It’s More Than Words - Using Body Language to Understand Others

By Helen Holmes on October 08, 2012

Did you know that people communicate more often non-verbally? Even during the ancient times and until today (when we already have a defined communication system called language), non-verbal cues, which are commonly expressed through body language, have always been our major way of communicating. In fact, experts believe that far more information is relayed through body language than verbal communications.

It’s more than words

It’s funny how we could tell how sweet, salty or sour the food is just by looking at someone’s face who has tasted it. Or how we sympathise and feel how it really hurts to be broken-hearted when a weeping friend looks at us in the eye with tears. Body language is a very powerful tool that we don’t need to hear it just to understand things.

Sometimes, our body suggests things that our mind could not express. But still we thank our brain for it, specifically the “limbic system” – a very complex structure that processes our needs, thoughts, emotions, feelings and intentions. It is composed of the hypothalamus, hippocampus, amygdala, and some other regions. The limbic system starts functioning the moment we were born. That is why a baby who wants to be fed sucks his thumb, cries when scared or in pain, frown when feeling uncomfortable, and so on.

Understanding Others through Body Language

There are non verbal cues that help us understand what a person feels. With a little attentiveness, you will be able to read body language – a skill that you’ll find useful in your day-to-day life.

Reading Head Positions

A person who tilts his head is most likely being sympathetic. Or if a person smiles while tilting their head, that could mean they are being playful or are flirting. Lowering one’s head could generally mean that a person is lying. But, if he is being complimented and he lowers his head, he must be feeling shy or timid. If that person lowers his head after explaining, that means he isn’t sure of what he said.

A person who cocked his head is either confused or challenging you. You can spot the difference by looking at the expression of their mouth, gestures and eyebrows.

What their eyes mean

They say you can tell whether a person is lying just by looking at their eyes. That is true. A person who looks to the sides is usually nervous, lying or distracted. If he looks away from you, he is either being submissive or showing comfort display. Looking askance usually means he is not convinced with what you are saying or is distrustful. If he keeps looking down on the floor, that person is probably feeling upset, sad, or trying to hide something emotional.

But remember, a person who could not look at you straight in the eye is not at all times lying or being shy. In some cultures, looking at the eyes is a sign of disrespect.

When he looks at you with dilated pupils, it means the person is interested in you or in what you are saying. If they are looking far away, it is a sign that the person is thinking of something or attentively listening.

What arm positions mean

A person with crossed arms may mean that he is not comfortable with his appearance or is being a bit more reserved. But if his arms are crossed and his feet are wide apart, he is showing a sense of toughness or authority. However, some cross their arms as a habit, nothing more.

If he frequently rubs his hands together, that could mean that he is comforting himself, thinking that a stressful situation will be over soon. Resting the arms on the back of their neck or head could mean the person is being open to the conversation or just being laidback.

If the person places his arms on their hips, it might mean that they are feeling tired or impatient, or just waiting. Furthermore, a clenched hand is a sign of irritation, anger or nervousness.

What their feet are saying

Frequent tapping or shifting of weight could mean that the person is excited, nervous, impatient, scared, or intimated. If the person is sitting while his feet are crossed at the ankles, that mean he is feeling comfortable.

If the person is standing and keeping his feet close together, it could mean that they are trying to be prim and proper. It could also show a sign of passiveness or submissiveness.

Now, if a person intentionally touches his feet to yours, he is flirting!


Sometimes, understanding other people’s feelings by looking at their gestures could be difficult especially when there are cultural differences. For instance, in some cultures, speaking with someone requires a slightly wider distance that if you keep closer to that person, he or she might feel very uncomfortable. It is important that we avoid judging a person just by basing on their body language. One trick is to relate his gestures in the expression of his face and to what he is saying.

Even if you are not interested, try decoding the message out of other people’s body language. You can try lowering the volume of your television while a movie. On a piece of paper, try to write down what you think they feel or are trying to express. Practise makes perfect as they say. Over time, understanding body language becomes easier.


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