To improve your communication, learn to interpret and utilize body language
When most people think of communication, they instinctively imagine the verbal back and forth that makes up so much of our interaction with one another. Of course, verbal communication is an important element of human interactions, but it's by no means the only way that people communicate. In fact, much of human communication consists of the nonverbal body language messages that everyone “speaks” each and every day.
In this post, we'll explore the important role of body language and examine how it can impact your ability to effectively communicate with others. We'll also take a look at fifteen different examples of body language and offer some guidance to help you learn to interpret their meanings.
What is body language?
You probably already have a basic understanding of body language, since almost everyone uses it in one way or another during the course of an average day. For example, you may be quite adept at reading a close friend's emotions just by noticing a sudden change in their face or the way they move their body. In such an instance, you can probably quickly assess how they're feeling based on nonverbal cues that they unconsciously provide.
Those nonverbal cues consist of a wide range of facial expressions, gestures, and other bodily changes that deliver important information about a person's thoughts, feelings, and motivations. In many cases, the person delivering that nonverbal message may not even be aware of their own body language. In fact, there are times when the words a person says may seem completely at odds with the message their body is sending.
Why is body language important to understand?
It's vitally important to learn how to interpret body language if you want to succeed in your interpersonal relations. By some estimates, roughly two-thirds of all human communication occurs via nonverbal means.
The fact is that your body often says far more than your words - and the same is true of everyone around you. Without a basic understanding of what different types of body language mean, you may struggle to have truly meaningful interactions with others. Once you learn how to effectively read this unspoken language, however, you can unlock an even deeper level of communication with friends, family, and coworkers. Mastering the art of interpreting body language can help you to:
More quickly identify others' moods and intent
Develop deeper relationships with those around you
Effectively “read” customers, clients, coworkers, and bosses
Improve your ability to work within a team setting
Build trust with others
Ensure that your message is delivered clearly and that you fully understand the true meaning and intent of the messages you receive
Perhaps most important of all, however, is the benefit that you can receive from learning to control the messages you send with your own body language. Your understanding and use of body language signs can help you to make that all-important great first impression in a job interview, present yourself as a confident and valuable employee, and enable others to see you as an inspiring person.
What are the different types of body language?
There are many different perspectives on the number of body language types, but we will focus on seven basic examples. These types include facial expressions, body gestures, vocal delivery, general posture, proximity to others, eye contact, and touch. Each of these forms of nonverbal language can be used to deliver specific types of messages, which is why body language interpretation is critical to effective communication.
How to read body language - some examples
1. Facial expressions
Human faces can express a seemingly endless array of emotions and can often reveal a person's true feelings and state of mind. At the same time, however, there's no set standard for assessing facial expressions. That's because everyone has their own unique set of expressions. In addition, people's facial positions can mean different things, depending on the situation. The good news, however, is that people do tend to use the same basic expressions for emotions like fear, joy, anger, and sadness, regardless of culture.
In addition, there are some basic rules that can help you to determine what a person's facial expression might mean. For example, you can learn to recognize a sincere smile, if you know which cues to look for. A genuine smile involves not just the mouth, but the eyes as well. When you're happy and smiling, your eyes will tend to wrinkle slightly around the crow's feet area. Smiles that involve only the mouth are often a mere formality or just an attempt to be polite.
Speaking of the eyes, they are more than just “windows to the soul.” The eyes and eyebrows can also provide useful cues to help you read others. A slight raising of the eyebrows can indicate interest or sudden understanding. A more explosive raise of the brows can signify shock and surprise. Meanwhile, a furrowed brow can indicate disapproval, skepticism, or even frustration. As for the eyes, they can convey similar information as they widen in surprise or excitement and narrow to express discontent and confusion.
Gestures include all the bodily movements that occur when you interact with another person. If you've ever had a friend who seems to talk with their hands, then you probably have a pretty good idea about how important gestures can be in any conversation. Body gestures are so important that professional politicians, business leaders, and public speakers can spend hours practicing these body movements to improve the effectiveness of their message delivery.
Like facial expressions, many gestures are fairly easy to interpret. For example:
When someone shrugs their shoulders, it can indicate that they don't understand something. Alternatively, it can indicate a lack of concern about a topic or situation.
When someone crosses their arms during an interaction, it can be a sign that they feel uncomfortable, or that they are carefully considering some element of the conversation.
Hand waves with an open palm are often used when a speaker wants to demonstrate confidence and trustworthiness. Meanwhile, placing your hands in a palms-up position is a more submissive gesture that invites people to find agreement with the speaker.
Finger pointing is another common gesture, and one that often signals aggression or an attempt to exert dominance. It is also a gesture that you should try to avoid in your interactions with others, since it can trigger negative emotions in most people.
Handshakes can be a powerful form of body language too. When you shake hands with your palm down, it signals an attempt to express dominance. A palms-up handshake can indicate submissiveness. When both palms remain vertical, it suggests a recognition of equality and respect.
3. Vocal delivery
When a person speaks, things like volume, tone, and pitch can convey nearly as much information as their words. In fact, messages delivered with the right voice can have an even more powerful impact than the words alone. On the other hand, when that delivery fails to match the words used, the overall message can be diluted. Always pay attention to how the voice is used to deliver communication, focusing on things like volume, the pitch used, the pace of speech, overall tone and pauses between words and sentences.
A person who speaks quietly may simply be nervous or might be trying to add a feeling of suspense or intimacy to the conversation. Increased volume can signify excitement or be designed to increase the audience's energy.
Slow speakers often want to ensure that their audience understands the message. A faster pace can signal that the speaker is nervous or simply rushing through the encounter.
Tone provides important information about emotions and the meaning of the words, indicating everything from sarcasm to resignation or sincerity.
Vocal pitch tends to rise at the conclusion of a question and can drop when the speaker wants to emphasize a point. Pitch can also signify either comfort or nervousness.
How speakers use pauses between words can give listeners time to process what they are hearing, in much the same way that white spaces on a page help readers to follow the written word.
Body posture can also send different messages, which means that you can learn a lot just by observing how someone positions their body during an interaction. There are two basic types of posture: open and closed. These different postures can send important information about a person's level of comfort, overall confidence, and receptiveness to other people. Open posture tends to signal receptiveness, while closed postures can signify a lack of interest or discomfort with a situation or encounter.
Each of these posture types has some easily observable characteristics. For example, a person with open posture will keep the trunk of their body visible to others. The hands will generally be visible as well and may be either at their side or gesturing as they speak. All of those cues indicate openness and engagement. A person with closed posture will have their arms or legs crossed, guarding their body from sight. This can indicate everything from discomfort and anxiety to distrust or even hostility.
You can also learn a lot from taking note of other people's proximity. That simply means that you should be cognizant of the distance between you and other people when you interact with them. There are four different distance ranges that you should be familiar with if you want to master the art of proximity in your own communication efforts:
Intimate: Anyone who communicates with you in close proximity – between 6 and 18 inches – demonstrates a sense of intimacy and comfort with you. Typically, this range of proximity is reserved for spouses, other partners, and truly close friends.
Personal: Communicating at a distance of 18 inches to 4 feet is usually reserved for family members and more casual friends. This is still generally considered a fairly intimate proximity, so people who talk to you from this close distance will be expressing a sense of closeness.
Social: Coworkers and acquaintances may express their familiarity with you from a more social distance, typically defined as between 4 and 12 feet.
Public: This proximity level is usually used in most public settings, and involves a range of anywhere from 12 to 25 feet distance between the parties. Common examples can include business presentations, university lectures, or brief conversations in the parking lot.
If you can learn to maintain the right distance between yourself and other people, you can more effectively put them at ease and avoid any social misunderstanding that might diminish your message. Always remember that making the wrong proximity choice can be interpreted as a violation of another individual's personal space. In addition, if you find someone stepping back when you engage them, you should respect that signal and adjust your proximity.
6. Eye contact
Eye contact is a powerful form of nonverbal communication, so be sure to study this type of body language closely. People who make direct eye contact with you can signal greater interest in what you're saying. However, excessive eye contact can also indicate aggressiveness or hostility too. As a rule, eye contact is generally positive when the person is periodically breaking that gaze.
Of course, a lack of eye contact sends signals too. Someone who repeatedly glances elsewhere may be looking for an escape from the conversation. A person who continually looks down during a conversation may be feeling uncomfortable or nervous. Excessive blinking can also be an indication of discomfort or anxiety.
Even the dilation of the pupils can offer key information. When people are truly listening and considering what they are hearing, their pupils tend to dilate. When you see that dilation, you can reasonably interpret that you have the other person's attention and interest. At the same time, though, pupil dilation can also be a sign of anxiety, so check for other visual cues to decide which interpretation is most likely to fit the situation.
Touch is another form of body language used extensively in human communication. You can convey a great deal of information through touch, so always be cognizant of how that sense is being used in your interactions. For example:
The firmness or weakness of a handshake. Firm handshakes can demonstrate respect or even dominance, while weak handshakes signal a lack of interest or submissiveness.
A light touch on the arm or shoulder can signal support or even be used to demonstrate empathy.
A nudge with the shoulder can indicate a sense of camaraderie and friendliness.
As a rule, touching is perhaps the least common form of body language in today's business world, but that doesn't mean that it has lost any of its effectiveness. When used appropriately and with the right people, touch can be a powerful form of body language that can have a profound impact on many interactions.
Develop your own mastery of body language
Obviously, a better understanding of body language cues and how to interpret them can enable you to enjoy more meaningful and insightful interactions with others. Below are some simple tips that you can use to improve your interpretive abilities and gain mastery over your own use of body language.
Improve your emotional intelligence
Be mindful of your emotions and learn to pay attention to the emotions of other people. By becoming more emotionally aware, you can improve your emotional intelligence and more accurately read other people's emotions by observing body language. This new and improved emotional awareness can help you to build trust with others and interact in ways that demonstrate understanding and empathy.
Of course, increased emotional intelligence can also enable you to better manage your own emotions. That's vital in communication, since an inability to control your emotions may cause you to misread vital body language cues or prevent you from consciously sending the right nonverbal messages. Learn how your emotions impact your behavior and try to deal with them in a productive and balanced way.
Have you ever noticed how stress can negatively impact your communication efforts? Stress can create anxiety and other emotions that inhibit your ability to read others' body language and enjoy meaningful interactions. You should focus on finding ways to minimize stress and practice mindfulness and other stress management strategies to help you to find greater balance. If all else fails and you experience stress during an interaction, take the time you need to regain your composure before you continue the conversation.
Never focus on just one body language cue
Since most body language cues can have multiple meanings, depending on the context of the moment and the individuals involved in any given interaction, it's important to take a holistic approach to interpreting their meanings. Don't just focus on eye contact, but instead consider the other aspects of body language as well. The most accurate interpretation of body language can only be achieved by considering multiple nonverbal signals to gain a more comprehensive insight into their meaning.
Become a student of human behavior
The best way to learn to read others' nonverbal signals and leverage your own body language to reinforce your verbal communication is to always observe other people. By focusing on other people's use of body language, you can train your brain to quickly assign meaning to various cues. With time, you can learn to consciously use those body language cues in your own communication.
Trust your gut
Most of us prefer to take people at their word. Unfortunately, that can lead to disappointment or missed messages when we ignore obvious body language signals that contradict the words we're hearing. When you hear a message that is inconsistent with the speaker's body language, that could be a sign that something isn't quite right. As you develop your body language skills and understanding, you should learn to trust your instincts. If you feel as though the words and nonverbal cues are somehow at odds, don't dismiss those concerns out of hand.
Body language is an important component of human communication and often says a lot about the emotions and motivations of speakers and listeners. By improving your ability to interpret nonverbal cues, you can decrease the likelihood of misunderstandings, ensure that your own body language reinforces your words, and become a more effective communicator in every area of life.
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