Body language: Tips to understand, read and utilise it – to lead effectively

Joe Wedgwood | 13th February 2017

Learning about body language is a vital step for any business leader. Through assertive and open body language, the delegation of duties will become easier. This is because your gestures and mannerisms will be in sync with your words – contributing context and power.

The effective use of positive body language can boost team morale, encourage interactions and create a positive working environment. Let’s examine how you can understand, read and utilise body language to become a more effective communicator and improve business.

Understanding body language

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The use of body language plays a key role in effective communication and leadership – which will help you create success.

It relates to the unspoken cues we knowingly or unknowingly use to communicate. Our mannerisms, expressions and posture can all give away more than the words we speak.

Research undertaken by UCLA suggests that only 7 percent of communication involves actual words. Whereas 55 percent of communication is visual (body language, eye contact) and 38 percent is vocal (pitch, speed, volume, tone of voice).

Your people may not always voice their concerns with you, but that doesn’t mean they are happy. They may be telling you what they really think with their body language. Have you noticed anyone avoiding eye contact, clenching their fists or blinking rapidly? These are all indicators that something isn’t right.

It is important to observe body language through every form of workplace communication. During appraisals, interviews and board meetings you should carefully observe body language to understand what everyone is feeling, as well as what they are (verbally) saying.

Body language not only changes how others view us, but it can also change how we view ourselves. This is evidenced by Columbia and Harvard Business Schools who examined whether our posture influences our behaviour. They concluded that by adopting a wide, open stance with arms and legs stretched – or by leaning back and putting our feet up on the desk for a few minutes we will stimulate higher levels of testosterone, which will boost confidence and make us more dominant. It will also lower levels of the hormone cortisol, which is linked with stress. They refer to these stances as “power poses.”

The study also revealed that people are influenced by their feelings towards you, more than your words. By understanding the power of body language you will be in a stronger position to effectively lead your people.

Reading body language 

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To fully understand what your people are (or are not) saying – it is important to read their body language. Here are some key signals to look out for:

Eye Contact:

This is the most important of all. Our eyes play a vital role in any human interaction. What we do with our eyes can affect and dominate an entire interaction. Someone may be speaking sincerely and genuinely, but if they won’t look at you or keep glancing away then it could be an indicator that they are nervous, submissive or even lying.

When someone makes strong eye contact, they are asserting confidence and self-belief in themselves and backing up their words.

Leaning, nodding and smiling:

When we like someone, or agree with what they are saying we want to get closer. The basic principle is that the closer you get the more interested you are – within reason! When someone leans forward and throws in some nods and smiles at key intervals – you can be certain that they agree with you and want you to know about it.

Nodding and smiling are the most effective nonverbal ways to let someone now you agree with them. However, they are also the simplest ways to deceive someone to fake agreement.


The rate in which we blink is essentially a signpost which indicates how someone is feeling. When we are engaged, we will not blink very often. Playing video games is a prime example of this. Next time you watch someone gaming, pay attention to their eyes – you will notice that they rarely blink.

When we are disinterested, our rate of blinking will significantly increase. This conveys boredom.


This is an effective technique used to instantly build rapport with others. It shows that we are on the” same page” as the speaker and we are buying into everything that is being communicated.

If someone has very open body language and the other person has the inverse – the closed person is demonstrating submissiveness, which indicates discomfort or fear. By mirroring the other person, they will boost their own status and add more depth and meaning to their words. Even if they are nervous or intimated.

Hands in pockets:

When we put our hands in our pockets it indicates that we are hiding something. This is because our hands are one of the key components of body language. They empathise meaning and indicate our true feelings.

When we use our hands as communicative aids, we add more depth to our words. It projects openness and confidence.

Negative Body Language

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Negative body language can speak volumes about what a person truly feels. It is key is to watch for the misalignment between what someone verbally says and what their body language is saying.

Let’s examine some key examples of negative body language:

Weak handshakes:

We’ve all had the displeasure of experiencing a limp handshake. What you may not be aware of is this signals a lack of authority and confidence. This is a key indicator of submissiveness and compliance. However, a handshake that is too firm can be perceived as an aggressive display of dominance and disobedience.

These are poor traits for business leaders or aspiring workers who want to be promoted into positions of power.

Clenched jaws and fists:

This is an indicator of stress, discomfort and aggressiveness. The individual may be speaking positively, but clenching and tightening are tell-tale signs that the individual feels the inverse.

The conversation might be invoking feelings of anger or fear, or their mind might be stuck on something negative and they’re barely listening to you.

Hands on hips:

This is one we can all relate to. Placing hands on hips is a key indicator that someone is running out of patience. They are often angry and irritated too. If one of your people adopts this stance when talking to you, then it is likely they strongly disagree with you and they’re frustrated with your answers or lack of understanding.

Crossed arms and legs:

Crossing limbs to shield your body signals that you’re being defensive. It is also sometimes an indicator that you are not open to hear other opinions. If you notice one of your people crossing their limbs, then they may be intimidated by you and are making efforts to comfort themselves. Think of it as a self-hug.

Exaggerated nodding:

This indicates anxiety and doubt about approval. When you’re speaking to someone and they nod continuously and obviously throughout, this usually means they are worried about your approval and belief in them. It is a way to prove to you that they agree and they are up to the task.


Finally, it is essential to look out for irregularities and conflicts between words and body language. The slightest facial expression or twitch can signal that something isn’t right and you aren’t being told the whole story.

This doesn’t mean you should cross-examine your people and doubt everything they say – but being able to read and spot negative body language will certainly make you a better communicator.

Utilising your own body language for effective leadership

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Emotional intelligence experts TalentSmart tested over a million people and discovered that 90 percent of top performers had something in common. They were all high in emotional intelligence. This means they are aware of the power of nonverbal signals and they are skilled at monitoring their own body language.

What sort of message would it convey to your people if you delivered a powerful speech with hunched shoulders and a shaky hand? Here are some tips to boost your emotional intelligence and use body language to your advantage:

Shoulders back, head up:

We’ve all witnessed someone walk into a room like they own it. We can’t take our eyes off them and we instantly assume they are important. Well, that is largely due to their body language. Our brains naturally liken power and authority to the amount of room people take up. This is why confident people have wide stances and the unconfident use up very little space.

If you stand up straight, pull back your shoulders and stand in wide and confident stance, you will demand authority when you enter any room. Maintaining one of these power poses will command respect from your people. Thus, improving the concentration and engagement of your audience.

Listen up:

If you want to be an effective communicator and encourage your people to come to you, then you must provide your undivided attention during interactions. This means holding eye contact, not looking around the room, angling your body towards them and reacting to what they say.

Show you’re engaged by nodding, leaning forward and mirroring their body language to make them feel more comfortable. There is a big difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is involuntary, whereas listening is a conscious decision.

If you want to encourage repeat discussion and make people feel comfortable with approaching you – then you must ensure they know you’re listening.

Monitor mannerisms:

When we’re uncomfortable or stressed, we often project with some form of fidgeting. It is common to drum the desk, play with hair, bite nails, tap nervously etc. The problem is, when we do this we immediately rob our words of any real power and conviction.

It is vital to self-monitor. If you find yourself adopting any of these behaviours, take a deep breath, steady yourself and make amendments to project stillness and calm.


A genuine smile not only boosts your own wellbeing, but it does the same for the recipient too. In addition to reducing stress and improving moods, smiling can make everyone around you happier as well.

When we smile at someone, they will usually smile in return. This creates a knock-on effect that leads to them smiling at someone else… and so on. So, by actively smiling at your people daily, you can create a culture of happiness, trust and warmth. All with a simple smile.

Focusing on reading and utilising body language, will enable you to understand how your people are feeling and notice any irregularities between their words and mannerisms. This will make you a more effective communicator and leader.

When understood and used properly, body language is a key element for organisational success. It can help to influence and motivate your people, boost relationships, improve communications and ultimately drive all business forward.