By October 25, 2013

Starting to Read Body Language

reading body language

As humans, we learnt to communicate much earlier than we learnt to speak formal languages. That is why most of us have the ground level skills required in deciphering what other people are saying through their signs and gestures. There are some who have become masters of reading other people’s body language and have written about this subject so that the rest of us can benefit. Here are the basic tips you can take from the masters to begin your own study of other people’s non verbal communicative skills.

 Learn to become a good observer

If you really want to study gestures and signals, it will take extra effort since as humans we are normally used to giving a lot of attention to spoken words. This might leave little mind space to take a step further and observe people’s body language consciously. You might find yourself getting distracted with paying attention to the signals and missing out on the words entirely. Or perhaps adjusting your gestures to become more open and receptive and lose focus on the words you are saying yourself. Like every other skill, this one requires practice as well. You can begin by becoming good at observing people and what they are doing. Look for places where there are lots of opportunities of doing this. A café or an airport or a shopping mall might be good places to start with. 

Study the context in which the gesture is displayed

Observe the two pictures below. Can you spot the difference in body language?

begin - feeling cold


begin - closed position


In the above pictures, if you observe the two ladies, at first glance they both appear to have their arms crossed, suggesting a possibility of unreceptive mood. But the lady in the above picture is additionally wearing winter clothes. Also her background suggests that she is standing outside in cold weather. Clearly, the folded arms and the hunched shoulders are because of the cold extremity. In contrast, the business woman in the second picture is standing in a closed room and the frown on her face is complimenting her closed hands, telling us that she is indeed in a closed position.

 It is thus important to be aware of the situation under which the person in question is displaying the cues that she is. Being aware of her surroundings, the situation through which she has just emerged and so on can help become a better observer.

 To cite another example, you might notice that a particular speaker is taking short breaths while delivering his speech. It could possibly mean that he is a bit nervous in front of the audience, probably not used to giving speeches or having come under prepared. But another possibility could be that he was slightly late in getting to the venue and had to rush in time to deliver the speech and is trying to gather his breath.

Establish a baseline for the person

A person might be habitually displaying certain gestures like touching his head after every five minutes or shaking his leg whenever he speaks. Because these are normal habits of the individual, you might need to ignore them when you judge their reaction to certain circumstances. For example if a leg shaker is shaking his leg throughout the discussion, it does not mean he is restless because of the discussion in question. He might be restless by nature. But if he, for once, stops shaking his leg, he might either be thinking of something else or paying more attention than usual to the discussion.

Look for complimentary signals or “clusters”

If you believe an individual is in a certain state of mind, wait for him to display more signals to confirm your hypothesis. For example, if during a sales meeting the customer suddenly folds his arms, don’t judge him to be totally closed to the discussion. There might be a certain point in the agenda which he doesn’t like. In which case, you can either ask if he wants to proceed or discuss more, or wait for him to display more signs of disinterest. If he leans back, folds his hands and then also crosses his legs, you can positively conclude that he is no longer interested in the discussion.


begin - closedJudge according to cultural background

There are lots of gestures which mean different things in different cultures. The simplest example of this is the ok sign which is displayed with the thumb finger and index fingers joined while keeping the rest of the fingers upright. In most cultures this sign is displayed when the displayer means well. But in France it also signifies zero and in Japan it stands for money. Thus it is good to keep a person’s cultural background in mind when you study his body language. Also, if you are visiting a different region or country, it is best to go through the specific gestures followed in that place to avoid any faux pas.

Absence of emotion or gestures is as important as presence of them

If you throw a surprise party for your wife’s birthday, you would normally expect her to be surprised and delighted in seeing that you care for her.  In case you see her smiling less or seeing a little tensed, it might be because she had other plans in mind or wanted to spend some time alone with you on her birthday. You could talk it out with her in a few spare minutes and possibly cheer her up a little.

Remember to practice reading others’ body language and modifying your own until you can do it effortlessly.

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About the Author:

Khyati Bhatt has trained for mastery in Nonverbal Communication with retired FBI special agent Joe Navarro. She founded Simply Body Talk in 2013 to help individuals and corporates fine tune their nonverbal behavior and nonverbal communication. Khyati believes in taking a scientific approach to body language. Her experience as a wealth manager, currency trader, and family entrepreneur has helped sharpen her nonverbal instincts. She is a fervent reader and has explored the work of many psychologists and anthropologists in her field of work.

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