How to Become Better at Body Language
An advanced guide to nonverbal communication.
Posted January 16, 2019
Do you want to improve your ability to read other’s body language, and become more skilled at communicating nonverbally?
There are a few keys:
1. Body Language is Not a “Language.” In other words, there is no dictionary for nonverbal communication. In general, the meaning of a particular nonverbal cue—such as a certain gesture, eye movement, or voice tone—can depend on the context, the individuals involved, and their relationship.
Don’t automatically think that a particular cue means a certain thing. For example, just because someone has their arms (or legs) crossed, it may not be immediately interpreted as the person being closed off to you. They could be physically cold, it could be a personal style. It may have nothing at all to do with you. Consider a variety of factors and don’t jump to quick conclusions. Continue to observe and study subsequent cues.
2. It Takes Work. Both the accurate sending (termed “encoding”) and receiving (“decoding”) of nonverbal messages are difficult skills to learn—but they can be learned and developed. It takes hard work and lots of practice. I know of one successful public speaker who said that he studied effective gesturing to accompany his speech for over a year, videotaping himself and getting feedback.
3. Feedback is Critical. You can’t become a better nonverbal communicator without receiving feedback—both about your accuracy in interpreting the body language messages sent by others, and in evaluating the impact that your nonverbal cues are having on others. As my public speaker friend suggests, video is a good tool, as well as asking friends or relatives to help out.
4. Nonverbal Skills are Correlated. What this means is that if you work on your ability to send nonverbal messages accurately, you will tend to get better at reading other’s body language cues. Again, practice helps improve skill in nonverbal communication.
5. Detecting Deception is Almost Impossible. There is a generally-held belief that there are definite cues to tell when someone is lying. For example, that a liar looks nervous, or can’t look you in the eye. But it is nearly impossible to detect lies accurately simply through reading body language. Why? First, liars try to avoid the stereotypic cues. For example, in our research we found that liars engaged in more eye contact than truth-tellers – they were sort of “overcompensating.” Second, people may give off different sorts of cues when they are aroused, so some may be “poor liars,” others, however, are nearly undetectable. Third, there is what is called a “demeanor bias” where some individuals, simply because of their nonverbal style, tend to look more honest or more deceptive, and this throws off accuracy. A better strategy to detect lying involves focusing on the verbal cues—judging the veracity or the plausibility of someone’s story.
What else can you do to become better at nonverbal communication?
- Take an acting class: Actors tend to be quite skilled at sending nonverbal messages.
- Join Toastmasters: Learning public speaking, through Toastmasters, or a similar organization, has you work on both verbal and nonverbal skill—and the two skills complement each other.
- Read about research on Body Language/Nonverbal Communication: Research tells us what sorts of strategies work and which do not.
Riggio, R.E. (1986). Assessment of basic social skills. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 649-660.
Riggio, R.E., & Friedman, H.S. (1983). Individual differences and cues to deception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 899-915.
Riggio, R.E. (2010). Emotional intelligence and interpersonal competencies. In M. Rothstein & R. Burke (Eds.), Self-management and leader development. (pp. 160-182). Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar Publishing.