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Peter Clayton

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The body language clinic: business body language


This month our body language expert Peter Clayton looks at business body language, which can be tricky as gestures are smaller and can be missed more easily.

Reading body language can be very interesting. People don't realize how much information they display and how noticeable it is to other people. Understanding business body language can be very rewarding. You'll know when to move forward, back off or slow down. It is also invaluable when interviewing, negotiating, running a training course or leading a team.  It has certainly helped me to cut down on the amount of mistakes I make.     

Why do we need to learn body language signals? After all, as we grow up we are able to read some signals quite easily. We can tell when our parents really mean it and we can read friends and react accordingly.

Unfortunately, business body language can be a little trickier. Gestures are smaller and can be missed very easily because we're not exactly sure what we have just seen. Someone who has decided to deceive you will conceal something in a polite way so not to cause offence. This can be quite frustrating in a sales environment, or when negotiating or even in a planning meeting, because you may go off and do a considerable amount of work only to find several weeks later that you were never going to be successful.

So what should we be concentrating on?

This is a short list that I use in training to show people how easy it is to learn business body language:

  • Voice tone, inflection and volume.
  • Eye contact.
  • Head movement.
  • Body movement including hands, arms, body and legs.

Voice tone, inflection and volume

I use the first few minutes of any business meeting to read and memorize someone's normal body language, including voice tone and volume. Using small talk allows me to understand how they speak and how they communicate. Later in the meeting when things get serious I can use my original benchmarks to check how genuine they are. 

Eye contact

Next, consider how much eye contact they are displaying and in which direction they look when using small talk. A dominant person maintains eye contact approximately 99% of the time which is a great deal more than a reserved or quiet person which is normally 60% of the time. An enthusiastic person would look you in the eyes approximately 75% of the time and would tend to look upwards and around when recalling memories. 

I usually include a question about the marketplace and the way the economy is affecting all of us. Because this is a negative topic for most people, the eyes will probably go down and the voice will be lower. What I want to know now is how their eyes drop and for how long and in which direction left or right. When important points are mentioned during the meeting, if eye contact drops further and lower and is more focused then there is probably something to be concerned about and the person may be concealing something. 

"The easy rule is that the eyes constrict when someone is concealing negative thoughts, where as dilated pupils are a sign of enthusiasm and interest."

Remember, these are only indications of something to be concerned about or partial concealment. It is not, as some believe, an indication that someone is lying. 

When lighting conditions are favorable it is very useful to gauge whether someone’s pupils are constricted or dilated. If I see a small piece of body language that concerns me and I can also see that the eyes are constricted then I know the person I'm talking to is concealing something. Likewise, when negotiating it is good to see someone's eyes become dilated, it tells me they are far more interested than they would like me to believe and that the negotiations are going well. The easy rule is that the eyes constrict when someone is concealing negative thoughts, where as dilated pupils are a sign of enthusiasm and interest.

Head movement

It is important in the first few minutes of any meeting to see how much head movement a person is using when talking about small issues.  When someone is attempting to conceal something, they will increase their eye contact to 100% directly into the eyes whilst holding their head steady. It is a subconscious movement that says if they are not looking away or fidgeting you will believe them. This stronger eye contact and steady head comes from childhood when we were told by our parents to "look me in the eye and tell me the truth". 

Hand to face

When we are thinking one thing and saying another, we feel uncomfortable. The facial skin gets warmer, especially around the base and side of the nose, ear lobes and neck. When you hear somebody say something which appears to be positive, but then they slightly rub the base of their nose at the same time, something is wrong.  What happens is that blood has come to the surface of the skin and causes minor irritation which prompts someone to touch it to clear the irritation. Note - it is not blushing and you will not see any redness. 

Body movement

Going back once again to the beginning of the meeting, what posture does this person have? Are they sitting upright, slightly forwards or slightly relaxed with their arms on the desk? How far away is their body from the desk? Enthusiastic people tend to come forwards, their hands become slightly animated and involved and their voice is a little louder. We can all see these expressions because unless you're negotiating there is no need to conceal them. 
However, as the meeting progresses it may appear that someone is becoming more relaxed, they move slightly away from the desk and turn to the left or the right very slightly. If this happens it is a sign that they are losing or have already lost interest and are being polite about it until the meeting finishes. This is almost certainly the case where the person you are talking to has respect for you and therefore the posture they have is an attempt to look relaxed. If when you ask the next question the voice is lower, with less inflection and tone then you can be sure that they are just being polite.   

There are many other body language gestures in all of these headings which I shall be talking about in future articles, including micro-gestures, which is fascinating.

Peter Clayton is a leading body language expert, speaker and trainer as well as a consultant for the BBC and ITV. He writes for a wide range of national papers and magazines and is a specialist consultant to other speakers, leading businesses, celebrities and politicians. For more information, visit his website:

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Peter Clayton

Manageing Director

Read more from Peter Clayton

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