10 Mistakes People Make With Their Body Language

May 31, 2017

Crossing your arms is a surefire way to make someone feel uncomfortable with your body language.

There’s a misquoted UCLA study out there that 93 percent of language is non-verbal.

That’s not true – you couldn’t listen to someone speaking in a different language and understand 93 percent of what they were saying based off their body language, LinkedIn Learning Instructor Carol Kinsey Goman said.

What that study actually said was that people’s emotional reaction to what’s being said is only 7 percent reliant on the words the person used. Instead, the speaker’s body language and their tone of voice make up the remaining 93 percent, Goman said.

In other words, people will understand what you say, regardless of your body language. But, how they respond to what you say – do they agree, disagree; like you or not like you – is highly reliant on how you say it.

Here’s the point: body language really matters. No matter how eloquent you are, having bad body language can ruin your chances of making friends and influencing people.

In her course Body Language for Leaders, Goman identified common mistakes people make with their body language that make them seem less likeable and less persuasive. Ten of them are:

1. Crossing your arms.

You might be crossing your arms because you’re cold or just because it’s just what you do. Regardless the reason, people interpret it one way, Goman said: that you are resistant and unapproachable.

2. Leaning away from someone.

Leaning away is a natural instinct people do when they are increasingly becoming uncomfortable with whomever they are talking with, Goman said. It sends a signal to your audience that you are eager to get out of there and aren’t overly interested in what they have to say.

Instead, pull a Sheryl Sandberg and lean in, slightly.

3. Getting too close to someone.

Here’s the opposite problem that salespeople are often guilty of. Getting within 18 inches of someone is okay – if that person is comfortable with you, Goman said.

However, if you get that close to someone and you don’t know them particularly well, you’ll likely make them uncomfortable and cause them to want to leave the situation. Distance is somewhat culturally-dependent, but generally speaking it’s good to keep 18 inches between you and a business associate, unless you have a particularly strong relationship with them, Goman said.

4. Looking at your watch, without explaining why.

If you look at your watch or put your palms on your thighs, you are signaling you are done talking with whomever you’re talking with. However, you could just be looking at your watch to see how much time you have left or for any number of reasons.

If you are actually done talking with the person, tell them that you have to go to another appointment. If you aren’t, tell them you aren’t, you are looking at your watch for another reason. But looking with explanation is invariably awkward and always makes the other person feel like they are wasting your time.

5. Dressing vastly different than the people you are speaking with.

In her course, Goman gave the example of a CEO of an oil company coming to an oil rig. In her example, the workers were wearing fire-retardant overalls, whereas the CEO was wearing a designer suit that he didn’t want to get dirty.

Many will interpret that as the CEO being above them, instead of one of them.

The CEO doesn’t have to dress exactly like the workers – that’s inauthentic – but dressing down somewhat would help. And the same goes the other way: if you want to be taken seriously in a board meeting, you need to dress the same way people on the board dress.

6. Avoiding eye contact.

Say you are a CEO and you don’t make eye contact with your employees. Regardless of your intention, it sends the message that you are above them and don’t really care about what they have to say.

Conversely, if you are an employee and avoid eye contact with the CEO, it often signals just the opposite: that you are submissive and don’t really believe in what you are saying.

Neither is particularly great

Instead, by making and briefly holding eye contact with people you meet, you transmit openness and energy, Goman said.

7. Not extending your hand sideways when shaking hands.

When shaking hands, if you offer your hand palm-up, it makes you look submissive, Goman said. Conversely, if you offer it palm-down or twist your hand down when shaking hands, it sends the message you are superior, as you are literally getting the upper-hand, she said.

Instead, extend your palm sideways when shaking hands and keep it sideways throughout the shake, Goman said. 

8. Slouching.

How many times growing up did your mother tell you not to slouch? Well, she was right, as slouching makes you look submissive or you aren’t paying attention.

Instead, pull your shoulders back, bring your elbows away from your body, uncross your legs and place your feet solidly on the floor when sitting, Goman said. That signals confidence.

9. Over-gesturing with your hands.

Using hand gestures when you speak is a good thing – they can add energy to your point, Goman said. But, like most things in life, it comes down to moderation.

That means keeping your hand gestures mostly waist-level and in slow, controlled movements, Goman said. Raising your hands above your shoulders or gesturing rapidly makes you look far less believable and frankly a bit frantic.

10. Not squaring up to a person when talking with them.

People have a tendency to turn their bodies away from someone, even slightly, when they disagree with them, Goman said. This is a literal sign of what you are figuratively doing – closing yourself off to them.

The best listeners instead stay square with a person when talking with them and nod while somebody is speaking. This makes a person feel comfortable and appreciated, Goman said.

*Image from Mills Baker, Flickr

Want to learn how to have great body language? Watch Goman’s full course here.

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