Understanding Business Body Language – Hints & Tips

Most of us go about our day to day lives without giving much thought to the way we communicate. However in business it’s as much about how we present when we communicate, as it is about the message. Understanding and implementing good business body language can help relations with clients and coworkers.

close up of office workers hand body language in a meeting

Understanding Body Language

Politicians are a very good example in the study of body language.

Every day, journalists scrutinise not only their every word but their facial and bodily expressions as well. They then try to analyse if they’re not telling the truth, or if they’re trying to conceal certain issues.

In business too, your body language says far more about you than the words will ever do. Studies have estimated that as much as 55% of communication is based on what people see rather than hear.

So, let’s take a look at some of the most common aspects of business body language, and what it says about us.


Eyes & Eye Contact

Making eye contact is the most obvious way to demonstrate that you are listening to somebody.

Looking at the other person’s face as they’re speaking shows that you are listening to what they’re saying. There is however a subtle difference between looking at somebody and staring at them.

So it’s important that you do occasionally move your eyes. Many business people will say that focusing on the tip of the other person’s nose or mouth seems more comfortable than staring right into their eyes.

If you’re engaged in an intense conversation and they won’t even know you’re doing that.


How Much Eye Contact Should You Make?

Whilst it’s acceptable to avert your gaze every now and then to avoid showing aggression, you should look at the person about 60% of the time. This shows that you’re listening to them.

Another interesting point is that if a person is talking to you and not making eye contact, it can indicate that they might not be telling you the whole truth or are concealing something. Good eye contact is an indicator of honest and open business dealings. Striking the right balance with this key aspect of business body language during meetings can help build positive relationships.


Facial Expressions

It costs nothing to smile and in fact smiling uses less muscles than frowning. A smile is a positive way to send out the right message in all aspects of life, including in business.

Pursing your lips or twisting them to one side usually indicates that you’re either thinking deeply about something that’s been said. It may also indicate you are holding something back.

Maintaining a neutral expression during business interactions can also be important. If you disagree with something a colleague or client says, it may be better for relations to mask your reaction.


Head Movement & Positioning

If you keep your head straight when you are talking, it will make you appear self-assured and authoritative. This is useful if you are giving a presentation or making a speech.

On the other hand, it is also used if you are on the defensive e.g. if you are being reprimanded. However, if you want to appear open and friendly during a conversation, you’ll often find that people will tilt their head to one side as they listen or speak.

Nodding your head occasionally as you listen to somebody also gives them the sign that you are actively listening to what they’re saying.


Hands and Arms

Your hands and arms can give so much away about you and can also be used to your advantage.

Arms

Arms folded makes you appear very defensive and wary about the person you are speaking. It can also be an indicator you arey disinterested in them and what they have to say.

Waving your arms about can convey enthusiasm to some but can be perceived as a sign of immaturity or uncertainty by others.

Your best bet would be to adopt the policy of keeping your arms by your side. When you do that, it makes you appear confident, yet relaxed.


Hands

What you do with your hands is equally important. Even more so when dealing with other cultures, where the ability to be able to see your hands is important.

Even here in the UK business world, it’s considered rude to talk to people with your hands in your pockets, behind your back or concealing them under the table.

Conversely, it can be highly irritating to talk to somebody who emphasises every comment they make by the animated use of their hands.

Watch TV news or sports reporters occasionally. Even some of the supposed best ones have this annoying habit of ‘talking with their hands’.

Your hands can’t speak so don’t let them run riot. However, you can sometimes emphasise a point occasionally by using your hands or fingers, just don’t overdo it.

Also, don’t fidget, rub your neck or run your fingers through your hair.


Body Posture

The golden rule about body posture can be traced back to when you were a young child at school. It holds just as true in the adult business world.

Sitting up or standing erect shows a sign of alertness and enthusiasm. On the other hand, hunched shoulders and a slumping posture indicate tiredness and disinterest.

Nobody wants to do business with people who are lethargic. Slightly leaning towards people also gives a signal that you want to hear more about what they have to say. Leaning away demonstrates that you cannot wait for the conversation to end.


Legs

You can often tell who’s feeling nervous in a business setting such as a board meeting by observing a person’s legs when they are sat down.

If they move their legs a lot, it’s a sign of anxiety or nerves. The most advisable things to do with your legs are either to place both feet flat on the floor. If you feel more comfortable crossing your legs, do so at the ankles.

Worse still, and a signal suggesting cockiness or arrogance is resting one leg or ankle on top of the other knee.

Commonly referred to as the ‘Figure 4’ position, it can often put people right off you before you’ve even spoken.


Personal Space & Distance

Not always that easy to gauge, ‘personal space’ is something you need to be aware of. Particularly in light of the Covid pandemic. Many people now have an enhanced sense of personal space.

If you’re in conversation and get too close to the other person, it may make them consider you pushy. Conversely, standing too far away can make you appear stand offish. You need to try to find a happy medium.

Taking Your Cue from the Other Person

Often, this will simply come naturally to you. However, if you’re unsure you can often take your cues from the other person’s body language. If you get too close, they’ll step back a little, too far and they usually come towards you.

Many of the things discussed here will come naturally to you anyway, if you’ve had a lot of experience of communicating in the business world. When it comes to understanding business body language, self awareness is key.

The important thing to remember is to be sure that the message you are trying to convey in conversation is matched by the messages and signals your body language is giving off. It can make the difference between a productive conversation or meeting and a disastrous one.


Further Reading

You may also wish to read our guide on seating arrangements in a meeting for business. It has great points about positioning of seating and body language during meetings. Our guide to business card etiquette may also be of help if you are having a meeting with overseas clients.

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