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Tips on how to read body language in the workplace

    At times, navigating workplace dynamics can feel a bit like playing that old “Frogger” video game: You dodge one of many dicey workplace topics only to see a grumpy coworker incoming, or you make it through a tough board meeting only to get creamed by an unexpected deadline.

    Luckily, there are plenty of tools to help us succeed in the workplace and one is accessible at all times: body language. In fact, research suggests non-verbal body language impacts up to 55 percent of your communication with another person.

    Here’s how to identify when body language isn’t positive—and how to adopt more constructive body language for a healthier, more productive workplace.

    How to identify negative body language in the workplace

    Negative body language in the workplace may be a sign you or the other person feels uncomfortable, anxious, disengaged, or otherwise turned off by the interaction. Avoid these body language faux pas to foster more constructive communication with these tips:

    • Avoiding eye contact
    • Failing to look the other person in the eye can convey disinterest and/or a lack of confidence. Aim to make eye contact for approximately 50 to 60 percent of your conversation; take breaks to avoid seeming intimidating or creepy. Avoid rolling your eyes, which communicates disrespect.
      Why we avoid eye contact: Research shows people often avoid eye contact if they are introverted, socially anxious, or have a neurotic personality.

    • Turning away
    • Pointing yourself away from the other person can signify you’re distracted or uninterested in the conversation. Face the other person and display signs of engagement such as eye contact and leaning slightly toward them.
      Why we turn away: Shifting your torso away from someone, which is called ventral denial, generally means we don’t like a person or approve of their view.

    • Fidgeting
    • When certain movements—such as touching your face, bouncing your legs, or adjusting your clothes—are ongoing or repetitive, they can suggest nervousness, agitation, or discomfort. Keep your body relatively still to communicate a calmer, more confident attitude.
      Why we fidget: There are several reasons a person can fidget including boredom, anxiety, stress, and lack of focus.

    • Crossing your arms
    • Folding your arms across your chest can suggest you’re defensive or closed off. Communicate receptivity to the other person and the conversation by keeping your arms open.
      Why we cross our arms: We tend to cross our arms in front of our bodies when we’re defensive, anxious, or impatient.

    • Scowling
    • This can indicate you’re upset, angry, or closed off, which can evoke anxiety or defensiveness in the other person. Try to smile whenever it’s appropriate. Just don’t force it; fake smiles can be interpreted as deceptive or disingenuous.
      Why we scowl: While research suggests people are put off by scowling, deeming it as an unfriendly act, some people scowl for no apparent reason.

    • Sitting or standing too close
    • Leaning toward a person can convey interest in what they say, but getting too close can feel uncomfortable or even threatening. Aim to keep at least 18 inches between you and the other person at all times. Also be aware that different cultures have their own customs when it comes to personal space.
      Why we sit or stand too close: Studies suggest a particular type of brain damage may explain why some people don’t understand personal space.

    Tips on how to read body language in the workplace

    When people adopt negative body language in the workplace, it’s likely to damage relationships among coworkers, lower employee morale, and even contribute to expensive mistakes. In contrast, the use of positive body language yields several benefits, such as it fosters a more confident and positive attitude (because of its impact on hormones). This inspires others to perceive you as more competent and likable.

    Bottom line? Adopting positive body language in the workplace is likely to improve employee engagement, facilitate coworker bonding, and lead to more productive and successful interactions across the board.

    How to elicit more positive body language in the workplace

    Now that you know how to avoid negative or aggressive body language in the workplace, it’s time to cultivate more positive outcomes. Evoke positive body language in yourself and others with the following tips.

    • Adopt proper posture
      Good posture conveys that you’re alert, confident, positive, and approachable.
      How to: Sit up straight, square your shoulders, and keep your head upright.
    • Take up space
      Hunching or otherwise making yourself appear smaller can suggest a lack of confidence. In contrast, taking up space conveys power and confidence and can inspire a more positive reception from others.
      How to: Adopt the proper posture described above, then plant your feet firmly on the ground, widen your stance, keep your shoulders spread wide, and use open arm gestures.
    • Perfect your handshake
      A positive handshake should be firm and steady but not so strong that it risks harming or intimidating the other person.
      How to: Smile and maintain eye contact as you shake hands with a firm—but not too overpowering—grip. (Familiarize yourself with the relevant customs if you’re greeting someone from a different cultural background.)
    • Gesture with your hands
      Gesturing can communicate interest, improve your credibility, and even enhance your own thinking. But gesturing too much can be distracting and fall under the “fidgeting” faux pas described above.
      How to: Find a healthy balance by alternating between gesturing with your hands and resting them in your lap or on the breakroom table.
    • Mirror others’ body language
      Mirroring another person’s body language can help build positive rapport between two people.
      How to: Subtly mimic the other person’s body language—for example, lean forward when they lean forward or placing your hands in your lap after they’ve done so. Just don’t overdo it, and make sure you aren’t mimicking negative or uncomfortable body language.
    • Observe body language cues
      By responding to another person’s body language in ways that build comfort and rapport, you increase the odds that everyone will leave the interaction feeling positive.
      How to: Become a more active conversationalist and listener by paying attention to other people’s body language and respond appropriately. For example, if you notice the other person’s body language suggests they feel anxious or uncomfortable, help put them at ease by adopting an open, non-aggressive stance.

    Learning to read your own and others’ body language takes time, as does learning to adopt positive body language on a regular basis. The more you practice positive body language, the more likely you are to enjoy positive interactions with your coworkers, leaders, and clients.

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