Instructions On How To Read Body Language

Updated March 1, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Learning To Boost Your Communication Skills Can Be Tricky

Communication is one of the main tools we as humans have to understand each, but not everyone utilizes it the same way. Almost everyone, however, can use body language. Long before our ancient ancestors had the means to use complex language to express themselves, the ability to use gestures and actions to communicate with others would have been crucial. Learning to interpret body language can therefore help you connect with others without saying a word, at least as long as you have the right information to guide you.

Look At Context

A key part of understanding someone's body language is oftentimes its context. Someone fidgeting and wringing their hands at a family gathering, for instance, may be experiencing something very different than someone fidgeting before a major presentation. Even when you’re familiar with what a behavior itself may indicate–feeling nervous, for instance–it can be helpful to understand where it may stem from.

Start With The Head

Facial expressions can be one of the most important parts of telling if someone's words and their true feelings align. Even those born blind can make use of facial expressions like smiles and frowns to communicate their emotions; this suggests that at least some level of body language may be inherent to human behavior rather than learned. 

When you’re trying to gauge how someone feels, there may be no better place to turn than their face. Pay attention to their mouth, eyes, and eyebrows to look for signs of happiness, stress, fear, anger, etc. Even if you generally have a hard time interpreting facial expressions and other bodily cues, manually teaching yourself to make and understand observations can still be possible. You may know, for instance, that things like full cheeks, upturned corners of the lips, and crinkly eyes can indicate happiness, so learning to look for these things even if you wouldn’t spot them on your own may still be within your control.

Seeing Eyes

It’s often said that they eyes are the “window to the soul,” and for good reason. Eye contact can help us gauge how someone feels, how sincere they are, and whether they’re interested in us or what we have to say. Making eye contact can boost the connection you feel with others, convey a sense of safety, and help you identify when your own communication may be too aggressive or otherwise outside of what you’d like it to be.

One thing you cannot fake with body language is pupil dilation. When we are stressed, our pupils can naturally dilate as part of the body’s stress response; we may also blink more frequently for the same reason. In this way, the eyes may be a clue about a person’s true thoughts or feelings that’s not susceptible to manipulation.

Crossed Arms

In difficult situations, we tend to cross our arms or adopt defensive poses with our body language. This can include things like tense muscles, turning away from others, and crossing the arms in front of the body. By doing this, we can physically place our arms between us and the thing (or person) causing the discomfort. 

Likewise, hands on the waist or hips may indicate that a person feels uneasy or defensive, especially if other cues (such as furrowed brows, pursed lips, etc.) are present in conjunction. 

Honest Legs

Most people don't pay much attention to their legs or feet, especially when communicating with others. Our subconscious mind can prepare us to react to a situation as it happens either by allowing us to grow closer to or distance ourselves from another person. When a situation is uncomfortable, for instance, our subconscious may prepare us for "fight or flight" to get away from it.

If you're speaking to someone you like about something that makes you happy, you may notice your toes tend to point toward the person you're talking to. In contrast, when you're ready to leave, one or both of your feet may start to point away. Similarly, when you're sitting and talking with someone you may cross your legs away from them if you're uncomfortable or don't like the conversation. 

Quirks & Habits

The key to reading body language may be to understand that while most of these cues are common, every person’s individual body language can be nuanced. 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 necessarily be used to gauge their feelings. 

When it comes to body language and interpreting its meaning, it can sometimes be more productive to focus on learning to simply trust your gut feelings rather than try to determine the precise meaning behind an observation. If you feel that someone seems uneasy, uncomfortable, stressed, angry, or otherwise in a place where communication might be tricky, it’s oftentimes helpful to respond accordingly; even if you’re wrong, taking steps to help others feel more at-ease is rarely a bad thing.

For some people, the “gut instinct” that often guides human body language isn’t always enough to serve as a guide. Having a hard time reading bodily cues and understanding how they function as a form of communication can be a sign of many mental health disorders, and it can also stem from a simple lack of healthy communication throughout life. 

When that’s the case, it may be beneficial to find ways to directly ask others how they feel, what they’re thinking, or how you can best support them. Instead of trying to use what you notice to construct assumptions about someone’s true intentions, being open and starting a conversation may help you save yourself a lot of undue stress. 

How To Learn More About Reading Body Language

There are lots of reasons why you'd want to be able to read body language, but it's not an exact science; that means that relying on general trends in body language as a guide for communicating with others can lead you to misunderstand what others are truly thinking or feeling. Likewise, body language doesn’t have to be something you respond to yourself – it can simply act as another form of input that helps you navigate the best way to respond. Regardless of how you feel about your skills related to body language interpretation, there are ways to potentially boost your ability to use and understand them as needed. One great option may be to speak with a licensed mental health professional, like a therapist. 

Resources like online therapy can make it especially easy to connect with someone who understands your needs and goals. Because you’ll only need an internet connection and a non-public place to talk to join sessions, you can fit online therapy into your schedule at a time and from a location that makes sense for you. 

Even if you’re not living with a mental health disorder that may impact the way you communicate, there can be legitimate challenges to overcome when working on these sorts of skills. Fortunately, online therapy can act as a more accessible option to get started. 


Learning body language can help you connect with others, understand their needs, and grow more familiar with the ways they communicate. Even though it may be largely subconscious and beyond our control, there are ways to deliberately change the way you understand and use body language to further your goals both now and into the future.

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