Most of us heard one or more of these lines from parents growing up:

“Don’t slouch,”
“Don’t cross your arms,”
“Stand up straight,”
“Look at me when you’re speaking.”

Body language is an essential part of our day to day interactions, but when it comes to recognizing or analyzing it, most of us are at a loss. A lot of body language is unconscious movements that can be out of our control. But, understanding the body language of people around you can help you read a room without uttering a word.

The study of body language is a field unto itself, but a few key signals can help boost your next introduction, presentation or even blind date.

If Someone’s Interested

During a meeting, date or presentation, it can be hard to tell if someone is actually paying attention to you. When it comes to communication skills, asking questions and following up with your responses is always a good sign. But, what about nonverbal cues?

Many think that maintaining eye contact is an indication of engagement, however, holding a gaze can often be a sign of lack of interest. Interactions like this often lead to the “glazed eye” expression, when a person is looking through you, rather than looking at you. Instead of holding your eye contact, an interested listener will have an easy eye movement pattern.

He or she won’t completely maintain eye contact, but rather, move the eyes around, following your hand movements, or observing the room in general. When it comes to gauging interest in the eyes, ask yourself, does the other party’s eye movement feel natural? That will tell you more than maintained eye contact ever could.

Body language will also show you how interested a person is in what you’re saying. Does the other person lean in, or make any movement towards you? Also, is the other person, or group, mirroring your stance or posture? If you’re speaking or presenting with ease, an interested party will reflect your casual position or posture. If you’re speaking authority, an engaged group will sit up straighter.

Even while you’re talking, the movement of the other party’s head should mimic that of a conversation. Subtle nods or head shakes, show that the other person is interacting with your words on a nonverbal level. A head nod, indicating a yes or no, is a good sign that your audience is both listening and processing what you’re saying.

If Someone’s Disengaged

As a society, we know that “looking interested” is important when it comes to communication skills. That means, even when we’re not listening, we think we can fake looking engaged. However, it’s pretty easy to pick up on this body language. When looking for disengaged body language, it typically comes down to doing too little or too much of something. 

As mentioned above, maintained eye contact can often indicate someone isn’t listening. With that comes the glazed over expression. Similarly, avoiding eye contact at all, or showing interest outside of your immediate space is an indication someone isn't listening.

When someone’s not listening, body movement tends to go two ways: still or fidgety. If someone is sitting completely still, you've probably been tuned out. On the other hand, if the other party is fidgeting or always moving, chances are he or she isn’t hearing a word you’re saying.

In addition to body movement, body positioning is key to understanding engagement. If your audience is all crossed arms, or are facing even slightly away from you, you likely don’t have their full attention.

If Someone is Nervous

Being able to pick up on the nerves of your audience is an essential tool. If you can spot anxiety, you can help put it at ease.

Total lack of eye contact and fidgeting are clear indicators of nervousness. Pay attention to where your audience is fidgeting. Are they touching their faces? Picking at a nail? Chances are, they succumb to a nervous tic or habit.

Reading body movement can also help indicate anxiety. Has your date closed off his or her body to you? Are the arms crossed? These movements most often suggest nerves. The crossing of the arms or hunching of the back ensures taking up as little space as possible. If you witness these behaviors in an audience, they are likely nervous.

If You Should Think Twice About Somebody

At our most unconscious level, we use communication skills to detect who we can trust. If you’re feeling uneasy or uncomfortable on a date or in a meeting, it could be connected to untrustworthy body language.

As a caveat, these tips might not indicate untrustworthiness, but they are signs that the other party might be defensive, or more likely to be dishonest with you. 

Keep an eye out for movement away from you. If someone leans back or takes a step backward while explaining decision making, it indicates the reasoning can’t be stood by regarding his or her decision. It’s literally backing away from an idea or choice.

Also, pay attention to smiles. As a society, we’re pretty good at picking up on a “real” smile. If your audience is flashing a closed mouth smile, chances are they aren’t agreeing with you, or don’t feel the same way. You could be putting them on the defensive.

Finally, body positioning can be a good tool to indicate the level of trust. If you’re in a group conversation and someone steps between you the rest of the crowd, it could be a sign he or she is defensive of you.

Again, the study of body language is vast, and in some aspects still unknown. Bottom line? Let your gut be your guide. You subconsciously pick up movements and actions, trust yourself in social situations or the conference room.

Looking for extra communication skills training to understand those subtle body language cues? Work with one of Ace-up's Communication Coaches today and boost your skills. Each coach offers a free consultation with no strings attached, so there's nothing to lose.

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