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Did you know that a large percentage of communication is unspoken? In fact, according to some sources nonverbal communication accounts for anywhere between 93%-55%. While exact numbers vary, what everyone seems to agree on is that unspoken communication is even more important than what you actually say during any given interaction.

As one of the key aspects of emotional intelligence is the ability to understand the feelings and motivations of others then, reading body language can play an important part. You do it all the time unconsciously, so let’s take a look at how you can start to do it consciously.

Some Basics

There are many different examples of individual body language elements that can be interpreted to guess what someone is thinking or feeling. Let’s start with a few of these to get the ball rolling:

  • Arms folded – someone with their arms folded is displaying a very ‘closed off’ body language, suggesting that they aren’t interested in what’s being said or that they don’t agree with it
  • Foot direction – the direction that someone’s foot points in when they’re standing or sitting can tell you what they’re really interested in. If their feet are pointed towards the door, it may be that they want to leave. The same often goes for the angle of their body.
  • Finger pointing to the temple – if someone is resting on their hand and their finger is pointing at their temple however, this suggests they are interested in what you have to say.
  • Mirroring – if you see two people whose body language mirrors each other, then this suggests that they have rapport and like one another
  • Touching – when a man touches another man to pat him on the back or shoulder, this is often a sign of dominance and marks the initiator as the ‘alpha’

Context and Grouping

The mistake that many people will make when reading body language though, is to look at these individual signs in isolation and to forget the context. For instance, you might think that someone who has their arms crossed is ‘closed’ and uninterested in what you have to say but if it is cold they may in fact just be doing it to stay warm. On the other hand, if they are holding a glass of wine, this can prevent them from crossing their arms though they may also be creating a barrier with that arm by holding it in front of themselves.

Successful reading of body language then requires you to observe clusters of signals and to consider the context.

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