Instructions On How To Read Body Language
Updated January 02, 2019
Reviewer Audrey Kelly, LMFT
Communication is how we as humans are understood, but not everyone communicates the same. Some people are verbal communicators, and they can express their thoughts, feelings, opinions, and such without much qualm while others struggle to communicate verbally. Almost everyone, however, uses body language. Back when humans couldn't speak we communicated very differently, and part of that was to use gestures and actions to communicate with each other, today we still use those gestures, but they're secondary for people who are effective communicators. If you're wondering about body language, then it's probable that you're dealing with someone who isn't an effective communicator.
A great example of this is when an interview you think was going well turns out to have gone poorly. Perhaps the person's words sounded positive enough, but unless you interpreted their body language as well, it's likely you misread them. Frequently looking out the window, avoiding eye contact, even crossing their arms are all signs that no matter what they're saying it's likely things aren't going well. So how can you read body language when it's often so conflicting?
Look At Context
The first thing to notice someone's body language is the context. How someone is sitting or standing will show you their level of comfort. Comfort is the key to body language because the more comfortable someone is, the easier they will communicate. If they are stressed, for example, because they're lying, their body will be fidgety and in discomfort because they are not mentally comfortable. Similarly, if you saw someone being uncomfortable in a doctors office, you would likely dismiss it because the obvious answer would be that they simply don't like doctors. Body language isn't a perfect way of reading someone without context to give you clues about what is going on in that person's mind.
Start With The Head
Facial expressions are one of the most important parts of telling if someone's words and their true feelings are not aligned. When we are children, we are trained to copy certain facial expressions to express different emotions, but even when we do that we can rarely copy exactly the expression a "real" emotion would display. The eyes especially are very emotive and will likely be the giveaway that a smile isn't real because normally our entire countenance turns up to match.
Some people deal with a condition called facial blindness. This means they struggle to identify people's faces or even recognize them but they can also struggle to determine emotions through facial expressions. It can be quite stressful. Additionally, a condition called Alexithymia means that you struggle to differentiate between different emotions.
If you find that part of your issue with body language is that you're not able to properly identify someone's feelings when they're showing them you may want to contact a psychologist and have yourself evaluated so that they can work with you to correct the condition. While Alexithymia is quite rare, it is often found in conjunction with other mental health conditions. Sites like BetterHelp give you a range of therapists so finding one who specializes in emotional disorders is quite easy.
There is a whole book worth of body language signal just from the head alone. For example, looking directly into someone's eyes can imply truth while avoiding their gaze is often a sign of lying or discomfort. If someone's expression is uncomfortable, it's probably because they're not, even if they say otherwise it's usually given away by their eyes. Pay attention to their ability to maintain or make eye contact and whether they are looking down. If someone keeps looking down, they are displaying a submissive behavior which means your own could be too aggressive.
One thing you cannot fake with body language is pupil dilation. When we are stressed our pupils naturally dilate as part of the stress response, they will also blink more which can be an indication of lying. Glancing at an exit may also imply they're looking to leave or that they are uncomfortable and want to get away from you. There have also been some studies that show when a person looks upwards and to the right, they are more likely to be lying because the right side of the brain relates to imagination and creativity while the left side is more factual so looking to the left implies truth.
In difficult situations, we tend to cross our arms or adopt defensive poses with our body language. This can be tense muscles, turning bodily away from a person, but especially crossing the arms in front of the body. By doing this, we physically place our arms between us and the thing (or person) causing the discomfort. Many people "talk" with their hands and these gestures imply that they are engaged with the other person, when we hold them in we're actively suppressing that engagement.
Think about the last time you got excited or animated about something. Your arms were in motion, possibly raised, but likely moving. When a person feels good their arms act accordingly - they swing when you're walking, they use open gestures and generally are held away from the body. When someone is feeling bad, their arms will either hang down at their sides as if their weight is pulling them bodily down. This subconscious action has a lot to do with the "weight" of emotions on a person so by looking at the amount of motion, and the direction that someone's arms are moving in you can usually tell if they're feeling bad.
Hands can also have their own "code" for certain situations. Military teams, sports teams, and many quiet environments rely on hand signals and body language to convey messages. While this is slightly different than what most people expect from body language it is still part of effective communication. No one knows this better than the deaf, for them the hands and facial expressions are key to establishing communication and understanding.
If you've ever heard the expression that someone has an honest face, you might mistakenly believe that the face is the biggest giveaway when it comes to honesty but it's the legs. Most people don't pay much attention to their legs or feet. While they may smile or gesture appropriately, it's hard for the brain to focus so much on a "lie," so the feet and lower body are often forgotten. Because a situation is uncomfortable, our subconscious prepares us for "fight or flight" to get away from it, and our lower extremities are a dead giveaway about how we feel about a person.
If you're speaking normally your toes, tend to point towards the person you're talking to, when you're ready to leave, one foot will start to point away. Similarly, when you're sitting talking with someone you may cross your legs away from them if you're uncomfortable or don't like the conversation. The opposite is true if someone is standing. Crossing the legs implies they want to stay because it would hinder an "escape.
Quirks & Habits
The key to reading body language is to understand that while most of these cues are common everyone has their nuances within them. Someone may only feel comfortable crossing their legs to the left because of a bad knee for example, and this behavior on its own shouldn't be used to gauge their feelings. Often you don't need to do a deep analysis of their behaviors to understand what their body is saying, especially if the context is an obvious one.
In fact, when it comes to body language the most important advice is simply to trust your gut feelings. Since most body language is subconscious and relates back to our natural survival instincts, it's only natural that by going back to your instincts you'll be better able to understand it.
Other habits can relate to the person being skilled at reading body language themselves. If you've just started to talk with someone observe to see if they are mirroring your actions. When we mirror someone, we can make them feel more comfortable which means that they will open up. By mirroring they are giving away that they are reading to you and not the other way around.
There are lots of reasons why you'd want to be able to read body language, but it's not an exact science. If you're struggling to understand any type of communication then practicing those things or seeking help may be a good choice. While there aren't therapists to teach you body language if you're struggling to identify expressions and emotions you can fix that with the right specialists. Learning body language can help in many situations, but nothing beats simply asking someone what's going on when you're not sure about the communication they're putting across. Next time you're trying to analyze them, ask, and see if your thoughts are correct.