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20 Handy Tips To Read & Understand Others From Their Body Language

Last updated 10/25/2021 by

Pamela Britton-Baer
Have you wondered what the person across from you is thinking? Believe it or not, if you’re smart enough, you can to read body language like you read a book. Taking the time to learn these skills could be invaluable when it comes to that big interview, or an important business transaction, or when negotiating a deal.
We’ve compiled twenty non-verbal cues to help you read what the lips aren’t saying.

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1. Pay attention to the handshake

In The Definitive Guide to Body Language, authors Allan and Barbara Pease state “the power is in the hands.” Researchers agree that the way a person shakes your hand can tell you a lot about them. If their palm is facing upward, they are being submissive. If their palm meets yours at ninety degree, you’re meeting as equals. If you’re greeted with a “bone crusher” handshake, it’s a sign of aggression. “Many of our social interactions may go wrong for one reason or another,” said researcher Sandra Dolcos, “and a simple handshake preceding them can give us a boost and attenuate the negative impact of possible misunderstandings.” (Beckman Institute)

2. Crossed arms can be a sign of insecurity

Most people know that both arms crossed in front of a person is a sign of defensiveness or insecurity, but did you know a single arm across a person’s body can mean the same thing? Someone who reaches across their body and clasps their elbow seeks to create a barrier in front of themselves. Likewise, someone holding a coffee mug with both hands is doing the same thing.

3. Your hair color matters

In a study done by Scandinavian researchers, a woman changed her hair color to red, blonde and brunette and then sat in a nightclub. Men were later polled and asked to give their impression of her. When she had brunette-colored hair she was deemed “more physically attractive, intelligent, approachable, competent, and arrogant. As a blonde she was called “needy.” So while blondes might have more fun, beware of platinum-colored locks. (Scandinavian Journal of Psychology)

4. Watch the hand movements

Is your boss’s head resting in his hand? That’s a sign of boredom. Is he rubbing his hands together? That a signal of anticipation. Is she standing there, hands clasped behind her back? That’s a sign of anger, frustration or apprehension. All this according to What You Didn’t Say Speaks Volumes, an article published in the Michigan Bar Journal. The author, Cynthia Marie-Martinovich Lardner, compiled a list of common gestures and what they mean for her fellow attorneys to use when evaluating the guilt or innocence of a client.

5. The true signs of a liar

If you have children, take note. According to the same article above, touching one’s face, placing a hand over a mouth, pulling on an ear, looking down, and merely glancing at the questioner instead of a direct stare are all indicative of lying. A number of scientists have also made the connection between left (logic) brain and right (creative) brain eye movement. When a person is lying they are more apt to glance to the right as they access that “creative” side. The actual position of the eyes can reveal much more than that, so read “How to Tell if Someone is Lying” for more clues.

6. Nod three times if you agree

In The Definitive Guide to Body Language, the Peases’ have labeled the head nod as a powerful persuasive tool. Specifically, they recommend you nod in a cluster of threes. This will encourage your business partner to talk more. Additionally, the speed of a nod signals patience or impatience. Fast nodding for when you’ve heard enough. Slow nods for when you’re interested. You should also be aware that when someone stares at your with their head down, it’s a sign of disapproval. Tilting the head to the side is a submission signal because, “It exposes the throat.”

7. Cross your legs, not your ankles

Just like the arms, the legs being crossed or uncrossed signals dominance or submissiveness, respectively. But if a person’s ankles are crossed, it might mean their thoughts aren’t very pleasant. Ladies, if a man is standing in front of you, feet splayed, he’s showing interest in you of the romantic variety.

8. Pose like Superman

Be confident. Be bold. Face your adversaries with your shoulders thrust back ala Superman. Author Joe Navarro reveals that open shoulders say “look at me, I am a leader; follow me.” He also advises that people who answer a question with a subtle shoulder rise might be revealing uncertainty, and in some instances, that they aren’t being truthful. (Psychology Today)

9. Master the mirroring technique

Have you ever noticed that when you yawn, someone else will yawn, too? This is called mirroring and it’s a non-verbal way to say, “I am like you and I like you.” According to an article on Psychologia, “The research shows that people who experience the same emotions are likely to experience mutual trust, connection and understanding.” So next time you’re negotiating an important deal, try a smile. If it’s reciprocated, you’re on the right track.

10. Take an interest in the pupils

We’ve talked about lying and how it affects a person’s eyes, but there are other non-verbal cues indicated by the eyes. In an article published by Psychologist World, pupils will dilate when we’re interested in a topic. When we’re bored, they will contract. Also, it’s good to maintain eye contact, but an unblinking stare can put someone off thanks to latent primitive urges to equate and unblinking stare with a predator.

11. Are their feet pointed towards the door?

It’s amazing what people will do subconsciously. Studies show that people wanting to escape a room will often point a foot toward the door. Exit, stage left.

12. A hands-on presentation

The next time a co-worker gives a presentation watch them carefully. Research shows people state ideas they like with a palm held open, toward an audience. Conversely, a non-favored point of view is stated with the opposite hand as the one being held open, palm up. This can give you an important clue as to what someone is really thinking. Something else, f you don’t use hand gestures that can be perceived as indifference. Here’s a great list of hand gestures and what they might mean to you: Your Hand Gestures Are Speking For You.

13. Are your thumbs visible?

Do you like to display your thumbs when tucked in a pocket? Careful. You might be signaling that you think yourself superior to others.

14. A touch to the elbow grabs attention

Touching someone as you shake their hand can have a powerful effect. The authors of The Definitive Guide to Body Language site a study done by researchers at the University of Minnesota wherein a dime was left in a phone booth for people to pocket. When researchers approached those people with a simple handshake, only 23% of them admitted to taking the coin. Conversely, when test subjects were greeted with a handshake and a touch, that number climbed to 68%.
“Elbow and hand touching,” say the authors, “when done discreetly, grabs attention, reinforces a comment, underlines a concept, increases your influence over others, makes you more memorable and creates positive impressions on everyone.”

15. A Smile = Sincerity and Competence

You get more bees with honey, and a smile might mean that the person in front of you is sincere and competent. A person who doesn’t smile might be asserting a dominant role in the interaction. (The American Journal of Psychological Research)

16. You are where you sit at meetings

According to Dr. Sharon Livingston, you are where you sit. She found that people fell into one of seven personality types based on where they sit. Opposite the boss – argumentative and confrontational. To the left of the boss, you’re a “yes man.” Near the boss, you’re helpful and supportive.

17. Dress to fit in, not stand out

In an article on Lifehacker about dressing for success, wearing a formal business suit isn’t always the way to go. “Research shows that people who wear more daring outfits are perceived as more attractive and individualistic, which could be advantageous in more creative industries,” says the author. The article suggests that dressing to “fit in” can be beneficial and less off-putting than if you show up in a business suit.

18. Long wait times can be a power play

When someone makes you wait it’s often times an obvious power play. Try to look busy and pull out some paperwork. If you’re at a job interview, jot down notes on a pad of paper. The subliminal message you’re trying to convey is that you’re busy, too, but that you’re not inconvenienced by their power play.

19. Where’s my 3 feet?

Personal space isn’t just a figment of your imagination. Anything within the range of four feet is called the “social zone.” If you start invading that space, you risk upsetting and even irritating the person you’re speaking to, or giving off the wrong message.

20. Watch where you lean

Studies show that when you lean on someone’s possessions, such as their office doorway, people intuitively interpret that as a sign of dominance or intimidation. And for goodness sake – don’t sit in someone’s office chair! That’s like rifling through someone’s wallet – a decided no-no.
Whether you’re sitting across from your boss, a business partner or your better half, the above tips can be invaluable cues as to what someone is thinking. Don’t be bamboozled by lip service. Read between the lines – and improve your body language IQ.
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Pamela Britton-Baer

Pamela is the author of thirty-eight romance novels with more coming out every year. She's best known for her NASCAR romance novels, but writes non-fiction, too. Pamela's a regular columnist for the American Quarter Horse "Journal" and writes for where she shares her personal finance tips on how to thrive in this economy.

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