Do you wish you could read the body language of your boss, colleagues or clients? Although body language is not mind reading, it can give us an interesting glimpse into the hidden emotions of the people we work with. Research has found that the majority of our communication is nonverbal–between 60 and 93% comes through our body language, facial expressions and voice tone. There are many universal body language expressions, but in this post I will talk about the most common body language moves seen in work environments and that come up at the office: 

The Lip Purse

Lip pursing is when the lips push or mash together in a hard line. People subconsciously do this when they are holding something back. We purse our lips when we want to say something, but are either being interrupted or think we shouldn’t say what’s really on our minds. You might see this in the office environment when someone is holding something back, sees or hears something they don’t approve of or are afraid of stating their true thoughts.

Tip: Be sure to allow the person a safe space to share their thoughts. Take note that you might not be getting all of the information available and keep pursuing the truth.

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Confrontation Clues

Inevitably there is usually some kind of confrontation that happens in the workplace, especially under tight deadlines or with big projects. There are two nonverbal clues to know when confrontation is coming and to block it from erupting into a fight:

*A chin jut, which means anger

*Battle stance with hands on your hips and feet widely planted

Tip: If a tense subject comes up and you see a chin jut or someone goes into battle stance, it is time to change the subject, go into reassurance mode or take a break.

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Mimicry is when you subtly mimic or copy the body language of the person you are speaking with. Anytime you want something to go more smoothly you can use mimicry to build rapport.  You can also notice if someone is mirroring you-we do this subconsciously with people we like, and it is a good indicator of how someone feels about you.

Tip: If you need to calm someone down, show respect or get on the same page, subtly mirror their posture or speaking speed. If you want to know how someone feels about you pay attention to if they copy your seating behavior or hand gestures.

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How to Know When Someone Is Lying

Lie detection is a complex science with 7 steps, but a classic clue that should raise a red flag is when someone says something negative (“no”) but nods their head up and down (a “yes” response). Keep an eye out for these physical inconsistencies and be sure to verify the information. For example, if you ask a colleague if she likes working with a new client, she might say, “Yes, I love it,” while unconsciously shaking her head side to side—a “no” response.

Tip: If this happens, keep asking questions until you learn more.

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Steepling is when someone brings their hands up towards their chest or face and presses the tips of their fingers together. This is a gesture of confidence, self-assuredness and even superiority. This can easily be done to inspire confidence in yourself and others during a meeting or interview. This is an easy one for females in particular since it is seen as assertive, not aggressive. You might also notice your boss do this move without even realizing its power!

Tip: Not sure where to rest your hands during the meeting? Try the steeple!

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Contrary to popular belief, smiling is actually seen as a sign of submission. Submissive people tend to smile more at leaders to show they are agreeable and non-threatening to their power. Alphas or leaders in turn (think Clint Eastwood) smile much less because their power is enough to put people in line. Females in particular need to be careful not to over smile as it puts them in a submissive position. Dr. Nancy Henley found that women smile in 87 percent of social encounters, while men only smile 67 percent of the time.

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Business Handshake

In business, you have to know how to shake hands. The best handshakes are firm, but not domineering. An aggressive handshake is when a dominant person has their hand ‘on top’ of the clasp. The weaker person will often take the bottom part of the handshake by exposing the underside of their wrist–which is a physically weaker position. You often see politicians jockey for the dominant handshake position when meeting in front of cameras. Two equals should just shake hands up and down, completely vertically, with no one on the top or bottom.

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a national best selling author & founder at Science of People. Her groundbreaking book, Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People has been translated into more than 16 languages. As a recovering awkward person, Vanessa helps millions find their inner charisma. She regularly leads innovative corporate workshops and helps thousands of individual professionals in her online program People School. Vanessa works with entrepreneurs, growing businesses, and trillion dollar companies; and has been featured on CNN, BBC, CBS, Fast Company, Inc., Entrepreneur Magazine, USA Today, the Today Show and many more.

6 replies on “Office Body Language: 7 Cues You Must Know”

  1. Violeta

    I have some maybe silly question 🙂 in a 5-10 days I have some job interview but I have little problem.
    I have pain in my right hand for a few weeks because of some nerve in my neck (I have to do some exercise for that).. My right hand is a little disabled and when I handshake with someone it cause me pain and I make a face…
    I don’t know how to handshake on my interview, maybe I can pretend that handshake not cause me any pain but still I think I can’t hide my micro expressions…
    on the other hand telling my future employer that I’m somehow disabled on my introduction doesn’t seem like a a good idea.. i
    Vanessa what you think, any advice?
    p.s. sorry for my English is not my native language :))))

    1. anthony123456

      Violeta, take this for what its worth from a non-expert. Perhaps you could wear a wrist brace to prevent a temporary awkwardness.

  2. Alexander Peraza

    hey vanessa, i saw an image of you sitting in a chair while steepling and it felt prickly and cold. I dont think you should steeple with a serious face, it feels much more friendly if you are smiling.
    then i saw another one with your arms to your sides sitting in the same chair and it seemed much more inviting.

    1. Danielle McRae

      Hey Alexander, thank you for your comment. The steeple (without smiling) can often be used when you want your audience to take you seriously. For example, if you’re an investor and listening to a pitch, using the steeple helps you to come across as intelligent and competent.

      For women especially, smiling can make us appear less dominant, so in certain circumstances not smiling is necessary. Definitely see where you are coming from though! -Danielle and the Science of People Team

      1. Alexander Peraza

        Just say shark tank (we all know Kevin).

        Smiling makes EVERYONE appear less dominant, but I smile CONSTANTLY and ITS MAKES far more POWERFUL than when I WORRYING ABOUT being “DOMINANT”. In fact, acting ALL DOMINANT made me COLD and “SCARY”.

        Be CONFIDENT and KIND and YOU WIN!

        A women who’s worrying about her “dominance” is like a man who worries about his “lipstick”. Men don’t care about a women’s dominance, just like women don’t care about a guy’s lipstick. We can SAY we care, but we don’t. At least not on an evolutionary level.

        You’re a smart women Danielle, I hope you keep smiling. 🙂

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