Body Language Dynamics

Article by Jamie Cleaver

The richest source of emotional data comes from shifts or changes in body language. It’s the dynamics rather than statics that are important.

WELCOME to the latest in a series of blogs that helps us reap the benefits of an insight into professional skills. 

In previous instalments we have established the fundamental importance of empathy for effective communication.  Empathy, the awareness of feelings or emotions is accessed through careful listening and tuning in to body language.  The last blog piece considered the power of listening.  Today it’s the turn of body language to come under the spotlight.

Body language basics

According to “experts”, over 50% of our face-to-face communication is non-verbal.  We communicate our feelings with our bodies, how we position ourselves, use our hands, show facial expressions, or make eye contact.  You may have seen some of the photographs or sketches of people demonstrating various body language messages.  Crossed arms, for example is often considered to be a sign that a person is feeling defensive.  Leaning forwards towards someone is supposed to show interest, whilst leaning back is supposed to suggest disengagement


This static view of body language is rather limited.  If we were studying a dynamic engineering process like fluid mixing or bubble coalescence a static photo would be of limited value compared to a video recording of the process.  The same concept applies for body language.  The most important information about people’s feelings comes from the dynamics; subtle changes in body language as a response to variables like new information, questions, or changes in the context or social environment.  Someone who is fluent in body language would be continually monitoring changes in posture, gestures, facial expressions, voice tone, eye contact, and the physical distance between people.  If we can link these changes to their cause, and use our heightened listening skills, then we can start to empathise and communicate effectively.

Here are some important aspects to consider:

  • Personal space: Be aware that each person has an invisible zone around them.  If they feel that you are invading their personal space they will become uncomfortable, anxious or aggressive.  People that agree on issues tend to move closer to each other.  People that disagree tend to move further apart.
  • Synchronisation: Adopting the same body language as someone else is a signal to them and others that you agree with them.  Adopting body language that differs from someone is a signal that you think or feel differently from them. 
  • Cultural differences: Different cultures speak different versions of body language.  This can lead to confusion or conflicting messages.  Cultural differences extend to variations in eye contact, hand movement, touch and voice tone.  Be prepared to adopt a whole new body language vocabulary when you work with people from another culture.
  • Conflicting messages:  It’s difficult to control body language.  Look out for situations when a person’s verbal language is at odds with their body language.  For example, someone may agree with you verbally, but their lack of eye contact and detachment would suggest that they disagree.  Alternatively, when the verbal message and body language agree you know exactly where you stand with that person.

A language for everyone

An engineer once said to me, “I thought body language was just for actors.”  On the contrary, body language is for all, and generating some fluency in reading and speaking body language gives us a great advantage when communicating with others face-to-face.  How do we get fluent?  Like any language, the best way is to learn by having a go.  Start becoming aware of body language dynamics in yourself and others.  You will undoubtedly get it wrong sometimes, and misunderstand the emotions or feelings of others, but trying to access the emotional content is a very important step.  Furthermore, making mistakes is an excellent way of learning!

Article by Jamie Cleaver

Freelance trainer and facilitator, IChemE course leader on Mentoring for Chemical Engineers

Jamie Cleaver is a chemical engineer who works as a freelance trainer and facilitator, helping engineers and scientists to develop professional skills related to communication. He runs workshops on various aspects of communication, creativity and mentoring for companies and universities. He also specialises in explaining chemical engineering to non-chemical engineers. In his spare time, he lectures chemical engineering to undergraduates.

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