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: 

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. Mimicry

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.

4. 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.

5. Steepling

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!

6. Smiling

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.

7. 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.

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and human behavioral investigator in our lab.

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