Understanding body language

What’s the difference between a real and a fake smile? Why is it helpful to mirror body language? What are the signs that your counterpart isn’t feeling at ease with the way you communicate? Find the answers in our easily applicable article.

The CEO of a big company is speaking at a leadership conference. He’s a great speaker and the audience hangs on every word. Then, when he finishes, he crosses his arms in front of his chest and says: “I’m open for questions. Please ask me anything.” The audience that was so attentive is now struggling to come up with questions.

What happened - how could this behaviour have had such an impact?

Good communication is not all about words. Body language also plays a major role as an amazing 60% of our communication is nonverbal. No matter what words we use our body language gives us away. The curling of the lips, the raise of an eyebrow – those little gestures can reveal our true feelings. Sometimes we say one thing yet our body language says something different and we are sending a mixed message (like the CEO did).

As a manager, it’s helpful to develop awareness of the signs and signals of body language. This makes it easier to understand other people and communicate more effectively with them. Besides you become more aware of the messages you convey to others. As body language is mostly subconscious and unintentional it can even give you an advantage in negotiations or other important interactions when you are able to read the signals sent to you. 

So what might others be telling you through their body language and vice-versa?

1. Real smile or fake smile?

You have explained the new business strategy and some of your team members are smiling. That’s a good sign – showing at least  that you have some people’s buy-in? Unfortunately, that might not be true. People can smile out of politeness or to hide what  they are actually thinking and feeling. Smiling is also a learned behaviour and a cultural habit. So how can you make the difference  between a real smile and a fake one?  A real smile reaches your eyes showing wrinkles around their corners. This movement  around the eyes is extremely difficult to fake and tells you the truth.

 If it’s a fake smile then it might be an idea to address the other person directly asking for their feedback. Alternatively, you can also  try to convey your message better. By the way, research shows that most people instantly and unconsciously recognise the sincerity  of your smile by simply looking at the top half of your face. So don’t fake a smile!

2. Mirroring movements?

If you are in a meeting with someone and you notice that every time you cross or uncross your legs your partner does the same, then that’s actually a good sign. Mirroring body language is something we do unconsciously when we feel engaged with the other person. This technique is especially useful when you’re negotiating as people respond more favourably to people who show body postures and speech pattern similar to their own. So if you are in a sales pitch and your prospect subconsciously matches your body language it can be a sign of rapport.

If you want to establish a connection with a new person, mirror their posture, gestures and seating position. Mirroring team members’ facial expressions and body positions instantly communicates empathy (we often do it automatically). It signals that you understand the feelings of the people around you and that you take those feelings into account.

3. Making people anxious?

A team member is struggling with an important project and you have a project session scheduled. During the conversation you observe the following behaviour:

• Very few facial expressions
• Downcast eyes to avoid direct contact
• Hands and arms close to the body
• The body turned away from you

These are clear signs that the employee feels defensive and not at ease. In this case, you should change your approach. Ask open questions, rephrase your message and adopt a firm but not intimidating tone of voice so that the other person reacts more receptively. Also verify the way you sit; does your body posture show that you are open to provide support?

4. Showing resistance?

You have a cost issue with a supplier which needs to be fixed. During the negotiation their account manager remains with crossed arms signalling that they are closed off and not willing to accept your proposal. For their book “How to Read a Person Like a Book” Gerard Nierenberg and Henry Calero* videotaped more than 2,000 negotiations and not a single negotiation ended in an agreement when one of the parties involved had their arms crossed while negotiating.


If your intent in a negotiation is to say “no” then go ahead and cross your arms. You can also do this when you have indicated  your final number or a deal breaker item. But in other situations than negotiations it’s better to avoid this posture. No one wants  to talk to someone who has already made up their mind and isn’t open to exchange. So uncross your arms and be ready to listen  to others' points of view unless you want to show that you are not at all on the same wavelength.  

5. Boring presentation?

You hold a presentation and you want everyone to be attentive and fully engaged. However, after five minutes you already  notice that people slump in their chairs, fidget with objects, scribble on paper and some even start talking. Your audience is  clearly bored.


In this case you should react. One possibility is to initiate a discussion and involve people actively. After that you continue with the key points of your presentation. If you know upfront that you are going to deal with an easily bored audience prepare your presentation in small units and try to engage people after each unit in some short activity.

If you want to find out more about what you are saying with your body language, videotape yourself having a conversation with someone. Ask yourself “what would I think about someone who looks, talks and acts as I do?” Then, adjust accordingly!

How to ensure a confident posture:

• Stand tall, don’t slouch. Otherwise you seem tired and lacking in energy.
• A relaxed smile creates a positive atmosphere. A frown makes you appear tense and standoffish.
• Make eye contact with everyone. Avoid looking at just one person.
• Do you scratch your nose, your ear or your eyes when speaking? Avoid hand movements like pointing fingers or rubbing hands. You will appear as being nervous and distracted.
• Steepling your hands is a sign of high confidence.
• Rubbing the chin or placing the hand under the chin with one or two fingers on the cheek is a sign of
   contemplation or evaluation.