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Is Your Body Language Sending the Wrong Signals?

September 15, 2015

By: Terri Williams

It’s quite possible to make a statement without saying a word. Unfortunately, it’s also quite possible for that statement to send the wrong message. Your nonverbal communication can either reinforce and complement what you’re trying to convey, or it can prove contradictory. And when your body language says something different than the words that are coming out of your mouth, it can lead others to be confused, distrustful, and question your professionalism.

According to research psychologist Albert Mehrabian, only 7% of communication is actually based on what you say. The majority - 55% - is based on body language, and 38% is based on your tone of voice.

To ensure that you’re projecting the desired image, focus on these areas:


Facial Expressions

When you frown or wrinkle your nose, you signal your displeasure, disapproval, irritation, or anger. Raising both eyebrows or dropping your jaw indicates that you’re surprised, astonished, or shocked. Raising just one eyebrow implies cynicism, doubt, or skepticism. A stony facial expression could either mean that you disapprove or you just don’t care.

Focus instead on smiling, which is indicative that you are in agreement, and also practice have a relaxed facial expression, which means that you are open and objective.

Eye Contact

Failing to make and maintain eye contact could send a litany of negative messages. It’s possible that you’re just looking at your notes or you may be gazing into the distance while intently listening to what’s being said. However, by failing to look someone in the eye, it could send the message that you’re bored and uninterested in the conversation or you’re distracted by something else you find more deserving of your attention.

Failing to make eye contact could also mean that you’re lying or being evasive, or it could indicate that you’re uncomfortable with the conversation at hand. Some people are shy and lack confidence, while others may find it distracting to look someone in the eye while trying to concentrate on the conversation at hand. Regardless of the reason, this mannerism is always perceived negatively and should be avoided.

Strive for balance. While it’s acceptable to occasionally glance away, maintaining eye contact conveys that you are interested and respectful.


Your various movements also send silent messages. For example, your hands may be folded across your chest because you’re cold or trying to hide a recent coffee stain, but this act is usually viewed as being defensive and distrustful.

Hands and arms are expressive body parts, so you should refrain from pointing your fingers in someone’s face or flailing your arms wildly as you’re trying to prove a point.  Avoid putting your hands on your hips as this signals bossiness, while thrusting them into your pockets makes you appear uninterested.

Clicking or flipping your ink pen, tapping your fingers on the table, playing with your hair and bouncing your legs up and down are all signs of anxiety or impatience. Practice nodding your head to show that you are listening, but keep it to a minimum so you don’t appear impatient, just wanting the person to wrap up the conversation.

Your handshake also reveals a lot about you. According to a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, applicants with a firm handshake were deemed more hirable than those with weak handshakes. Another study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed that people with a firm handshake were considered “more extroverted and open to experience and less neurotic and shy than those with a less firm or limp handshake.”


How you stand and sit also conveys unspoken messages that could override what you’re actually saying. Slumping and slouching makes you appear unsure of yourself, and could cause others to doubt your abilities. Leaning back could make you appear to be disengaged or lazy. Sitting up straight and standing up tall implies confidence and alertness.

Tone of Voice

How you speak is just as important as what you’re saying. Shouting is a clear indication that you’re out of control, while stammering and relying on “hush” makes you appear to be uninformed or deceptive.

High-pitched voices are deemed more emotional and less confident than lower-pitched voices. Pay attention if you are mumbling or speaking low, as this sends a message that you must not have anything worth hearing.

Using a monotone pace and tempo makes you sound uninteresting, while speaking too rapidly may cast you as an erratic person. Varying your pace and tempo accordingly sends the signal that you are saying something worth hearing and are confident in your presentation.


Many of these communication blunders may be habits that you’ve formed over time. But rest assured that with practice, you can change these tendencies. Ask friends, family members, or coworkers that you trust to critique your nonverbal communication style. Or better yet, record yourself on video and self-critique…you may be shocked to see some of the body language you are conveying but never knew!

Presentation is everything and nonverbal communication plays a major role in how you’re perceived by others. You want to convey professionalism, confidence, and charisma so maintaining consistent communication – verbal, body language, and vocal tone – will determine your ability to build relationships and influence others and body language can ultimately spell success or failure.

Although looks in the workplace do make a difference, the way you do your job still holds a lot of the weight. We can be dressed to the nine's but still need training in areas such as soft skills, communication, leadership, time management, and much more.  Check out our Soft Skills Library to see what kind of courses we offer for employee development and training.

Terri Williams

Terri Williams began writing professionally in 1997, working with a large nonprofit organization. Her business, education, and lifestyle articles have appeared in various online publications including Yahoo, USA Today, The Houston Chronicle, U.S. News & World Report University Directory, The San Francisco Chronicle, and the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago. Williams has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

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