How to interpret body language respectfully and successfully

Author: Elly Prior | First published: 07-02-2014 | Modified: 24-10-2017

This article on interpreting body language follows the page on Body Language Signs. Here, I hope to help you interpret the signals of the mouth, face, hands and other general body language signs. I've also included a short film, from Urban Theory Films, to help you along.

Of course, my primary aim (as with every article on this site) is to provide expert relationship advice. Improving your ability to read your partner's body language will help to increase your emotional intelligence as well as your communication skills.

Oh, and just in case... no body language is bad or negative in itself. Be curious, and aim to understand rather than judge.

An overview of body language signs

7 key areas to notice when interpreting body language

  1. Face: expression, movement of eyes, eyebrows and mouth. (Facial muscles are attached to other muscles and/or the skin - unlike any other muscle. For more info on this, have a look at BBC Science: facial muscles - links further down)
  2. Head: shaking and nodding, turning away, tilting, dropping or lifting
  3. Shoulders: dropping, tightening, pulling backwards, hunching or the angle of the shoulders against the body
  4. Torso: shifting in the seat, leaning forward or backward, angled towards or away from others, rocking, upright or bent
  5. Hands: fiddling, gestures and handshakes
  6. Legs: restless, sitting with legs together, wide or crossed. Do they shift at certain points in the conversation?
  7. Feet: oh ... I love how feet give so much away! As with other body language, this is usually a subconscious action and I often see this whilst counselling. It's one part of nonverbal communication skills that I even teach to police officers. I'm amazed that so many people don't realise how much of a sign a sudden foot wobble is!

How body language conveys feelings

Sentences - the words you speak in order - convey information. The tone, speed and passion with which you express the words all reveal something of your actual feelings (which are lurking behind the message). 

Body language is about feelings alone. Often, you can't help but reveal yourself and neither can your partner. You may try really hard not to show what you're feeling, but somehow it 'leaks' out anyway. Your partner is bound to catch on to that - if not consciously then unconsciously, and of course the same happens for you.

Nevertheless, it's really easy to misinterpret what you see. So, I'm hoping to help you out here.

Important tips to keep in mind...

5 Tips to give you the best chance of getting it right

  1. Don't focus on just one sign out of context as it may be misleading
  2. Look for 'clusters' of body language signs
  3. Consider cultural differences in gestures and movement
  4. Continue to increase your self-awareness
  5. Always check how your own feelings have potentially influenced your interpretation

Watch the video below then read through the rest of this article, and revisit the film once you've done so.

Language without words

Well ... just have a look at this very revealing short film. It was written and directed by Mike Collins and his company Urban Theory Films.

Watch it and think about it. Can you tell the story?

MAYBE from Urban Theory Films on Vimeo.

Of course you can! You know what it's all about - yet not a word is spoken!

We're born with a communication template to build upon so that we can continue to increase our ability to relate to other people. Right from birth we're able to engage with our caregivers to entice them to keep us safe, feed us and teach us.

Therefore, all the knowledge you need to interpret body language is stored safely in your unconscious mind. Some of it will have been 'downloaded' from your DNA, though you may have lost touch with part of it.

Now that we've looked at an overview of body language, and how it can convey feelings, let's take a closer look at some of the individual signs you can look out for.

Interpreting body language: eyes and eyebrows

What can you learn from your partner's - or anybody's - eyes?  Oh ... masses! Here we go:

Eye contact

Relaxed and at ease

Your partner shows an interest in you as he/she effortlessly makes and breaks eye contact. You're likely to feel at ease.

Women can go a little 'doe-eyed' if they're interested in a potential partner. They'll also tilt their head slightly as they listen.

1/3 of a female face - eyes

Staring

You may feel uncomfortable if your partner stares at you, depending on his/her intent. It's likely to feel great if it's accompanied by a gentle and inviting smile. But you're bound to feel ill at ease if, at the same time, they invade your personal space in an aggressive manner.  And... you'll feel threatened if they do so whilst also being verbally abusive.

Your partner could also be lying if they're staring at you. You may want to enquire further if it's not a normal behaviour for them.

Looking sideways

If you and your partner are having a conversation and they looks sideways at other people, you don't necessarily need to interpret that as a lack of interest in you. Looking sideways also happens whilst someone is processing what's being said - their eyes will be more 'dreamy' or 'trance' like.

Looking upwards

When someone rolls their eyes upwards, you know they're thinking something like: "Oh for goodness' sake", or "That is so stupid". It can feel dismissive and undermining. It's definitely a communication spoiler.

Looking away diagonally

This is a natural way of breaking eye contact. It can mean the other person is reflecting on something you've just said.

Looking down

This may show sadness, hopelessness or giving up on the conversation. This isn't a great sign, particularly if the two of you have been arguing and you've been trying to 'win'. Know that either one of you may have won the battle, but that doesn't mean you've won the war. Arguments like these can be very damaging for a relationship.

Looking down can also be a sign or an admission of guilt.

Winking

This definitely is a sign that someone's interested. Winking often happens unconsciously. It kind of says: "you and I know without saying that we're on the same wavelength". Or: "You see, I told you so!"

Lack of eye contact

We tend to feel uncomfortable if someone we're talking to makes little eye contact. It's as if they don't want to acknowledge us. However, people on the autistic spectrum can find it excruciatingly difficult to make eye contact. Here too, it's important to consider cultural differences.

Lack of eye contact can also mean that someone is feeling embarrassed or guilty.

Size of pupils

Enlarged pupils

You can be sure someone is attracted to you if their pupils are enlarged. That is... if they don't feel physically threatened (as fear is also a cause of enlarged pupils). If their pupils are very enlarged it could be a sign that they are sexually aroused!

Eyebrows

You know when those eyebrows come together you're in the dog house!

Conversely, if your partner's eyebrows are pulled up as they open their eyes wide whilst looking at you - and smiling - they may well be flirting with you.

What you can learn about the shoulders

How you hold your shoulders says a lot about how you feel. How far are your shoulders pulled back? Are they hunched up, tightly held against the body, or bent forward?

Straight shoulders

Feeling uncomfortable around other people? Lacking a bit of confidence? Just for a moment, stand upright, pull your shoulders straight and smile. Notice how lifting your shoulders also 'lifts' your mood. Notice how people who look and sound confident normally have their shoulders straight.

Shoulders pulled backwards

Shoulders pulled right back could be read as 'arrogant'. However, it may be the body language of someone who's attempting to hide their lack of confidence.

Rounded and hunched

Shoulders pulled forward and up may betray a lack of confidence and self-esteem, discomfort or unhappiness. Rounded shoulders can also be a sign of disappointment, apathy, hopelessness, depression or resignation.

How about our faces, or the way we walk?

Every part of the body plays a role in communicating something about how we're feeling. Our faces, our postures and the way we walk can give subtle hints to an observant onlooker.

The language of the face

Mouth

Lips

Soft, moist lips and a mouth slightly open with a relaxed jaw are signs of sexual interest. Licking and biting lips are 'sexually provocative' actions, says Mike Carter, a body language specialist.

Tight lips can be a sign of disapproval. Pulling lips tight and biting them can be a sign that someone's trying to hide something - almost as if they're trying to prevent a piece of information from 'slipping out'.

Smiling

It's very hard to fake a smile. A faked smile doesn't reach the eyes. A real smile doesn't only turn up the corners of your mouth but it involves your eyes too.

Cheeks

Blushing

Some people blush very easily - even at the most minor embarrassments. Blushing can also be a sign of guilt. If your partner doesn't normally blush easily, be suspicious when you notice a flushing of his/her face. He/she may feel caught out! Have a look at my page on Infidelity Warning Signs for more on this.

Interpreting other body language signs

Swaggering

'Swaggering' can be interpreted as a sign of arrogance (or intoxication of course!). It's rather a macho sign, just as sitting with legs apart is too.

Swaying of hips

Well... this is a sign women have used since ancient times to attract a mate for procreation. Men (and some women) take notice of hips for that very reason.

Arm folding

This can be a defensive sign - either angry or protective. It can feel threatening too. If someone's puffed up their chest and folded their arms you can rightfully feel ill at ease.

Of course, you can also fold your arms if you're sitting or standing comfortably. Just be aware of how someone else may interpret that, though - rightly or wrongly.

Handshakes

How do you feel about a limp handshake? Does it make you feel wanted or acknowledged? Do you feel that the person shaking your hand is really interested in you? I doubt it. The message is - shake someone's hand like you're really interested. Look them in the eyes (if culturally acceptable) and smile. Shake no more than about 3 times and don't squeeze too hard either. Or... you might just want to hold on a little longer. ;-)

An open hand, with the palm slightly turned up, is inviting - this is great for the start of a meeting, or letting someone know you're interested, perhaps finding them attractive and welcoming them. A 'closed' hand is more grounding and confirming - great for shaking on a deal.

Self touches

If you notice someone briefly touch the back of their arms, their nose, ear, mouth or neck, it's likely that they're feeling uncomfortable. Touch like that creates a brief sense of comfort and security. Can you make them feel more at ease?

Touching

Do they keep touching you gently? Then they're interested in or attracted to you and wanting to be closer. Your response, of course, will depend on how keen you are to close the gap. If you like them and would like to explore the relationship further, then very gently and briefly touch them every now and then.  

Be careful though - it's far more natural for women to do that. If you, as a man, keep touching a woman too much or too early, your advances may well be very quickly rejected.

If the two of you are already in a relationship, get to know the love language of your partner. What precisely do they like and what don't they like? What makes them feel loved?

How proficient do you feel now in reading body language?

Now you know how to interpret body language. Watch the video again and have a go at answering the following questions...

  1. What specific body language signs did you notice that showed she was definitely not interested?
  2. What did you notice about the guy that told you that he felt beaten?
  3. How did you know he was lacking in confidence? What did you notice about his shoulders when the second girl arrived?  
  4. What did that tell you?

The best way to practice and interpret body language is by ensuring that you're calm and focused on the other person. If you're self-conscious and/or self-obsessed you're unlikely to make the grade.

So, start off with yourself. Is there something else you need to do to help you feel more at ease with other people? HypnosisDownloads (via my page hypnosis FAQ) has all the right self-hypnosis downloads you could wish for to become more confident and a better communicator.

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I frequently update my articles based on feedback, therefore I really value your vote. If you think I've missed something, please do let me know in the comment section below.

Thank you so much in anticipation. :-)

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