5 Mistakes People Make Reading Your Body Language

A few years ago, I was giving a presentation to the CEO of a financial services company, outlining a speech on “Leadership Presence” I was scheduled to deliver to his organization the next day.

confusing-male-faceAnd it wasn’t going well.

Our meeting lasted 30 minutes, and through that entire time the CEO sat at the conference table with his arms tightly crossed. He didn’t once smile, lean forward or nod encouragement. When I finished, he said thank you and glanced at the doorway to indicate that we were through.

When people don’t know how you usually behave (your baseline) they can easily jump to the wrong conclusion. Remember this when meeting someone for the first time.

I was sure that his nonverbal communication was telling me that my speaking engagement would be canceled. But when I walked to the elevator, the executive’s assistant came to tell me how impressed her boss had been with my presentation.

I was shocked and asked how he would have reacted had he not liked it. “Oh,” said the assistant, smiling, “He would have gotten up as you were speaking and walked out of the room.”

The nonverbal signals I’d received from that CEO were ones I judged to be negative. What I didn’t realize was that, for this individual, it was his normal (baseline) behavior.

Just as I misread that executive’s body language, when people don’t know how you usually behave (your baseline) they also can easily jump to the wrong conclusion. Remember this when meeting someone for the first time. She won’t know that you habitually frown when you’re concentrating — and may think the frown is a reaction to something she said or did.

Not knowing your baseline is only one of the reasons people make mistakes reading and reacting to your body language.

Here are four more:

They don’t consider the context.
When it comes to body language, context is king. You can’t really make sense of someone’s nonverbal message unless you understand the circumstances behind it. Context is a weave of variables including location, relationships, time of day, past experience, and even room temperature. Depending on the context, the same nonverbal signals can take on totally different meanings.

When your team members and colleagues don’t have access to this insight, they can misread you. If you yawn in a staff meeting because you were up early for an international business call – let people know why you’re tired. Without this context, you’ll look like you’re just bored.

They find meaning in a single gesture.
People are constantly trying to evaluate your state of mind by monitoring your body language. But all too often they will assign meaning to a single (and sometimes irrelevant) nonverbal cue. Since the human brain pays more attention to negative messages than it does to positive ones, people are mainly on the alert for any sign that indicates you’re in a bad mood and not to be approached.

So – you may be more comfortable standing with your arms folded across your chest (or you may be cold), but don’t be surprised when others judge that single gesture as resistant and unapproachable.

They evaluate you through an array of personal biases.
There was a woman in my yoga class who liked me from the moment we met. I’d prefer to believe that this was a result of my charismatic personality, but I know for a fact that it’s because I resembled her favorite aunt.
That’s how biases can work in your favor – an example of the so-called “halo effect.” But biases can also work against you. What if, instead of someone they like, you reminded people of someone they despise? In that case, you can bet that their initial response to you wouldn’t be a good one, and that they would be looking for any behavior on your part that confirmed this negative bias.

They compare your behavior to what is proper in their culture.
When I talk about culture, I’m referring to a set of shared values that a group of people hold. And while some of a culture’s values are taught explicitly, most of them are absorbed subconsciously, at a very early age. Such values affect how members of the group think and act and, more important, the kind of criteria by which they judge others.

We all have cultural biases that render some nonverbal behaviors as normal and right and others as strange or wrong. From greetings to hand gestures to the use of space and touch, what’s proper and correct in one culture may be ineffective — or even offensive — in another.

These are the most common mistakes people make when reading your body language. Understanding them, and trying not to make the same mistakes, will help you display nonverbal leadership presence.

Carol Kinsey Goman

Carol Kinsey Goman

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., president of Kinsey Consulting Services, is a keynote speaker, executive coach, and leadership consultant. Clients include 105 organizations in 24 countries. Carol is a leadership contributor for Forbes and the Washington Post. She has authored eleven books. Her latest book is The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help or Hurt How You Lead. A leading authority on leadership, change-management, collaboration, and body language in the workplace, Carol has been cited in media such as The Wall Street Journal, Industry Week, Investor's Business Daily, CNN's Business Unusual, SmartBrief on Leadership, Executive Excellence, Oprah.com, NPR's Marketplace, Fox News, and the NBC Nightly News. Carol has served as adjunct faculty at John F. Kennedy University in the International MBA program, at U.C. Berkeley in the Executive Education Department, for the Chamber of Commerce of the United States at their Institutes for Organization Management and is a current faculty member with the Institute for Management Studies.

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