Disney and Pixar cartoons have always impressed me with how expressive they can make animal characters even without gifting them with speech. Add eyebrows and voila! Facial expressions can tell a whole story without a single word being spoken.
In the animal kingdom, body language – not just facial expressions but posture and non-verbal behavior included – is king. We are constantly giving off non-verbal cues, which is part of why managers tend to make up their mind in job interviews in under 10 minutes. It is also why you can watch TV on mute and probably still have a sense of what is happening.
Being aware of this non-verbal communication and taking the time to understanding even just the basics when it comes to body language in humans and what it all means can feel akin to mind-reading.
So how can you leverage this at work or during networking events?
Without having to read a whole book about it (though if you want to do that, I highly recommend this book), here are some things to look out for. Before you jump to overhasty conclusions however, remember that context is crucial – someone crossing their arms in a cold room may just be trying to conserve body heat, whereas the same gesture in the middle of a conversation is more likely to convey defensiveness or that the person is closed-minded about the topic at hand.
At a networking event or cocktail party, look at people’s feet. They will naturally point to whoever they find to be the most interesting person.
When you’re talking to a colleague, a potential investor, or even a journalist, is s/he leaning forward? If so, that’s a good sign and means they feel engaged by the conversation.
Taking it a step farther, someone with open arms (as opposed to someone with their arms crossed) will generally be open to the ideas you are sharing.
Another sign that someone respects you is that they may subconsciously mirror your behavior. This is a tricky one because it’s easy to over-interpret, but it’s an interesting element to look out for in group dynamics regardless.
And if you haven’t heard of power poses, fix that right away – they are easy and they work! (Amy Cuddy’s TED talk is a great way to learn about this.)
Other things to look out for.
As you can imagine, if leaning forward is good, leaning back in their chair may be a sign that the person sitting across from you or members of your audience are slightly disengaged or unconvinced by what you are saying.
Similarly, if someone you are talking to has their arms crossed and the room is not blasting with AC, they are probably on the defensive or disagree with what is being said. Quick tip: if you hand them something or ask them to pick up a pen you’ve dropped, the fact that they are physically uncrossing their arms will contribute to their mind opening too (crazy but true).
Body language can also betray subconscious thoughts, so if a colleague puts their hand or fingers in front of their mouth, they may be trying to hold back an opinion. That can either be an opportunity for you to ask them if they want to share any thoughts, or keep going and make a note to talk to them later.
In that same vein, if someone touches their face or their hair, it means they are subconsciously trying to reassure themselves and boost their self-confidence. It probably doesn’t work as well as striking a power pose, but it’s also much more discrete.
So… now what?
Like anything, your interpretations of body language may be a bit rough around the edges at first, but over time and with a bit of practice you can get a lot of insights into people’s thoughts and behaviors from understanding what subtle (and not-so-subtle) gestures might mean.
Keep practicing, and eventually you will learn to trust both your interpretation of body language and your instinct to know whether a presentation you are doing is grabbing people’s attention, which aspect of your pitch connected with investors and which ones made them doubt, and so much more.
Just be warned: reading body language is as much an art as a science, so don’t expect instant miracles or fool-proof conclusions. Instead, take it as one more tool to add to the arsenal of what makes you that much better at what you do.