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How to Read Body Language: 10 Ways to Recognize Nonverbal Cues

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 4 min read

Have you ever noticed that the expressions on a person’s face don't always align with the words coming out of their mouth? Out only a small percentage of human communication is based on spoken words, while the majority happens via body language. If you can learn to understand how things like eye movements, hand gestures, and body positions relate to people’s emotions, you’ll be able to drastically improve your ability to communicate.



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What Is Body Language?

Body language is a form of nonverbal communication that deals with the way facial expressions and body movements are used to express people’s true feelings. The ability to understand people’s body language and also be aware of your own nonverbal signals is an extremely valuable asset to have in your arsenal of communication skills. Proficiency in reading body language allows you to become more aware of what someone is trying to tell you, whether they’re intending to tell you that information or not. Awareness of body language can also be used to control your own nonverbal behaviors.

Why Is Understanding Body Language Important?

Understanding body language can help you communicate better in any situation. Here are some examples of specific ways awareness of body language can benefit you:

  • It makes a better first impression. Someone’s first impression of you can stick with them forever, and using positive body language can help show people you’re sincere, attentive, and trustworthy.
  • It improves public speaking. Body language can be used to hide feelings of nervousness, to project confidence, and to hold the attention of your audience.
  • It helps you excel at job interviews. In a stressful situation like a job interview, body language can help you appear relaxed, charismatic, and interested, in order to better build a rapport with the interviewer.
  • It enables you to handle performance reviews with poise. Whether you’re critiquing or praising a coworker’s performance, your body language should reflect your words. If it doesn’t, your coworker could end up leaving the conversation confused about your message’s intent. The same goes when you’re on the receiving end of a performance review.
  • It allows you to move more easily through everyday life. Being regularly conscious of your own body language signals can actually help you develop a higher level of emotional intelligence, which can subsequently create a positive impact on your mental health.
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5 Ways to Read Positive Body Language

Being able to recognize positive body language helps you see when someone is comfortable and engaged in your conversation. Here are five examples of positive body language cues to look out for:

  1. Note sufficient eye contact. While both avoiding eye contact and giving too much eye contact can have negative implications, if someone maintains sufficient eye contact with you for a handful of seconds at a time, it shows they have a sincere interest in speaking with you.
  2. Recognize good posture. When someone sits or stands in an upright, erect posture and maximizes the amount of physical space their whole body fills, it conveys power and authority and likely means they are eager to engage in conversation.
  3. Notice firm handshakes. When someone shakes your hand and the grip is appropriately firm, it means they’re attempting to convey a sense of poise and confidence. On the other hand, a weak handshake can signal nervousness and an overly strong handshake can signal intentional aggression.
  4. Watch for genuine smiles. Anyone can force a fake smile to hide negative feelings, but luckily there’s a way to spot if a person is truly happy when smiling: A real smile will crinkle the skin in the corner of their eyes, creating a crow’s feet pattern. If you’re able to spot this, you’ll know the other person is enjoying talking with you.
  5. Pay attention when someone stands close to you. If a person sits or stands in close proximity to you, the personal distance is a good indicator that they’re comfortable around you.

Learning to read others’ positive body language cues is a useful skill, but don’t forget you can also use these cues yourself to reinforce your own words and create a positive impression.


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5 Ways to Read Negative Body Language

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Being able to quickly identify negative body language cues can help you avoid uncomfortable confrontations and even turn bad conversations into good ones. Here are five examples of negative non-verbal mannerisms to look out for:

  1. Notice when there’s too much eye contact. People often avoid direct eye contact when lying, liars frequently try to offset this by holding eye contact for too long. If you notice someone maintaining excessive eye contact with you, there’s a chance they’re not being truthful.
  2. Pay attention to crossed arms or legs. Even if someone is giving you a positive verbal message, crossing their arms or legs means they may be disinterested in what you’re saying.
  3. Watch for excessive nodding. Too much head nodding can have a couple of different meanings: Either the person you’re speaking to wants you to stop talking and give them a turn to speak, or it could also mean they lack confidence around you and are nervous about how you perceive them.
  4. Notice furrowed brows. This microexpression, recognized by wrinkles in the forehead and the eyebrows moving closer together, is a sign that someone is experiencing negative feelings like confusion or uneasiness.
  5. Keep an eye out for fidgeting. If someone is making lots of small, nervous hand movements or is mindlessly fooling around with their clothing or nearby objects, it likely means they are disinterested in what they are hearing.

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