The Power of Body Language: Nine Signals You Absolutely Need to Know
Understanding these positions, poses, and gestures can help you better understand those around you—from your colleagues to your spouse.
There are three things to consider when you're attempting to interpret someone's body language signals: First, note what are they doing; second, understand what's going on with them; third, be honest about what's going on with you. "Most people read [body language] the wrong way; they assume it's about them," says Patti Wood, an internationally recognized nonverbal communication and human behavior expert (and author of two books on body language). "I compare what I see in a person to a baseline—what I generally know a normal person would do in that situation." Ultimately, there's a deeper read, says Wood, when you analyze what's normal for that person versus how they're acting now.
It's easiest to understand and interpret the body language of those we know best; in fact, we're near body-language experts with our closest friends and family members, since we have a grip on those baseline behaviors. "One of the things I say to parents, people in relationships, and business leaders is that [in order] to best read people, you need to spend time with them. The more time you spend with them, the more you know what their normal is—and then you can identify those leaps from normal," explains Wood. But what do some of those leaps look like? Read on for some common body language signals Wood has identified within all of your relationships, both personal and professional, so you can, too.
Your Romantic Partner: New Habit
With spouses, a change in long-standing habits can be significant—but it's the change that's important (not the actual habit). Wood offers sleep proclivities as an example: "Staying up to watch another episode when they normally come to bed with you, or going straight to bed when they normally stay up could be equally significant." Remember, it's not the habit itself— it's the deviation from the norm to which you need to pay attention.
Your Romantic Partner: Less Time
"Time to me is a really profound nonverbal communicator," says Wood. "One thing that happens a lot with infidelity is they change the amount of time [they typically spend with you]—how long they listen, how long they'll stay and eat a meal with you, they become frequently late. They're withholding time from you because it's hard to uphold the lie."
Your Romantic Partner: Less Touch
Touch changes—but not always in the way you'd expect, says Wood. "Touch can increase dramatically, but all of a sudden, they might arch the center of their body away when they hug, or the kissing might decrease or abbreviate, or there may be less eye contact." In general, says Wood, "When you love somebody, you linger."
Your Children: Entrances and Exits
All parents of young children have asked, "What happened at school today?" and seen that their little ones are keeping something inside. "Younger kids under five have facial expressions that are usually incredibly revealing," notes Wood. "Look at the entrances and exits of the face—the eyes, nose, and mouth. They'll tense in the lips and nose or close their eyes. When you ask anyone a question, if those areas tighten and close down, it may be a momentary cue, but there's something inside that they're blocking from coming out." Our intuition sees that tightening, but when the person says that they're fine, we often take the words as true. Wood recommends trusting the nonverbal message and responding with curiosity. "Moms want to move through the stress and get to the other side of it. But when you think something's not being said, try offering something like, 'What's something that can make school difficult?' or 'What could make school better, or more fun, or easier?' It's not directly about them, and it's away from them, so they can answer that. You can even ask your child to think about it and tell you later if they're having trouble talking in that moment."
Your Children: Blocking Cues
For older kids and teenagers, some isolation and pulling away is normal, so Wood recommends building rituals to preserve that familiarity with their baseline mannerisms, like a 10-minute walk side-by-side after dinner every night. If you do have to have a more confrontational conversation with your teen, look for blocking cues, like closed arms, crossed legs, or hands over their mouths (this is a sign that they may not be telling the truth). "The mouth is the window to the truth, so if they press their lips together before they respond, or tense and tighten, they're withholding something. That's something people are unaware of; people will twist their lips almost to hold back the words," explains Wood.
Another key area to watch? "Look at the palms of the hands—it's very difficult to lie with your palms exposed." If your teen makes any of the aforementioned gestures, refrain from calling out the specific behavior. "Don't say, 'You're crossing your arms, what's going on with you?' That always makes them shut down completely," she cautions.
Your Children: Up Versus Down
"One of the things you're always reading in your kids is whether they're down or up," says Wood. "As a parent, that's really critical to read. If they have a bad day and they're down, that's one thing, but if they're down, down, down, that's a problem; if it lingers, it's depression. Up is confidence and joy." You're probably already noticing this subconsciously, but it's integral to bring it to the forefront—don't ignore it.
Your Colleagues: Open Versus Closed
Ready to ask for that big raise or have an important discussion with your boss? Look for open body language—your manager will have relaxed shoulders or lean back in a leisurely way—as opposed to closed body language, says Wood. But don't wait too long: "I find that people delay having those kinds of conversations because they're looking for an opening. Each point of delay makes it harder and tends to escalate the problem," she notes.
Your Colleagues: Foot Signals
Wondering if your CEO is really as calm, cool, and collected about those "staffing changes" as their speech suggests? Wood says to watch their feet. "Our feet communicate exactly what we think and feel more honestly than another part of our bodies. Generally, people are focused on controlling their facial expressions and torsos and upper body while communicating, but the feet are vital to us responding to danger and stress; we need them to freeze, flee, fight, fall," says Wood. If your boss is standing with his feet wide apart in fight mode, or pointing her feet out the door as she's taking questions, there might be a bigger issue at play.
Your Colleagues: Power Stance
Body language is also a tool you can harness for yourself to project authority in the workplace. Wood says that the typical foot position for American women when standing is about four inches apart, so she suggests wearing comfortable shoes with a minimal heel to maintain a broader stance—and appear bigger and stronger: "Make sure your shoes don't make you wobble or walk in small steps. Have a strong stance—think Wonder Woman—when you're presenting. Take up some space."
In your everyday rush of meetings, be prepared so you can project power from the moment you walk in. "When women sit down, they usually make over 16 separate movements. Men make three!" says Wood. "It makes them look much more together and organized. Think about your adjusting behaviors and keep them clean and minimal. Research says that women perch, sitting on the edge of their seats, arching their backs, while men tend to slouch, relying more on the backrest. Sit back in the chair, use lots of space, and put your arms on the armrest to look confident."