8 Ways to Read Body Language To Understand Emotions

I was reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman the other day when a particular phrase gave me pause.

“…you think with your body, not only with your brain.”

As a career-long moderator, I have always felt energy when I walk into a focus group room. Within an instant, I can feel whether it’s going to be an easy conversation or a more difficult one. Over the years, I felt that, perhaps, I had just become attuned to people and their emotions. But, Kahneman’s book made me realize there are likely other forces at work in my speedy interpretation of people.

Namely, body language.

Perhaps, over the years, rather than accurately reading group energy, I had become highly skilled at quickly reading their body language. If you are a student of psychology, you learn that although people may think they are controlling the signs they are emitting with their face and body, that much of this occurs subconsciously and is, therefore, not under their control.

In fact, research conducted by Dr. Albert Mehrabian, author of Silent Messages, reveals that 55% of communication occurs through body language cues, like; facial expressions, gestures and posture. (Source: The Nonverbal Group)

So, what are some of the more obvious cues that can help you understand what people are thinking … without uttering one word?

1. Microexpressions: Look at the forehead and eyebrows to detect small nuances that can show fear, disbelief or lying.

2. Eye Contact: Steady eye contact can indicate a desire to connect, while shifting eyes may suggest a desire to hide something.

3. Arms: When an individual crosses their arms, they may be indicating they are closed off to others or, perhaps, not receptive to a specific topic or person.

4. Twitching: Movement of legs, feet or arms can signify anxiousness, discomfort or intimidation.

5. Leaning: Positioning one’s body toward someone indicates attentiveness, while leaning away suggests disinterest.

6. Proximity: Being close generally indicates greater openness and warmth, although distance is also governed by cultural nuances.

7. Mirrored Actions: When someone mimics another’s actions, it generally indicates a desire to establish rapport.

8. Gestures: Passion for a topic is often shown via elaborate or expressive gestures.

Clearly, these are general rules-of-thumb that can vary from person to person; however, they can offer great insight into the emotions people are feeling … often subconsciously.

So, next time you are conversing with someone, listen with your eyes as much as you listen with your ears.