Understanding Body Language and the Workplace

By Indeed Editorial Team

August 23, 2021

Effective communication skills in the workplace involve more than just speaking or writing well. Understanding nonverbal signals that humans use to convey feelings and thoughts is just as important. Interpreting body language accurately requires being observant, empathetic and self-aware. In this article, we define body language, discuss how it can be used and offer some examples of the impact it can have in the workplace.

What is body language?

The term body language refers to all non-verbal methods of communication. Non-verbals are any messages that people send without using words. Body language includes facial expressions, gestures, postures and other movement-based signals. Body language is typically combined with verbal messages to communicate clearly and effectively. In many situations, body language is one of the more crucial elements of communication. Some specific types of body language include:

  • Facial expressions like smiling, frowning or rolling your eyes

  • Hand gestures like waving, beckoning someone to come closer or counting on your fingers

  • Postures like slumping, sitting up straight or leaning away from someone

  • Other types of signals like shrugging, clapping or shaking someone’s hand

Body language in the workplace

Body language can communicate a variety of messages in the workplace. You use body language as both your private and public communication. Every time you have a conversation with a coworker, present in a meeting or introduce yourself to a customer, you are almost certainly using some kind of body language.

Body language can communicate several important messages during a workday. Importantly, body language conveys someone’s level of interest or focus. If someone makes eye contact with you, nods when you speak or leans toward you while you are talking, you likely have their full attention. If someone is leaning back in their chair, constantly looking away from you or fidgeting their fingers, they might be bored or distracted. Observing and interpreting these messages are beneficial if you need to gauge how an individual or a team responds to your ideas or suggestions.

Understanding body language in the workplace can affect the entire team’s productivity and relationships. If you can interpret body language accurately, you increase your skills as a professional communicator. While you work to improve your understanding of body language in the workplace, it is important to consider some key facts about body language.

First, context is a crucial part of interpreting body language. Certain actions can mean very different things depending on the person and the situation. Crossed arms can be a sign of frustration or discomfort. However, for some, they can also show confidence or a casual attitude. The more familiar you are with your employers, coworkers or clients, the more easily you will read their unique body language.

A benefit to understanding body language in the workplace is your ability to interpret messages that are not communicated out loud. Non-verbal messages can reinforce or contradict the words someone says. A co-worker might say “I agree with you completely” while subtly shaking their head. A client might say “I am really not interested” while leaning forward in their chair. These mixed messages are sometimes inconsequential, but they also have the attentional to give you some valuable insight into what another person is thinking.

Using body language well

There are several ways you can use body language to your advantage in the workplace. Your body language can influence the way others respond to you. It can also impact how they perceive you and your intentions. Being highly aware of your own body language can influence your productivity and reputation in your workplace. Body language has the potential to improve honesty, conflict resolution and the working relationship of a team. If you pursue proficiency in reading and interpreting body language, you can make yourself more valuable to your employer and coworkers.

How to understand body language

There are several steps you can take to improve your interpretation and use of body language. These steps include:

Be observant

The first step in understanding body language is to notice it. Improving your observation skills might be an easier task than you would think. You most likely are already interpreting body language every day without realizing it. Think about the friendliest employee you encounter in your workplace. Do they smile when you pass them in the hall? Do they maintain eye contact and nod when you talk to them? Their body language likely contributes to your perceiving them as friendly.

Improving your body language observation skills will involve increasing your mindfulness. Mindfulness, in regards to body language, means making a concentrated effort to take notice of other people and their actions. If you focus on familiarizing yourself with others’ normal standard of behavior, you have a better chance of interpreting their non-verbal communication correctly. Bouncing or shaking your leg under the table is typically a sign of nervousness or unease. However, if you observe that your employer always seems to shake their leg when they are excited or interested, you will be able to interpret that body language accurately.

Be empathetic

This step relates to our earlier discussion of considering body language within its proper context. One of the best ways to understand another’s body language is to attempt to understand their perspective. By considering someone’s personality or the specific details of their situation, you can get a better idea of what their body language might be communicating. For example, if you greet a coworker and they avoid eye contact, press their lips together and cross their arms, you might think they are angry or frustrated with you. However, if you are willing to empathize, you might realize that they are under a lot of stress because of an upcoming deadline. By considering their circumstances, you gain a clearer understanding of their body language and what it communicates.

Be self-aware

The third step in improving your body language communication skills is becoming more self-aware of your own non-verbal messages. You can be an expert at reading other people’s body language, but if you are not aware of your own, you may not be communicating at your full potential. Being self-aware of your body language involves noticing how you physically interact with others, being in control of your facial expressions and being intentional with your gestures. By practicing your non-verbal communication, you can cultivate in yourself an ability to show interest, engagement and professionalism using body language.

Body language is an important element of communication in the workplace. Improving your ability to read, understand and interpret body language will increase your communication competency. Using this guide and other resources, you can improve your use of non-verbal communication, which can affect your influence and productivity in the workplace. Body language proficiency can be an important asset to your on your journey to becoming an effective and valuable communicator.

Browse more articles