Take a look around the room at your next business meeting. What do you see? A few slouched shoulders? Reclined chairs? Staring off into space?
You communicate more through body language than through words, and it can impact your ability to make strong personal connections. When you pick up on body language, you gain a deeper understanding of your clients, employees, and yourself that allows you to respond accordingly.
Five aspects to consider when reading body language are distance, posture, blocking, facial expressions, and mirroring. Let’s start with distance.
The distance between you and your audience demonstrates your level of comfort. In his book, “The Hidden Dimension,” anthropologist Edward T. Hall defines four communication distances:
- Intimate space – 12-18″ or arm’s length; private conversations.
- Personal space – 18” – 4’; friends and family distance.
- Social distance – 4’-12’; entering the area of impersonal connection. Easier to ignore people at this distance.
- Public space – 12”; speeches to large audiences.
Consider the power dynamic in the distance between you and a client or employee. Are you making them uncomfortable? Standing too close can be intimidating. If you’re looking to put others at ease around you, shoot for that social distance.
How straight or hunched over you stand or sit indicates confidence, comfort-level, security, and power. There’s a reason they call it “walking tall” because those with their heads held high, chests open, and arms at their sides, feel confident. On the other hand, if you’re sitting across from someone with their head down and shoulders hunched, it could mean that they are timid or anxious.
Recognizing your own posture in certain business situations can help you understand how seriously others are taking you or if you’re coming on too strong. You may not realize that you always stand with your hands on your hips when presenting to a client. That kind of stance might say to them you know what you’re talking about, but it could also say you’re impatient and ready for the meeting to be over.
When attempting to build personal connections, your distance and posture can say a lot about your feelings toward the other person. How open your body is and your facial expressions can give you away too.
That brings us to “blocking.” How we cover up the front of our bodies sends a message about our openness. Arms in front with hands clasped together is less open than having arms to your sides. It can also mean how comfortable you are around someone or comfortable they are around you. Less blocking equals more comfort.
There’s also an aspect of vulnerability to blocking. Having your arms to your sides with an open chest and feet hip-width apart is a vulnerable position. You are inviting others in. The opposite says you’re guarded or uncomfortable.
Blocking can tell people to stay away or welcome them in. If you’re trying to build connections with others, observe how open your body is around them.
Facial expressions might be the most obvious way to tell how you’re connecting with others.
Generally, open eyes equate to a higher level of interest, as does less blinking. So the next time you see droopy eyes in a meeting, you might be boring your audience (or they just ate a really big lunch—context is important).
Strong eye contact is another big one. Stare too intently without blinking, though, and you’ll make someone uncomfortable. But you don’t want to completely avert their gaze either because that can come off as nervous or disinterested.
That’s when you need to read the rest of their body language, their mouth included, to get a better sense of their emotions.
The lip bite, the covered mouth, the pursed lips—these can mean different things. And of course, whether or not the other person is smiling is a good indication of their mood. People tend to cover their mouth to hide emotion. Pursed lips usually mean disapproval. And lip biting is an anxious behavior.
Have you ever noticed when you’re talking to someone and you pivot your weight from one foot to the other and they immediately follow suit? That’s mirroring. We do it subconsciously. It doesn’t have to be gestures either; it can be speech patterns or attitude. It usually occurs when you’re more comfortable with the other person.
When you meet with a client for the first time or an interviewee and notice them beginning to mirror you, this is a good sign.
Body language that says, I want to be anywhere but here:
- Body pointed in the opposite direction, or body pointed towards the speaker but feet are pointed elsewhere
- Bouncing, swaying, or any other kind of fidgeting
- Looking down, around, basically anywhere but towards the speaker
- Succumbing to distractions (checking phone, saying hi to someone walking by, glancing at your watch, etc.)
Body language that says, I’m holding onto your every word:
- Body and feet are pointed towards the speaker
- Remaining still (not fidgeting)
- Eye contact (or at least gazing in the speaker’s direction)
- Ignoring distractions (phone, computer, etc.)
Body language tells you a lot about comfort and interest levels. Someone’s personality can also play a role in their body language, not to mention the context of the situation. Body language varies across cultures too, so keep that in mind when dealing with foreign clients.
Take notice when someone is saying one thing but their body is saying another. That’s when you should ask yourself how well you’re connecting.