5 Steps to Mastering Body Language

How to increase your ability to communicate nonverbally.

Posted Sep 26, 2020

Here is a crash course in improving your ability to read and use body language:

1. Realize that 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.

How This Can Help: 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. Developing Skill in Nonverbal Communication Takes Dedication and Practice.

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. Good News: 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. Here are Specific Ways to Improve Body Language Skills:

  • 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, will help you work on both verbal and nonverbal skills—and the two skills complement each other.
  • Take an improvisation class. Many theatre groups and adult education programs offer improv classes. While much of improvisation is verbal, nonverbal cues are what makes improv more effective (and more humorous!).
  • Read about research on body language/nonverbal communication. Research tells us what sorts of strategies work and which do not.

Here and here are some additional resources.

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            Riggio, R.E.  (1986).  Assessment of basic social skills.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 649-660.

Riggio, R.E. (1987). The Charisma Quotient. New York: Dodd Mead (get a free copy on ResearchGate)

            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.