Reading body language can be learned, and for some people, is a natural interpretive instinct. However, over the years I have seen numerous instances of people who do not know how to interpret body language, and who are simultaneously unaware of how their body language is conveying how they directly feel to others. Understanding how to interpret body language, or how your body language is speaking volumes about how you feel, is an essential business skill. Unfortunately educators in the United States do not teach reading and interpreting body language in business school, or in most educational settings. So, how does someone learn how to do this?
The simple answer is to educate yourself on-line, and one place I found which provided a helpful general overview of how to interpret most body language, can be found via this link. Talking to others and learning from their experience is another approach. Paying more attention during future interactions with your family, friends and colleagues will help you to practice and become more skilled at interpreting others body language. For your own body language, and understanding how you come across to others, I recommend asking people you are comfortable with for feedback on instances they have observed your body language in either happy, neutral or contentious situations. Another option is to pay closer attention to your own physical reactions during conversational engagements (e.g., do you cross your arms when you do not like what you are hearing, do you look down at the floor when you feel threatened, do you laugh in a strained manner when you are nervous?).
Here is an example of an actual situation I was recently observing a colleague’s body language, and who was unaware of me doing so. Sitting across from two of my colleagues last week, it became apparent to me one of them was unaware of how to read body language, and did not understand the language his body was conveying to the person we were having the conversation with. Without giving any corporate secrets away, the conversation was between the head of marketing, and the head of sales. During the conversation, the head of marketing was talking to the head of sales and offering to have his team take on work which the sales team would highly benefit from. The sales team had been asking for this work to be done for months. However, during this interaction, the head of sales began to fold his arms over his chest during the conversation. For those unaware of what this body language expression means, it essentially means they were either not listening, did not believe, were uncomfortable with the conversation, or were rejecting what was being said. This was the opposite reaction I expected to see occur, and after the meeting had taken place, I asked the head of sales if he was happy about the offer made by the marketing team? His response was he was happy with what he heard. However, what he did not realize was he body language expressed the opposite of this emotion. Guess what I’ll be working on next week? If you guessed teaching a colleague about body language, you get an A+.