Can You Read Body Language in the Workplace?

October 7, 2022
Can You Read Body Language in the Workplace?
Back in the 1970s, UCLA Professor Albert Mehrabian did groundbreaking research into human communication. He discovered that humans rely far more on nonverbal communication than verbal communication. He broke down how humans convey and receive meaning into what he called the "7-38-55 rule." The numbers represent 7% percent by spoken words, 38% by tone of voice, and 55% by body language. If this is accurate, more than half of our understanding of other people comes from body language. This includes hand gestures, eye contact, facial expressions, posture, how we shake hands (firm or floppy), and other nonverbal cues. So, being able to read and interpret body language is essential for successful communication. So is being aware of your body language at work — in a job interview or in other social settings. In this article, we’ll cover some of the most important aspects of body language in the workplace.

Examples of positive body language

First, let’s consider your own body language, what it says to others, and how it can impact those around you. Positive body language can empower, motivate, and inspire your coworkers and make a good impression. It can also really help fire up the team if you are in a leadership position.
Positive body language can empower, motivate, and inspire your coworkers and make a good impression. It can also really help fire up the team if you are in a leadership position.
How you hold yourself can make people feel more comfortable around you and encourage them to express themselves openly. Examples of positive nonverbal cues include:

Making eye contact

In most Western cultures, making and maintaining eye contact with the person you’re speaking with is a sign of respect. It indicates that you are paying attention to and are interested in what the person has to say. It also indicates that you have confidence, which is a good trait to have in the business world. Conversely, if you tend to avoid eye contact, that may send the opposite message: disinterest and/or lack of confidence. Furthermore, if you constantly take your eyes away from someone to check your phone, this is a huge red flag. It can imply a lack of care about what the other person is saying. However, that's not always the case. Some people have neurological differences, which may result in a lack of eye contact. It's important for businesses to not be prejudiced against these individuals.

Facial expressions

Eye contact is important in communication, of course, but so is the rest of the face. Eye rolls, raised eyebrows, smiles, frowns, furrowed brows, head tilts, sighs, and more all send signals. Just reading that list of expressions, you may have experienced a range of brief emotional reactions. A simple smile can evoke a sense of friendliness, openness, and reassurance. Frowns, eye rolls, and furrowed brows can signal or trigger fear, irritation, concentration, or worry. At work, it's important to know what these facial expressions mean to you and others, and how you can use them to send the right message.

Body posture

Even the way you position your body when speaking with or listening to someone can communicate a lot of information. Standing up or sitting up straight, with good posture (not slouching or slumping) will indicate attention and alertness. Folding your arms is a tricky one, however, and not always the red flag of standoffishness it’s reported to be. It’s often read (or misread) as insecurity, discomfort, or a “closed off” stance that creates a barrier between people. But it can in fact also indicate intense concentration or that someone is in problem-solving mode or self-soothing. So a person may be crossing his or her arms while listening carefully to you. Context is everything, of course. If you’re unsure of how to position your arms when talking to someone, consider the classic Angela Merkel hand tent. It’s a strong, contemplative option that is more open than folded arms yet is still controlled or composed.1 Standing slightly to the side and leaning slightly toward the person you are talking with is a nice balance, too. The slight turn is seen as less intimidating, while leaning in (without crowding) shows interest. This is true for sitting, as well, as in a job interview or any workplace setting.

Hand gestures

Our hands can say just as much as our face and words. Some studies have analyzed TED Talks to determine how speakers’ hand gestures enhanced the meaning and content of their speeches. They found that the most powerful hand gestures are closer to the body or torso and certainly not motionless. Hand movements are best when they’re smooth, not robotic or jerky. Your hand gestures should also emphasize and match the words you’re saying. For example, while explaining a list of three points you could use your fingers to count one, two and three. Just be careful of cultural norms wherever you are using hand gestures. Something that means “great” in one culture could mean something offensive in another culture.

How to read body language

In the same way that it’s important to understand the effects of your own body language, the reverse is true. Being able to read and interpret the body language of others is an important part of workplace communication. Fortunately, understanding your own nonverbal communication style can raise your awareness of how others project using their body language too. For instance — as previously discussed — if someone crosses his arms, don’t rush to judgment. Check his facial expressions and stance to help determine whether he’s perhaps anxious, concentrating on your words, or in disagreement. If somebody’s leaning in, she’s likely quite interested in what you have to say. But if she’s leaning away, she may feel as if you’re infringing on her personal space. Reading body language isn't just focusing on one thing, it's taking in the entire picture. For a better idea of how to read body language, we share this video for Wired, presented by Joe Navarro. The former FBI agent specialized in reading facial expressions and body language in his profession as a spy catcher.

Do a self-assessment to improve your nonverbal cues

Always practice active listening, which includes silencing your phone, and fully focusing on the person speaking in any situation.

It can be hard to change your body language habits. It’s even harder when you don’t know where to start. Ask a few trusted coworkers to evaluate your physical communication style. Or have them secretly video-record you for visuals of what you can change or enhance in your personal communication style. Always practice active listening, which includes silencing your phone, and fully focusing on the person speaking in any situation. This not only improves your work relationships but your personal relationships as well. In addition, look for positive role models who exude confidence and personability. Our FBI friend also posted this video about confident body language that might be a resource for what to emulate. A little longer than 14 minutes, it has a lot of relevant insights about projecting a confident body language style — which is critical in the business world.

It’s not just your brain, it’s your body language

Our gestures, facial expressions and posture all speak for us, whether or not they are in sync with our words. TriNet is here for business leaders and HR professionals seeking more about how to help their teams communicate more effectively. Reach out to us for assistance with improving business operations, internal comms, and much more.

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