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11 ways find out what’s really being said

Aug 21, 2018

Fiona Flynn explains the basics of body language to help you figure out what your colleagues and clients really think.

We’ve all experienced situations where we heard one message but felt something different. For example, you may have heard the words “I’m really happy to support you in this” but the non-verbal signals showed closed body language, which can include folded arms, crossed legs and minimal eye contact. It’s very important to be able to correctly interpret these non-verbal communications, which are read by the limbic or emotional brain.

Professor Albert Mehrabian from UCLA conducted significant research into communications and explored the relative importance of verbal and non-verbal communications. It turns out that the words we use in our communication represent just 7% of meaning. Tone of voice makes up 38% of meaning while body language gives the most clues to meaning at 55%. For communication to be effective and meaningful, all three elements must support each other.

Successful leaders and those seen as excellent communicators tend to have high levels of emotional intelligence to support them in their interpersonal communications. They display high levels of self-awareness and awareness of others, which allows them to understand what’s really occurring. But what about the rest of us? How can we learn to read body language more effectively?

Here are some simple yet effective tips on how to read body language.

Personality types

When joining a team, explore the personality types present. Ask how they like to receive information. This will help you communicate with them as effectively as possible.


In our modern and frenetic lives, our brains are bombarded with thousands of signals daily. Actively slowing down to become present in each situation is a vital skill for leaders. When fully present, we don’t just go through the motions. Rather, we can truly observe what is happening in the interaction and then decide how to act.


Take the time to really listen. Practice active and empathetic listening. Focus on the other person, listen to the words they use, observe body language, notice verbal and non-verbal cues.


Instant judgements are barriers to effective communication. Opt for curiosity instead. Ask open questions to gain more insight and to better understand other perspectives. Examples include: What do you think? Can you help me understand?


Observe the other’s posture. Is it open (standing tall, arms by the side and open) or closed (arms and legs crossed, fidgety, biting lip)? A closed posture signals resistance.

Eye contact

Our eyes are the windows to our soul. When someone avoids direct eye contact or has glazed over, it is likely that they do not agree.


An authentic smile lights up someone’s face, it comes with a sparkle in the eye. A fake smile is easy to spot.

Clenched jaw

A clenched jaw is a sign of stress.

Mirroring body language

When people are in rapport and agree on a subject, they subconsciously match and mirror body language.

Check in with your own feelings

Your brain picks up the non-verbal cues and your limbic brain will read them, if you allow it. Slow down, take a breath and acknowledge your own feelings. If you’re stressed or anxious, try to pinpoint the cause.

Reflect back

Summarise what you have understood from the communication, as doing so can highlight any discrepancies. If the other person seems uncertain, say so; this is a great way to validate verbal and non-verbal signals.
Neuroscience confirms that our behaviours are a result of our attitudes and feelings. Reading and understanding the behaviour of others allows you to build more effective working and personal relationships, and is a key driver of success.

Fiona Flynn is Managing Director at Montauk Consulting.