Reading Body Language
And Five Nonverbal Signals
That Send Positive Messages
This is one of a series of occasional papers by The
Dilenschneider Group to bring clients and friends a
different perspective. We hope you ﬁnd it of interest.
FIVE Mistakes People Make
Reading Body Language
and FIVE Nonverbal Signals
that Send Positive Messages
Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.
ody language was the basis for our earliest form
of communication when the split-second ability
to recognize if a person or situation was benign or
dangerous was often a matter of life or death.
Today, nonverbal signals play a key role in helping
us form quick impressions. But, as innate as this ability may be, not all of our impressions are accurate. Although our brains are hardwired to respond instantly to certain nonverbal cues, that circuitry was put in place a long time ago – when our ancient ancestors faced threats and challenges very different from those we face in today’s modern society. The problem
is that the world has changed, but our body reading processes are still based on a primitive emotional reaction that hasn’t changed much since humans began interacting with one
For example: In our prehistory, it may have been vitally
important to see an approaching person’s hands in order to evaluate his intent. If hands were concealed they could very well be holding a rock, a club, or other means of doing us
harm. In business interactions today, with no logical reason to do so, we still instinctively mistrust someone who keeps his hands out of sight -- in his pockets, below the table, or behind his back.
Your nonverbal signals don’t always convey what you intended them to. The following is adapted from my new book, “The
Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help
– or Hurt – How You Lead.” Here are the ﬁve mistakes people make when they read body language – and ﬁve nonverbal
signals that almost always send the “right” message.
They won’t consider the context.
When it comes to body language, context is king. You
can’t really make sense of someone’s nonverbal message
unless you understand the circumstances behind it. Context is a weave of variables including location, relationships, time of day, past experience, and even room temperature. Depending
on the context, the same nonverbal signals can take on totally different meanings.
Your team members and colleagues won’t always have access
to this insight. So if you yawn in a staff meeting because you were up early for an international business call – let people know why you’re tired. Without this context, you’ll look like you’re just bored.
They’ll ﬁnd meaning in one gesture.
People are constantly trying to evaluate your state
of mind by monitoring your body language. But all
too often they will assign meaning to a single (and sometimes irrelevant) nonverbal cue. And, since the human brain pays
more attention to negative messages than it does to positive ones, people are mainly on the alert for any sign that indicates you’re in a bad mood and not to be approached.
So – you may be more comfortable standing with your arms
folded across your chest (or you may be cold), but don’t be surprised when others judge that gesture as resistant and
They won’t know your baseline.
One of the keys to accurately reading body language
is to compare someone’s current nonverbal response
to their baseline, or normal behavior. But if people haven’t observed you over time, they have little basis for that
Remember this when meeting people for the ﬁrst time.
They won’t know that you habitually frown when you are
concentrating. (And you may not realize it either unless you ask a friend or coach for feedback.) Others will most likely think the frown is a reaction to something they said or did.
They’ll evaluate you through an array