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How to understand body language

Sure, your bosses like you. But although their lips are saying, "We greatly respect you as a valued team member," other parts of their anatomy are saying, "You are a toad. Go away."

Likewise, you could be expressing the same thing to your boss. Not a great way to get that promotion.

Which is why you should know a thing or two about body language.

"Everybody has the ability (to read body language) but they're not using it consciously," says Patti Wood, media coach, body language expert and author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language and Charisma (New World Library). "The more you use it consciously, the more confident you become."

There are several areas of the body and positions that can telegraph one's true feelings. Here are some places to start.


Facial expression and eye contact are important ways of conveying interest and respect, says Laurie Kontney, clinical associate professor in the department of physical therapy at Marquette University. But focusing on a face comes with caveats.

"Something as simple as eye contact is perceived differently in different cultures," Kontney says, adding that older generations value it more than younger.

Eye contact can also be manipulated. The sleaziest politician can look you right in the eye and sell you a bill of goods. Wood says there are other eye "tells."

"A fluttering effect is an indication of stress, not necessarily of deception," she says. "Eye shuttering, where the eyes shut down a long moment when you ask a question or before someone speaks, can be deception or stress."

But a recent study in the journal Science notes that body language is a much better indicator of a person's emotional state than facial expressions.


Wood says the feet are the most honest part of the body: "They're under the least amount of conscious control, and they're the first part of the body to respond to stress."

It relates to our fight-or-flight response. Feet typically have to do something if there's a stressful situation. "If you're in a job interview, they might be smiling at you, and the interviewer's feet might be bouncing," Wood says. "They're thinking, 'I want to get out of here.' So the feet are the most accurate."

Note if the person's toes are pointing at you (good) or toward the door (bad).


Is he leaning in to you or away? And how close is he to you? "In some cultures, closeness is valued," Kontney says, but the reverse can be true in the United States, where "we don't want anyone in our space. Also, the angle you stand at and communicate at can influence the perception." Coming right up to someone, face to face, can seem confrontational, no matter how soothing the words.

"Posturing is definitely important, but use of space and proximity and even angle will make a difference how your message is received," she says.


When you talk to someone who copies your body position and gestures, it generally means she is engaged in what you're saying. It's also a good way to show your interest, Kontney says.

"In a conversation, if the person leans forward, you lean forward. If the person crosses their legs, you cross your legs. If they have their arms at their side, you put your arms at your side. Don't do it right away, and don't be obvious. ... It's a natural thing that occurs when you have good communication and body language."

How to understand body language 02/10/13 [Last modified: Thursday, February 7, 2013 4:33pm]
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