Just think, if you could learn how to read people better, you would have the upper hand in many of life’s situations. During job interviews, as the interviewer or the interviewee, reading body language is a great help. As the interviewer, you can tell whether the potential employee will be open and honest, or closed and unmoving. As the interviewee, you will know when you walk out whether you made a great impression or you flopped.

In everyday situations, body language may allow you to brighten the day of someone that needs to see a smile. We’ve all seen that tired mom slogging through the aisles of the grocery store. She is hunched over the cart, intent on her shopping. She checks her list, reads the ingredients on boxes, but is hurrying just the same. Happy to be away from the mayhem of home? Perhaps, or trying to hurry back to relieve a teenaged babysitter that needs to do homework.

Whatever the situation, you meet in the checkout line, smile and say hello — and her whole demeanor perks up. She stands up straighter. Some of the mom-fatigue disappears from her face. She might limply smile back, but the truth is that you just made her whole day. As you watch, she steps a little livelier on her way out to her car. She might be humming a little tune as she loads groceries into the trunk. Her body language tells a complete story.

Learning Body Language is the Key to Reading People

We see people all day, every day unless you’re a hermit living on a mountaintop. Imagine how much better some of your interactions could be if you knew how to read people. Reading people isn’t about figuring out their inner-most secrets. It is more about learning how simple communications can be better.

Body language is 90 percent of our sub-conscious communication. Paying attention to what people are saying involves much more than listening to their words. Watch their actions. Pay attention to their movements, their stance, and what they do with their hands.

If you’re having a conversation with someone and they seem uncomfortable, you can recognize that and take action. Sometimes you can change the subject, and that might put a person more at ease. Other times, people have personal space issues and don’t like people too close. Take a step back from them and allow them some breathing room and see if that lessens the tension.

All of our daily interactions allow you to practice techniques in reading body language. You might not always be spot-on, but making an effort might be huge for that one tired mom. It will not help you in deciphering your teenager though. They have a language all their own. Sulky, frowning faces, crossed arms, and a defiant expression are merely a part of their “school uniform.” Most teens will go to great lengths to hide their true self. And surprisingly, they get pretty good at it.

Why is Body Language Effective in Learning How to Read People?

Suppose that we interact with an average of 15 – 20 people daily. Some are total strangers, and others are friends or relatives. Sometimes in larger settings, you may interact with hundreds of people daily. Or if you work at home, you may see the guy at the gas station and the grocery clerk once a week.

No matter how many people you see day-to-day, learning how to read body language can improve those interactions. As you get better at it through practice, your assessments will naturally become more accurate. As your accuracy improves, your communications will improve. Healthy communication between people is imperative to having a happy, healthy life.

Learning the Basics of How to Read People

A lot of times, people associate reading body language with law enforcement interrogations or psychiatric treatment. But body language can help all of us be more in tune with our fellow human beings. As we begin, pay attention to your body posturing throughout the day. Your positioning can give you valuable insight into how to read the body language of others.

How do you stand? How do you sit? Where are your arms? What position do you generally put your arms in when seated for a friendly cup of coffee with your neighbor? Are your legs out? Crossed at the ankle? Crossed at the knees? Uncrossed, but positioned tightly together at the knees? Do you spread your knees apart unnaturally to give yourself more room? How do you greet a salesperson at your front door? Do you present an intimidating “No” face? Do you smile and welcome them into your home? All these postures and more constitute your body language.

Posture – sitting

Many times we interact with people while sitting. Job interviews, coffee with a friend, in a restaurant with the family, or in a doctor’s waiting room. “Manspreading” is when people sit with their legs spread unnaturally wide, causing the seats on both sides of them to remain empty usually. The posture relays the body language that the person doesn’t want anyone near them. Women do this by placing all their bags between their legs or to either side of their legs.

The woman sitting there hunched over her pocketbook trying to look as small as possible is hoping you don’t notice her. The man standing up holding the pole and staring at everyone has a story too. He’s standing to be a gentleman. Smile and say “Excuse me,” and you might get a surprise as he gently steps aside and helps you into the only open seat.

Crossed or uncrossed legs

Generally speaking, how a person sits can be an indicator of whether or not they are open to conversation. The hunched lady we discussed earlier? She doesn’t even want you to say hello or address her in any way. The mom with the infant in her lap and four grocery bags? She would probably relish a bit of adult conversation delivered with a smile. But how do you know?

  • When a person sits all hunched up, that person closes in on themselves
  • A person sitting in a relaxed manner is exhibiting a more open posture
  • A person with crossed legs is closing themselves off to communication
  • Crossed arms display a closed off “leave me alone” attitude or confidence
  • Splayed knees with widely spaced feet says “I need my space.”

While not always gospel, these gentle tips will get you on your way to really noticing body language. Watching people (without staring or being rude about it) is the quickest way to start noticing the little nuances.

Posture – standing

Is a person’s pose open, inviting you to converse? Are they extending an open hand to greet you? Maybe they are huddled in on themselves standing near a corner? Do they appear coiled like a rabbit, ready to run away to safety at your approach? Are they leaning back a little trying to create space between you? Slouching can display a timidness, or a lack of confidence while a person standing fully erect is poised and sure of themselves.

How people stand can also be a giveaway to their mood. An open stance invites you close while the man leaning against the wall with arms crossed wants no part of you. During conversations, people often change stances. Paying attention to their movements will allow you to redirect discussions that might make them uncomfortable.

As with the sitting postures, many of the same models hold true for standing postures. Watch people and observe their changes. As a person gets more relaxed in a situation, their movements will expand. They will start gesturing more, perhaps, or uncross their arms.

Facial Expressions

Smiles are the universal language for warm and welcome. Most people cannot control the many muscles in the facial expressions all the time. They cannot will the muscles to smile when their instinct is to frown or scowl. Sometimes, an expression will cross a face for a brief second before it is corrected into what is perceived to be the “correct” expression for that circumstance.

The used car salesperson has practiced that smile a million times. They smile, hold out a hand, offer their name, then ask you for your name. The eyes, the mouth, and the entire face is lit up welcoming you to be their friend and buy that car today. As they lie and tell you that that is the most popular car on the lot, that expression never changes. They practice.

Since most people don’t practice deceiving you with a false smile, facial expressions, even in brief glimpses, can be a telltale sign of what a person is thinking or feeling. Watching people during conversations and paying attention to their small movements or brief flickers of real emotion will serve you well in reading people.

Watch the eyes

One of the most important parts of learning how to read people is to watch their eyes. A mouth can be made to smile, but eyes are more difficult to shield and control. Someone that will not maintain eye contact with you is most likely hiding something. With free will, humans were also given a conscience. When we are untruthful, our eyes tell the truth.

When coupled with body language, eye movements complete the picture by giving you a snapshot of true emotion. Rapid blinking, frequently looking away, looking down; all are ways that the eyes give away the true feelings of a person.

Other Telltale Giveaways

Tics and blinks, dry mouth, lip licking, ear-grabbing, and nose rubbing are all body language signs. While sometimes an itchy nose is just an itchy nose, other times it can signal nervousness. A person nervously scratching their head can convey possible deception. Fidgeting, or shifting from foot-to-foot is another sign of nervousness.

Paying attention to these signs and learning how to interpret them can give you valuable insight into how to read people. Becoming better at reading people will make you a better communicator. Successful communication leads to better personal and work relationships.

Putting it into Practice

Eight simple steps can help you put your knowledge of how to read people into practice. As you continue to gain experience in reading people, you will improve your ability to handle different situations more effectively.

  • Trust your gut
  • When people mimic your actions, they are in tune with you
  • Work on increasing your empathy
  • Pay attention to outward appearance
  • Watch body movements, including posture, eyes, hands, and leg positions
  • Facial expressions can tell a lot about how a person feels
  • Enter each new interaction with objectivity
  • Exercise patience — you won’t “know” someone immediately

Tying it All Together

There is no sure-fire guide on how to read people. Because human beings possess free will, each of us is different in our way. Generalizations will work for most interactions but are not accurate in every single case. As you watch more people and increase your awareness of the subtleties of their movements, you will get better at reading the signs and signals that every person sends with their body language.

Featured image: CC by SA 2.0 by Lee Haywood via Flickr

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