for the majority of the discussion. Her eyes might occasionally wander to the rest of your face before returning to the eyes. Likewise, dilated pupils can indicate concentration, meaning she is paying attention to what you’re saying. Be aware that dilated pupils can also indicate normal variations in lightness and darkness or drug or alcohol intake, so this isn’t a dead giveaway.
Direct, unbroken eye contact can suggest that the person is trying to establish dominance or intimidate you.
On the other hand, if the other person is unable to sustain eye contact, constantly looks away, or turns her entire head away, it often indicates that she’s upset or embarrassed. Blinking, meanwhile, can suggest that she is stressed or anxious. These behaviors are also associated with boredom and dishonesty.
Keep in mind that most people are unlikely to stare at you without breaking contact in a professional—or really any—setting, so if someone keeps looking away, don’t automatically assume she’s lying to you. Use the context to better understand her behavior.
A relaxed mouth or animated, open smile that reaches the eyes communicates that the person is engaged and feeling comfortable. Meanwhile, a tense smile that doesn’t reach the eyes often signifies that the person is embarrassed or upset. Pursued lips generally communicate anger, displeasure, and stress.
Lips that are turned inwards often suggest that the person is uncertain or contemplating something. The common habit of lip biting often indicates that she is anxious.
Hands that are relaxed and by a person’s sides often mean that she is feeling comfortable. If she’s making frequent hand gestures and movements and waving her hands around animatedly, she’s probably excited and engaged in the conversation. Meanwhile, fiddling with hands and objects can indicate that the person is anxious, antsy, or unable to sit still.
If someone puts her hands in her pockets, she may be insecure or not confident.
Like with hands, unrestricted arm movements—waving them around or moving them towards you—often signals that the other person is excited and engaged. On the other hand, tightly crossed limbs across the torso indicates resistance and distance. That’s why you should try to avoid crossing your arms in most contexts; crossed arms give off the signal that you don’t want to talk or engage. Leaving the torso free shows comfort and willingness to engage.
Legs and feet
Turning feet and legs inward, facing the other person, signals that she is comfortable and wants to stay. If she is turning her feet away, she may want to leave.
Loosely crossed legs also suggest that she is comfortable, while tightly crossed legs, like arms, suggest the opposite.
A person who is employing a wide stance and straight posture is generally displaying confidence. Other behaviors that indicate pride and confidence include a head tilt and hands of the hips. These nonverbal cues are also associated with dominance and power.
Meanwhile, someone who is slouching over with a curved spine and generally exhibiting poor posture could be bored. Other people often see this stance as lazy.
Improving your ability to read nonverbal cues
• Observe: Once you know the basics of body language, you’ll naturally become more attuned to the cues people give you in the workplace. Paying attention to slight changes will help you develop a keener ability to understand nonverbal cues more frequently and in different settings.
• Recognize baselines: Everybody is different. Understanding that people exhibit different behaviors depending on personal quirks and tendencies will help you understand individual differences. Of course, it’s easier to recognize baselines when you have repeated exposure to a particular person; in settings such as first interviews, it may be a little more difficult to figure out what your interviewer’s natural state is.
• Ask for feedback: You probably don’t want to ask your boss if you’re correct in your analysis of her body language. But running your hypotheses by close friends or family members can help you hone the skill and enable you to better interpret other people’s behavior in less comfortable, higher-stakes settings.
• Practice: If you’re committed to learning how to read and develop a strong ability for detecting body language, then, as with most skills, you’ll need plenty of practice in simulated and real-world environments. If you have a therapist, you might ask her for help in this area. Otherwise, ask if you can practice on friends and family. You could even practice with TV shows by reading body language different characters are offering.
• Work on your own body language: Being conscious of your own body language allows you to better identify the cues other people are giving. Mirroring other people’s positive body language when you’re engaged in conversation can also help you improve your communication overall.
A word of caution: While there are some universal nonverbal cues, many cultures have unique cues that indicate something entirely different from what you might assume. For instance, in Japan, eye contact is considered rude, while most Western cultures expect it. Be aware of these differences in situations in which trying to interpret the nonverbal communication of someone from a culture with which you’re unfamiliar.