Body Language in Communication

“Fie, fie upon her! There’s language in her eye, her cheek, her lip. Nay, her foot speaks; her wanton spirits look out at every joint and motive of her body.”

William Shakespeare’s description is one of many epic passages that illustrate the complexity of body language. The most prevalent form of communication since pre-historic times, body language can express the most subtle feelings of a person – which in many instances, no common words can reveal.

This article explores many forms of body language; how they fit with other methods of communication; and are the skills and strategies that can help individuals become more ‘body-language-literate’.

The Language in the Body

The word “language” is often associated with spoken or written language. After all, it is this unique ability that separates humans from other primates. But despite the association, body language reigns supreme when it comes to volume of messages. Some authorities claim that when two people are conversing, around 93% of the communication is exchanged non-verbally* (where 65-90% is body language, according to each interaction).

Body language is often “taken for granted” because in many instances, it occurs on an involuntary or semi-voluntary basis. For example, the human face has around 90 muscles and just about 30 exclusively expressing emotions. Most of the communication which is represented by changes in facial muscles is biologically-inherited and unconscious. Nevertheless, there are several cues which can indicate how a person is feeling or what they are thinking through facial expressions.

We also do semi-conscious or automated body movements. These movements can represent certain mental dispositions and in many instances, we don’t notice them at all. Imagine the following scenario: you are talking to a friend, who is trying to prove a point which you strongly disagree with. You cross your arms while talking to him. You may have crossed your arms because you were cold, but it is also a known expression for defensiveness in body language. You will probably not notice it at that moment, but you could be sending a message to your friend.

“We all, in one way or another, send our little messages out to the world… And rarely do we send our messages consciously. We act out our state of being with nonverbal body language. We lift one eyebrow for disbelief. We rub our noses for puzzlement. We clasp our arms to isolate ourselves or to protect ourselves. We shrug our shoulders for indifference, wink one eye for intimacy, tap our fingers for impatience, slap our foreheads for forgetfulness. The gestures are numerous, and while some are deliberate… there are some, such as rubbing our noses for puzzlement or clasping our arms to protect ourselves, that are mostly unconscious.” (Julius Fast, Body Language)

Voluntary body language is tailored to the context as much as it is the people involved in the interaction. A group of friends, for example, may have specific signs which mean something to them, and something totally different to others. Rising your hand on a bar often means “I would like to order a drink”; whilst the same act in a football match would mean “pass me the ball” and in a battle zone “hold your position”. In other occasions, people may use universal signs to express their intentions to others. Smiling, for example, represents happiness or satisfaction in almost any culture or context (unless you are being sarcastic, of course).

Examples of Body Language

There are hundreds of situations which body language takes a prominent role. In sports, body language literacy is synonymous with an ability to accurately “read the game”, resulting in higher on-field performance. Thus, the more experience a player has, the more he or she is likely to make effective decisions by predicting what the opponent will do in a particular situation.

In interpersonal relationships, body language is everywhere. People send constant messages to each other via body language much before a word is said. Imagine the people you normally see on your way to work everyday: after sometime, you may smile to them, or change the way you look at them. Your body language may tell them: “I don’t know you, but I acknowledge your presence”. When people go to social environments such as bars, clubs or parties, they constantly communicate with each other via body language; flirting, for example, is often initiated by “bodily expressions of interest or messages”.

In intercultural communication, body language can play the role of translation. When spoken and written languages are not a common channel, there are a variety of body signs which are universal and can be used as a language of their own. Just think about a trip overseas where someone tries to purchase a ticket or is looking for a public toilet, but cannot say a word in the native language. In the absence of a Lonely Planet, body language comes in handy. Additionally, contextual factors may require people to use body language instead of other media: an example is when they are trying to transmit a message in a noisy place, such as a concert or sports event, or in a silent environment, such as a hospital.

There are almost infinite instances of ‘body-talk’ in people’s lives, despite culture or background. Body language, as necessity or an added benefit, is inherent to almost every face-to-face interaction between human beings.

Reading People

The fact that most people do not pay due attention to body language does not deny the fact that they are constantly ‘speaking’ through their bodies. People give away a torrent of information via their posture, movements, expressions, and other visual cues – and most individuals simply do not consciously catch it because they are not trained to do so.

However, this is a competency which can be easily learnt with some training and practice. For counsellors, psychologists and other mental health professionals, it is a required competency to an extent; and an extremely useful one from a general perspective. The following paragraphs provide some common ‘body reading’ guidelines and skills that can be used for improved communication.

Facial Expressions

There are three sources of information about an individual’s feelings and thoughts in the visual channel: facial expression, posture and gestures. Facial expression is considered most prominent source of information about emotions by many researchers and scientists. The study of facial expressions began over one hundred years ago with Charles Darwin. The famous biologist published a book entitled The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals after years of observation and noting. Darwin’s conclusions regarding the link between facial expressions and emotions have been supported by most modern research.

Eye Accessing Cues

Eye signals are one of the most ‘eloquent’ forms of facial expression. The presence of eye contact normally determines whether a person is interested in a certain conversation. If the individual stares uneasily to his or her interlocutors, it he or she may be intimidated; whilst a ‘direct stare’ is commonly associated with aggression and/or a challenging stance. Brain research has also enabled scientists to directly associate certain facial movements with thinking processes. Eye accessing cues are an example of those. Following are six distinguishable cues (applied to a normally organised right-handed person):

  • Looking left and up: visual recall (recalling a visual memory)
  • Looking left and centrally: auditory recall (recalling a noise or sound)
  • Looking left and down: auditory internal dialogue
  • Looking right and up: visual construction (imagining an image, not factual)
  • Looking right and centrally: auditory construction (imaging a sound, not factual)
  • Looking right and down: kinaesthetic (imaging a kinesthetic sensation, not factual)

These cues are often used by police officers in interviews, in order to determine whether the person is lying about particular questions. However, it can be useful in any context: personal, business, etc.

Practical exercise: Ask a friend to recall something he or she has experienced and something that he or she will need to imagine (mentally create). Observe the eye accessing cues.

Posture and Gestures

Posture and gestures provide several cues to an individual’s personality, self-perception and mental disposition. Much about gestures is culturally-related: the Italian people, for instance, are known for their hand gestures while conversing between each other and with others. It is referred as a body cue to the energy level, or passion, that they speak about some topics.

A person’s posture often indicates his or her disposition in a conversation. When people are uninterested during communication, they often demonstrate that by crossing their arms or legs or pointing their body away from the interlocutor. Inclining back during a conversation is a sign of comfort and perceived power; normally used in hierarchical situations such as job interviews or a work meeting. Particular postures are also, in many scenarios, an agreed convention: people are expected to have a certain posture in a corporate meeting, at a classroom, at a social event, and so on.

Behavioural Discrepancies

Voltaire once said: “one great use of words is to hide our thoughts”. People often do use words to hide feelings, emotions and thoughts. It may be the result of someone’s unwillingness to reveal a weakness, or perhaps an attempt to avoid conflict by contrasting a friend’s opinion. Despite their motives, the majority of individuals find it difficult to hide their feelings – and that becomes more apparent when they present behavioural discrepancies.

Behavioural discrepancies are basically the incongruency between someone’s words or actions, and their body language. For instance, imagine the following scenario: it is 1 o’clock in the morning when your neighbour knocks at your door asking for ice (he ran out of ice in his party). You smile weakly and say that it would not be a problem. Although your words signified acceptance, your body language was of despise and anger. When people get frustrated, they are likely to ‘fake’ their feelings to avoid unnecessary conflict (depending on the level of frustration, naturally).

In most situations, it is easier to pick up behavioural discrepancies by observing a person’s eyes – they are harder to hide. The old adage “the eyes are the window to the soul” is not only poetic assertion, but a practical and highly applicable point when it comes to body language.

Problems in Reading Body Language

The more one can understand body language, the higher is the risk of such knowledge becoming a double-edged sword. This is normally the logical outcome of a common process in human learning: the more acquainted a person is to a particular topic, the more confident he or she will be making decisions, and conversely, the higher the possibility of making assumptions with little or no evidence.

Thus, effective body ‘readers’ may get overconfident with their skills and oversight other messages which are being delivered. For instance, this could occurs to a person who is proficient in analyzing someone’s posture and facial expressions, but who is not so good with listening skills such as active listening.

No message transmitted by a person is done via a single channel. In order to understand what is passing through the person’s mind, communicators need to be mindful to all messages which are being received (e.g. body language, voice tone, spoken words, etc), their context, and the communicator (cultural learning plays a major role in creating meaning through body language).

Narrow thinking towards communication may create narrow and inappropriate conclusions, ultimately leading to miscommunication and even prejudice. Such awareness is critical to mental health professionals and very important to most people who wish to become effective communicators.

Counsellor’s Skills

In a therapeutic context, there is a contrasting situation when it comes to body language proficiency: whilst clients are not responsible for effectively aligning their body and verbal languages, counsellors have the obligation to do so. Up to this point, the focus of this article was body language from the “reader’s” point of view. But when it comes to counselling skills, there is also the need to observe the efficient delivery of non-verbal messages.

Why is that so? People notice behavioural discrepancies. In most scenarios, people perceive contrast between non-verbal and verbal language as a message that clearly says: “warning – person not to be trusted”. After all, everyone has heard a variety of stories of trickery and unethical behaviour that are based on lies and suspicious behaviour. In a therapeutic environment, behavioural discrepancies create doubt where there may already be fear, lack of confidence and insecurity.

This combination can be counter to the counsellor’s intentions of establishing rapport and building a trusting relationship with any client. Counsellors should be aware of certain needs when communication with clients, thus avoiding the previous scenario. Following are some points:

Professional vs Friendly: the body language of a counsellor, particularly eye contact, movements and distance from the client, should be aligned to the level of rapport which has been established in each case. Touching, staring and close proximity can create discomfort and be interpreted as intimidating. Conversely, each of these actions can be appropriate in instances when a counsellor has established good rapport with the client.

Feedback vs Distance: it is important that a counsellor’s posture and eye contact are illustrative of his or her interest in the client’s situation. Providing direct eye contact, being open-bodied and facing the client, and nodding or making the client aware of the message will make the client feel appreciated and willing to establish further rapport. If the client feels the counsellor is not interested in his or her story, trust and rapport are likely to fall apart.

Mirroring vs Automation: mirroring is a technique common to preliminary sessions in counselling. Mirroring a client’s body language can help to create a certain bond or connection with the client, assisting in the process of establishing rapport. Basically, the client both consciously and subconsciously notices the familiar behaviour of the counsellor. This ‘familiarity’ helps the client to relax and trust the counsellor. However, mirroring needs to be done mindfully; otherwise, the client may think he or she is being mocked or not taken seriously.

Note: Neuroscientists have been studying the biological foundations of imitating behaviour between animals which provides interesting insights on the brain’s ability to record and replicate body language (for more information, research the term mirror neurons).


Body language is likely to remain the most prominent form of human interaction for many more decades – centuries perhaps. Reading body language is a very useful skill for any individual, and something worth taking time to learn about. It is quite amazing how relationships can be improved once there is a new channel of mutual communication. As the old adage says, the eyes are the window to the soul: using body language effectively may open many more windows.