Are you body language aware? 5 ways to better control your body language

Body language is an integral part of interpersonal communication. Even when you think you’re not communicating, you are doing it anyway. Only in your sleep you are not communicating. Unless you talk in your sleep of course.

In short communication is:

  • words and sentences; the way we build our sentences reveils something about our personality. Interested to learn more? In the training on working styles you will discover more.
  • tone and voice
  • and body language

Awareness of your body language: what are the benefits?

  1. You are able to adapt your communication to the situation and you can focus more effectively on results, such as managing difficult personalities and colleagues.
  2. It enables you to develop trusting relationships faster.
  3. It is a good starting point to negotiate in a result-oriented way.

What could go wrong when using inappropriate body language?

Incongruence or confusing language

What I heard from a participant during a workshop:

“People don’t take me seriously. I give clear instructions and I tell them I ‘m very serious. Yet they do whatever they like. I find it very frustrating.”

Confusing Body language

My feedback?

“As you are telling me this you have a smile on your face. I can imagine why they wouldn’t take you seriously.”

We may have learned in childhood to hold back anger or to always seem cheerful even if we feel deeply sad inside. This is called subsitute feelings(1), racket feelings(2) or non-authentic feelings. Instead of showing our real emotions we show socially accepted emotions we learned at some time in our live. Our body language tells a different story than how we really feel. This is called incongruence.

Unconscious facial expressions or behaviour

Think about rolling eyes, sighs, a grin, frowning, pinched eyes, drumming fingers, doodling, moving back and forth, staring at your smartphone, etc.

Not everyone is expressive in facial expressions at the same level. One can hide it more easily than the other. When our facial expressions and behaviours match in the appropriate context it is very effective. Reality makes it not always appropriate to show what we think or feel for different reasons. In order to remedy this, it is necessary to become aware of our body language before we can learn to control it better.

Constraint frustration

Sometimes there is no possibility to respond assertively to a person because the situation simply doesn’t allow it or it would be highly inappropriate. When bottling up emotions we cannot express in the heat of the moment, our willpower to manage our reactions will reduce. This may lead to behaviour we regret in hindsight.

Opgespaarde frustratie

Body language may betray us in negotiations

During negotiations it is crucial to have a good command of body language. Otherwise, your motives or concerns will betray you faster than you think. A poker face can sometimes be useful. You need to boost your morale before difficult negotiations. From working in trading for 13 years – selling according to supply and demand – I have learned from experience the importance of the right mindset to close the best deal.


The degree of success will largely depend on the degree to which you can control your body language. It takes practice to come across as calm even if internally you feel anxious. Of course, this is also a great skill for public speaking.

A communication model

Dr Mehrabian’s research in the context of ‘liking-disliking’ has led to the widespread communication model of Mehrabian.

Mehrabian conducted his research on the basis of words and expressions that may or may not match each other in terms of emotions and in the context of ‘liking-disliking’ (as described Dr Mehrabian’s book, ‘Silent messages’).

His research showed that when we communicate about emotions and attitudes the meaning of words  accounts for 7%, the tone and use of voice for 38% and the body language – especially facial expressions – accounts for no less than 55%. In case of an evacuation because of a fire or when you ask someone for directions, the context is completely different and thus the meaning of words will be most likely close to 100%.

Mehrabian communication model

What can you do to master your body language? 5 specific tips.

  1. First of all get feedback from others. Find a trusted person who will tell you honestly about your body language. If you are in a meeting with others, agree on a signal to make you aware of an inappropriate facial expression in the moment. A coach can also help you with this.
  2. Practice in front of the mirror. Once you have received feedback you can practice your facial expressions in front of the mirror. You can also record yourself on video during a conversation and then watch it again. This can be confrontational. I speak from experience.
  3. Be honest in the appropriate situation. Trust is often built through congruent communication, what you say matches the way you say it.
  4. Develop the right mindset. Before any difficult negotiations it’s a good idea to boost your self-confidence. Have a look at a TED-talk of Amy Cuddy about powerposing. Also make sure you have some ‘happy thoughts’ in store in case things go the wrong direction. Cheerful thoughts will help you manage your mindset more effectively.
  5. Teach yourself relaxation exercises.The purpose is to regain calm in the heat of the moment. Different relaxation exercises are possible. It is a matter of finding the right one that works for you. Some examples are breathing exercises such as abdominal breathing, mindfulness, yoga, … Maybe you have an effective exercise? Then I would like to hear it.

Would you like to know more about leadership, communication and authenticity?

From this year onwards there will be a new workshop in Dutch ‘result-oriented negotiating’. Register for the newsletter to receive the training calendar in March.

(1) Maarten Kouwenhoven, “Het Handboek Strategisch Coachen”, 2009
(2) Moniek Thunissen en Anne De Graaf, “Leerboek Transactionele Analyse”, 2013