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Understanding Body Language

Updated: Jul 13, 2023

7 tips to understand what your conversational partner might really be saying

Did you know that the words we speak are actually just a very small part of the message we send our communication partner? Our tone of voice, the way we emphasise different words and our body language generally send a far clearer message. Competent communicators know how to interpret body language and voice to ‘read between the lines’.

Body language refers to the messages we send and receive each other without actually saying any words. As the term implies, it's the language that our body speaks and gives our communication partner insight into what we are thinking and feeling. Where and how we stand, what part of our body moves and even the slight angle of our head can give a nuanced meaning to our words.

Here are 7 tips to understanding what your conversational partner might really be saying

1. Where are they standing or sitting? How close are they to you and the rest of the group? If they are too close for comfort, then there is a high chance that they are not aware of the social rules for using language. If they are too far away, you might feel as though they don’t really want to engage with you. Of course, the comfortable distance between speakers depends on how well they are known to each other, and how loud the background noise is. For example, at a noisy party, you might stand closer to a new acquaintance to be able to hear them better but would not stand so close if you were to meet them in the supermarket aisle. Good body language speakers feel comfortable adjusting their proximity to others. If someone takes a step back from you or you notice they are leaning away from you, chances are you’re too close for their comfort. Stay put, and let them decide how close they're comfortable with.

2. Where is their body facing? Are their shoulders legs and feet angled towards you? Someone who is presenting their full body to the conversation is engaged and interested and prepared to spend a moment or more chatting with you.

3. Where are their feet pointing? We naturally position our feet towards what we are interested in or where we want to be. If you are speaking with someone who has their feet pointing away from you, chances are they are looking for the right moment to disengage from your conversation. When you are standing together, the person who has one foot pointed towards you but the other pointing away might be looking for their exit moment. And if they are leaning on the foot which pointing away from you then their departure from the conversation may be imminent.

4. What are their arms and hands doing? Someone who is covering their body with their arms, either folding their arms or wrapping them around themselves may be feeling insecure or shy. However, crossed arms may also indicate that the person is cautious and is holding back in the conversation. Keeping your arms open and your hands free for natural gestures sends the message you are present and interested in the other person.

5. Did they touch you? Some people are naturally more oriented towards physical contact. When a person touches you on your upper arm they are seeking to make a connection with you. The upper arm is a neutral point to touch. Touching the forearm speaks a message of greater intimacy and can be easily misinterpreted.

6. Are you face to face? Confident communicators, particularly those in western cultures, turn their faces towards the person or people they are speaking with. Opening up as many body connection points as possible (e.g. eyes, face, shoulders, body, legs, feet) suggests how comfortable they are engaging in the particular conversation. When you see your conversational partner start to turn away from one or more of these connection points, they may be feeling uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation.

7. What about eye contact? For years we always thought that eye contact was the pinnacle of communicative success. In reality, direct eye contact is less important than the other body connection points. Occasional brief moments of eye contact are normal and we extend eye contact based on how comfortable we are with our communication partner and the topic we are discussing. In many cultures, direct eye contact with someone who is older, or in authority can be very problematic. It’s great to talk about a “face connection” rather than always asking for eye contact.

Understanding body language is one of many social-pragmatic langauge skills. If you find yourself confused in social settings and are unsure of what people are really meaning, or experiencing challenges ‘reading the room’, speech pathologists are here to help. At Newcastle Speech Pathology, we work with adults and children to develop their social-pragmatic skills. We help our clients develop conversational skills, interpret meaning in social settings, understand what other people really mean, read the nuances of body language and develop interpersonal skills. Contact us to find out how we can help you too.

Alison McDonald, Director, NSP

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