Without speaking a word, people convey a tremendous amount of information about themselves and their attitude toward you. Body language is a universal language that goes beyond the intellect and the spoken word to reveal the depths of people’s feelings. Once you have become a skilled body language observer, you can use your knowledge to 1) pick up people’s nuances and gestures; 2) respond to them in ways that will put them at ease; and 3) consciously use body language to make your communication more effective.
The feelings conveyed by body language are fleeting. They go by like the frames of a movie. Fortunately, they are easy to spot and are generally repeated often.
Observing body language is second nature for most people. But to use it to your advantage, you must make the observation conscious, which means concentrating on the person you’re talking to. Of course, you do this anyway if you are practicing active listening, which you are aren’t you?
The areas to watch are the hands, arms, face, eyes, legs and the combination of movements between these areas. Facial expressions convey a lot, as do posture and eye contact.
Observing one gesture is almost meaningless. Someone rubbing his eyes can simply have itchy eyes. The key to interpreting body language is to observe clusters of gestures. If someone is rubbing his eyes, pulling an ear, tapping a foot, looking around the room, and shifting uneasily in his chair, there is a good chance he is bored, nervous or frustrated. Careful observation will make the difference. When you do notice these clusters, it’s time for you to do something different.
First, ask yourself how the observed clusters compare to this person’s usual way of behaving. Some people always have poor eye contact. Some people always act aloof. Try not to jump to conclusions. You have to either observe people for a while or know them well before you can interpret their body language infallibly.
Second, get feedback on your hunches. If someone’s behavior has changed, ask a nonthreatening question to find out if you are the reason. You might say, “I hear you saying yes, but I get the impression that something else is on your mind. Would you mind sharing it with me?”
Last, remember what causes people to be comfortable. Some people may get nervous until you reassure them they are doing the right thing. Others react negatively to too much enthusiasm. You have to know when to tone it down and be more subtle.