Let them know who’s boss

Body language plays a role in all face-to-face communication.  Control of your own body language and the ability to interpret other person’s non-verbal cues is a vital skill whether you are dealing with a contractor, haggling with a salesman or going for an interview.  Learn to master the different forms of body language you will need to appear in control, even if you don’t feel in control.

Strong body language

Open and comfortable: If you look comfortable, contractors and others are more likely to speak plainly and truthfully to you.  Make direct eye contact and smile with lips open. Open hands and keep palms visible.  Unbutton your coat upon being seated.  When listening, tilt your head a little to one side.  Shift the tilt from left to right at different points during longer conversations.  Keep arms at your side or behind you or, if sitting, crossed lightly in your lap; do not cross them on your chest.  To emphasize openness, subtly mirror the posture and hand gestures of the other person.

Confident: To appear confident, lean forward slightly and keep your chin up.  If standing, keep your hands at your side or join them behind the back.  Maintain good eye contact without overdoing it.  The rule of thumb in the US and other westernized countries is to maintain eye contact 50-70% of the time.  Any more than this and you can appear overly intense and aggressive; any less and you give off a signal that you are either lacking confidence or uninterested in the person or what they’re saying. Nod your head while speaking to show that you believe what you are saying.  Avoid hunching your shoulders or allowing your head to droop.

Interested/engaged: Let them know they aren’t talking over your head.  If seated, sit up straight with your back against the back of the chair. Slouching or hanging sideways indicates boredom. On the other hand, sitting very straight on the edge of your chair can betray tension or nerves.  Remember to move; altered body posture throughout a conversation shows ease. Turn with your torso and lean forward a bit when someone speaks to you.  If you fall away from a speaker or lean back, you will express inattentiveness and reserve. Making notes of what you are being told – without looking as though you’re attending a lecture, makes you look professional and organized.

Weak body language

Nervous: You may be scared to death trying to negotiate the price of a car or talk pipes with the plumber, but you don’t want to show it.  There are a number of actions that betray nerves.  The most common and obvious include pinching or pulling at skin, fidgeting, jiggling pocket contents, running tongue along front of teeth, clearing throat, hands touching the face or covering part of the face, running fingers through hair, twisting hands or pulling fingers, biting on pens or other objects and biting fingernails.  Keep legs still and cross them naturally and comfortably.  Legs tend move around more than normal when we are nervous, stressed or being deceptive.                                                                                                         

Defensive: Defensive body language indicates that you feel threatened and out of control.  Facial gestures that show defensive feelings include frowns, squinting eyes, lowered chins and tight-lipped smiles.  When we are feeling aggressive or are trying to defend our space, we puff ourselves up, sitting or standing overly straight with elbows extended.  Other body gestures include arms crossed in front of chest and torso pulled or angled away from the speaker.  Hand gestures include rubbing the back of the neck clenching fists, pointing fingers or by chopping one hand into the open palm of the other.


Here’s how to use a handshake to come across as confident and capable from the first:  Always shake hands firmly, but not too powerfully and look the other person in the eye.  If your palm is slightly up and outward, you are likely to be seen as open and friendly. Palm down gestures are generally interpreted as dominating and possibly aggressive, especially when there is no movement or bending between the wrist and the forearm. A vertical, upright handshake should convey equality.

If you are seated when you meet someone, do not jump out of your seat and offer a handshake. It’s better to let them take the initiative. If they are seated, offer your hand and allow them to stand.  If they are seated behind a desk or table, walk around instead of leaning over the table.  Then, choose a seat where you can see everyone in the room and they can see you.  If you are both standing, gage distance carefully.  Stand too close and you’ll be marked as pushy or overly aggressive. Stand or sit too far away and you’ll seem remote and standoffish.  Look directly at the other person, and always say your name unless you know for certain that the other person already knows it.

Guest Contributor

Self-Reliance Central publishes a variety of perspectives. Nothing written here is to be construed as representing the views of SRC. Reproduced with permission.