Analyzing & Interpreting Your Clients’ Body Language: 26 Tips

Body languageDarwin was one of the first individuals to explore the concept of body language in Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

He studied the “mental continuities” between human and animal expressions and cataloged emotional displays through photographs and detailed descriptions (Keltner, 2009).

These expressions of emotions seen in both humans and animals include facial gestures, postures, and body movements. We now know these expressions are considered body language.

Body language is an integral source of communication and connection with others. Beginning at birth and found in cultures across the world, these nonverbal forms of communication are necessary for survival, engagement, and success.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Communication Exercises (PDF) for free. These science-based tools will help you and those you work with build better social skills and better connect with others.

What Is Body Language?

Body language involves communication provided through nonverbal channels. This includes posture, facial expressions, eye movement/contact, proximity to others, and physical movements (Pease, 2017). Body language is especially apparent in emotional situations, when it tends to emphasize words and the feelings behind them.

Researchers have found that 70% to 90% of communication is nonverbal (Mehrabian, 1967). A large portion of this nonverbal communication includes body language. Mehrabian (1967) began studying forms of nonverbal communication.

He examined participants who heard three recorded words of “maybe” — one to convey disfavor, one to convey favor, and one that was neutral. Participants who were able to hear the recordings with pictures of facial expressions and body language were 33% more accurate in identifying the emotion behind the word (Mehrabian, 1967).

Body language is influenced by personal factors such as emotions, mood states, biology, personality, cultural, and environmental factors (Pease, 2017). We give and receive wordless signals through body language, whether we are aware of it or not. Gestures, postures, and eye contact send strong messages to others in both conversations and in silence.

Body language vs. nonverbal communication

Nonverbal communication includes all forms of communicative acts except speech. Body language is a type of nonverbal communication. It lies under the umbrella of nonverbal communication, which encompasses a broader scope of communication (Milton & Randall, 2022).

One way to differentiate between the two is to think about body language as all the nonverbal communication that can be seen (Milton & Randall, 2022). Nonverbal communication that is not considered body language (or cannot be seen) includes repetition of words or statements, vocal characteristics of speech such as tone and volume, and sounds that might not be considered words such as “hmm” and “uh-huh.”

Why does body language matter?

Body language is essential to correctly and accurately understanding other people’s emotions and intentions (Cartmill et al., 2012). It further emphasizes main points and emotions and provides clarification in many ways.

In both personal and professional settings, body language can make or break an interaction. It can help connect us with loved ones or push them away. It can provide a sense of confidence and leadership or demonstrate a lack of knowledge and ability.

Reading and understanding body language can help individuals express intimacy, provide information more clearly, and enhance professionalism. Understanding the subtle yet powerful cues that body language signals can help individuals improve relationships and their ability to communicate with and read other people.

Body language is particularly important when working with clients in a professional setting, where emotion and communication are the foundation of healing and improving wellbeing.

How to Read Body Language: The Basics

Facial expressionsThere are many ways we communicate with body language and nonverbal cues.

Some types of body language include facial expressions, body gestures, postures, eye contact, physical touch, and personal space.

Facial expressions

The face is an extremely expressive form of body language, with the ability to communicate numerous emotions without a single word. From anger to anxiety, fear to grief, embarrassment to disgust, facial expressions are one form of nonverbal communication that is considered universal across cultures and species (Keltner, 2009).

Gestures

Hand, arm, and body gestures are part of daily life. So much so that now in video calls or online meetings, a hand gesture or arm movement can simulate a thumbs-up or heart emoji. Gestures can be positive, such as an “OK” signal, or negative. Gestures are largely cultural and may express different meanings depending on geography and ethnicity.

Posture

How an individual moves and holds themselves communicates information in subtle and powerful ways. Posture includes how someone sits, holds their head, stands, walks, and engages their physical stance.

Eye contact

Our visual sense is especially important in nonverbal communication. The way we look at others can communicate many things and help to improve or detract from the flow of conversation. Eye contact can convey affection, anger, attraction, and interest, among other things.

Physical touch

Physical touch is a powerful form of body language and nonverbal communication. From hugs to handshakes, touch demonstrates a variety of messages. Touch is also a very personal way to express interest, emotion, and engagement with others and can be received well or create discomfort and tension.

Personal space

Physical space in interactions is also a very personal aspect of body language. Our need for or comfort with it depends a great deal on culture, the specific relationship, personal preferences, past experience, and the given situation. Understanding other people’s boundaries is an important component of assessing the need for personal space.

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5 Examples and Types

There are numerous ways to categorize body language and many examples to demonstrate how expression, posture, movement, and facial expressions impact what is communicated.

Open body language

When working with clients, having open body language is important for the therapeutic alliance to develop trust and connection.

Open body language, much like it sounds, signals that someone is open to the other person and the message they are sending (Wezowski & Wezowski, 2018).

Open body language can include leaning toward the other person, keeping legs and arms uncrossed (or open), having an open stance, and having a relaxed upper body.

Positive body language

Positive body language tends to include the characteristics of a strong and confident person (Wezowski & Wezowski, 2018).

This can be demonstrated with a relaxed posture, clear eye contact, feet hip distance apart or wider, hips tilted upward, and movement toward the other person.

It is important to consider the power dynamic when working with clients and to keep body language positive without being intimidating or dominating. The goal is confidence and openness without arrogance.

Negative body language

Negative body language tends to push others away. It includes having arms crossed, balled fists, clasped hands, hidden or defensive postures, hiding the body, or turning/moving away. Covering the mouth or touching the neck has also been found to represent insecurity and doubt (Wezowski & Wezowski, 2018).

Being aware of tendencies toward these movements can help you avoid doing them in session and respond appropriately when clients are engaging in negative body language.

Confident body language

Many people work hard to demonstrate confident body language. Self-confidence is generally seen as a positive trait and is associated with success and good performance (Wezowski & Wezowski, 2018).

Confident body language includes an upright body position, looking directly at people, hands clasped behind the head, and relaxed shoulders. Confident body language has also been discussed in terms of a “power pose,” which is demonstrated across cultures and species as making oneself bigger.

Your body language may shape who you are - Amy Cuddy

Virtual

As more interpersonal communication becomes virtual, it is important to be aware of how body language is portrayed on a screen. Some ideas to consider in virtual sessions include:

  • Make sure lighting is sufficient so clients and/or members can see facial expressions and pick up on body movement.
  • Be aware of posture. It is easy to get too comfortable behind a screen and hunch over. Have good support when sitting, staying upright and attentive.
  • Maintain healthy eye contact. It may be beneficial to shift between looking at the screen and looking directly at the camera to avoid uncomfortable stares.
  • Avoid touching the face and head too much, as this conveys insecurity and can be a distraction.
  • Smile and use warm facial gestures, as the face is the main thing people see in virtual meetings.
  • Use hand gestures. This will require the computer or recording device to be placed far enough away to capture some of the upper body.

Different Culture, Different Body Language

Culture plays a large role in how we give and receive messages. Facial expressions are the one form of body language that appears to be universal across cultures (Keltner, 2009). The six universal facial expressions that have been identified are: happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, fear, and surprise.

However, cultural differences in body language exist. Below are samples that have been observed. It is not an extensive list of all cultural differences in body language, but it demonstrates that ongoing education and awareness are important when working with others in personal and professional settings.

Hand gestures

A thumbs-up in Western cultures is a signal of “OK,” but in the Middle East it is a sign of “up yours.” Similarly, curling the index finger (a sign to move closer) is considered impolite and rude in areas such as China and the Philippines (Cortez et al., 2017).

Eye contact

Most Western countries view eye contact as a sign of confidence and interest. In many Middle Eastern countries, eye contact between sexes is deemed inappropriate, and in some Asian cultures, unbroken eye contact is seen as aggressive and confrontational (Cortez et al., 2017).

Touch

Northern Europe and Far East cultures engage in very little physical contact or touch, where physical touch is a large part of socializing in the Middle East and Latin America (Cortez et al., 2017).

Seated positions

In Japan, sitting cross-legged is a sign of disrespect, and showing the soles of the feet is offensive in Middle Eastern countries (Cortez et al., 2017).

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5 Practical Tips for Interpreting Body Language

Argyle (1978) was one of the first modern researchers to study nonverbal communication and believed that humans have more than 700,000 forms of body language. Some specific areas to note for interpreting body language include paying attention to the head, face, eyes, arms, and hands.

1. Head

Nodding when another person is speaking is a sign that you are focused and listening. It can demonstrate that you agree with or acknowledge what is being said and validate opinions. Tilting the head to one side is also a sign of attentive listening and respect. Both of these are considered positive gestures in conversation.

A lowered head or head back with a rigid neck is a sign of a negative attitude, criticism, denial, or rejection. When someone is supporting their head with their hands, this is a sign of boredom and disinterest. And angling the chin upward is a sign of arrogance and dominance (Danesi, 2022).

2. Face

As most people know, smiling is an open, approachable facial gesture that indicates warmth and interest. On the other hand, frowning is a sign of anger, disinterest, or disagreement with what is being communicated.

Raising the eyebrows is a sign of surprise, and raising a single eyebrow tends to be an expression of disbelief. Pursed lips tend to demonstrate anger, sorrow, or a lack of acceptance, depending on the situation (Danesi, 2022).

3. Eyes

It is often said that the eyes are the window to the soul. Eye contact is the basis for understanding in conversation. When eye contact is avoided, it may demonstrate discomfort, uncertainty, or shyness, or signal that the person has something to hide.

When someone’s eyes are narrowed, it could indicate anger. Briefly closing the eyes and quickly opening them again is called confirmatory blinking and can indicate confirmation or approval of another person (Danesi, 2022). Narrowing the eyes can mean several things, such as confusion or a need for more information. It may also indicate concentration or anger.

It is also important to notice the pupils. Dilated pupils can demonstrate interest and attraction, while widening the eyes can signal surprise or excitement.

4. Arms and hands

Upper body postures consist largely of the arms and hands, which are the most mobile and prominent demonstrations of body language. Crossing the arms is a way for someone to create distance and demonstrates a negative attitude (Danesi, 2022). When arms are crossed and the individual is gripping their upper arms, this signals tension and discomfort.

Arms crossed with balled fists are also negative body language but signal aggression and anger. Putting hands on the hips can be a sign of aggression or dominance. Putting hands in pockets signals a lack of engagement and defensiveness (Danesi, 2022).

5. General tips

  • In general, self-confident people frequently look at their reflection in mirrors or windows and place themselves in a position to be the center of discussion. People demonstrate confidence through large gestures, big postures, self-assured smiles, firm handshakes, and steady eye contact. Embarrassment, insecurity, and low confidence are seen through nervous laughter, avoidance of eye contact, turning away, and avoidance (Mandal, 2014).
  • Nonverbal cues of fear can be seen with wide eyes, clutching, and gripping. Holding the breath, glancing around, and placing hands in front of the body is also a sign of fear (Mandal, 2014).
  • People demonstrate resentment with crossed arms, a stiffened body, hunched shoulders, and low vocal tone (Mandal, 2014).
  • Sexual interest and attraction can be seen through eye contact, exaggerated facial gestures, blinking, wetting the lips, touching the body, or crossing and uncrossing legs (Mandal, 2014).

4 Fascinating Studies on the Topic

Self-control for kidsBody language plays a crucial role in how we connect with others, present ourselves, and read and understand other people.

Research on nonverbal cues and forms of communication has been ongoing since Darwin’s investigations of evolution and emotion. More recently, specific studies on body language have helped us understand how it shapes and impacts every facet of life.

1. Body language and gender

Just as there are cultural differences in body language, gender differences have been found as well. In studies that examined men and women during interviews, researchers found that women tend to make smaller gestures and move their feet less than men, and that women showed more facial expression than men (Mandal, 2014).

2. Body language in the classroom

In an educational setting, a teacher’s body language can impact a student’s perception and ability to learn. In one elementary school study, groups of students were subjected to either negative or positive facial expressions given by the teacher (Dilek & Ekber, 2022).

The students provided with negative nonverbal cues (even though the lesson was the same) had more negative views of peers and the classroom environment and reported lower levels of interest in learning material (Dilek & Ekber, 2022).

3. Body language vs. facial expression

While facial expression is an important aspect of nonverbal communication, research has found that body movements may be more indicative of emotional expression. In a research study by Huxter et al. (2023), participants were given images of winning and losing tennis players.

After viewing photos with either only the face or only the body, participants were asked to rate the tennis player’s perceived level of arousal and emotional experience. They were more accurate when viewing the body versus the face (Huxter et al., 2023).

This demonstrates that body expressions and movements convey a great deal of information regarding emotion.

4. Body language in presentations

Body language has a direct impact on how people perceive and interpret scientific findings. Researchers interviewed audience members after the same research paper was presented using different presentation styles (Patil et al., 2024).

They found that presenters who maintained eye contact and used purposeful gestures with an open posture were more likely to be seen as credible and persuasive than presenters who fidgeted, avoided eye contact, and used closed body language (Patil et al., 2024).

How to Improve Your Own Body Language

Projecting situationally appropriate body language is correlated with professional success and general happiness (Wezowski & Wezowski, 2018). There are many ways to improve body language in professional settings, working with clients, and in personal life.

  • Self-awareness
    Simply becoming aware of your posture, facial expressions, gestures, and how you sit is a great starting point. Keeping arms uncrossed and having an upright, relaxed, and open posture is generally a good rule to follow.
  • Record yourself
    You may record yourself to understand how your body language, movement patterns, and gestures come across to others.
  • Lean in
    Lean in toward clients or those speaking to you to demonstrate interest and engagement.
  • Make eye contact
    Making eye contact typically shows interest and engagement and helps the other person feel heard, understood, and validated.
  • Mirror the other person
    Mirroring the other person’s sitting position, posture, and tone helps put them at ease.
  • Slow down
    Moving and speaking slowly demonstrates intentionality and decreases stress and anxiety for other people.

17 Exercises To Develop Positive Communication

17 Positive Communication Exercises [PDFs] to help others develop communication skills for successful social interactions and positive, fulfilling relationships.

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Helpful Resources From PositivePsychology.com

PositivePsychology.com offers several useful resources to help clients explore body language and improve various aspects of communication.

As mentioned, facial expressions play a crucial role in nonverbal communication. Clients can learn to identify facial expressions and the emotions they represent with this Emotional Labeling worksheet, which can help improve many relationships and interactions.

Children can learn the importance of body language by thinking about feelings and how they relate to parts of the body and body movements. The My Feelings, My Body worksheet will help teach young clients how to identify feelings and emotions in their body and what specific movements mean.

The Silent Connections group activity can be done with any number of people to teach the importance of posture and movement in communication. Developing awareness of body language can help individuals in both personal and professional situations.

For clinicians, developing self-awareness is a critical starting point for reading body language and helping clients understand their own. This awareness can help you connect with others and improve communication and understanding.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others communicate better, check out this collection of 17 validated positive communication tools for practitioners. Use them to help others improve their communication skills and form deeper and more positive relationships.

A Take-Home Message

The powerful form of nonverbal communication known as body language can make or break personal and professional interactions. Having positive, open, and confident body language can help clinicians connect with clients and empower them to take control of their own health, healing, and wellbeing.

Negative body language can separate, cause distrust, and discourage those we aim to help and create tension and conflict in relationships.

Using these tips to understand the body language of others and improve our own can change the dynamic and landscape of every facet of our lives.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Communication Exercises (PDF) for free.

Frequently Asked Questions

Body language can indicate deeper levels of emotion that are not expressed with words. It can signal discomfort, tension, anxiety, stress as well as positive mood states of confidence, engagement, and trust.

Body language includes facial expressions, gestures, physical position of the body, eye contact, and personal space.

Mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, personality disorders, and lack of trust can inhibit the ability to read others. When people are closed off due to personal reasons, past experiences, or lack of trust, it is also harder to read their emotions and get an understanding of what they want and need.

  • Argyle, M. (1978). The psychology on interpersonal behavior. Penguin Press.
  • Cartmill, E., Beilock, S., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2012). A word in the hand: Action, gesture and mental representation in humans and non-human primates. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 367, 129–143.
  • Cortez, R., Marshall, D., Yang, C., & Luong, L. (2017). First impressions, cultural assimilation and hireability in job interviews: Examining body language and facial expressions’ impact on employer’s perceptions of applicants. Concordia Journal of Communication Research, 4, 28–36.
  • Danesi, M. (2022). Understanding nonverbal communication. Bloomsbury Academic Press.
  • Dilek, C., & Ekber, T. (2022). The body languages teachers use in the classroom and their purposes. International Journal of Educational Research, 13(5), 41–59.
  • Huxter, K., Atkin, E., & Singhal, A. (2023). Perception of emotion in the facial expression and body language of athletes. Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 51(4), Article e12173.
  • Keltner, D. (2009). Born to be good: The science of a meaningful life. Norton and Company.
  • Mandal, F. B. (2014). Nonverbal communication in humans. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 24, 417–421.
  • Mehrabian, A. (1967). Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 31(3), 249–252.
  • Milton, J., & Randall, J. (2022). What the information analyst should know about body language. MIS Quarterly, 1(3), 33–47.
  • Patil, M., Patil, V., & Katre, U. (2024). Unspoken science: Exploring the significance of body language in science and academia. European Heart Journal, 45(4), 248–255.
  • Pease, A. (2017). Definitive book of body language. Orion.
  • Wezowski, K., & Wezowski, P. (2018). Without saying a word: Master the science of body language and maximize your success. Harper Collins Leadership Press.

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