Picture a really caring person you work with. They cross their arms as they nod in agreement about a point you just made and lean in to ask you a question. Just because their arms were crossed, did you read their body language as defensive? Probably not.

Now, picture someone who you find difficult to work with. As you explain a problem, they are leaning back, showing no facial expression and sitting dead still with their arms at their sides. Did you picture that person as receptive to your message just because their arms weren’t crossed? Again, probably not.

Articles that circulate rules like “Don’t cross your arms” are missing the point: body language is a language. It requires all the subtlety and awareness of spoken language.

Just like people use different types of words in contrasting settings (family gatherings versus board rooms) and various parts of the country (north versus south), or even from company to company, the same is true for body language. 

How do you know what to do if there are no clear rules? 

2 Rules for the No Rules Approach to Body Language:

  1. Frequency of Signaling. Communication is all about the back and forth. More than specific gestures, people read how often you send affirmative signals. If you nod, or say things like “yes,” “okay,” or “sounds good” people perceive you’re warm, receptive and open. If you withhold letting the other person know what you think (by being silent and still) you will be read as powerful but potentially cool, aloof or defensive. Based on how you want to be perceived, choose how often you send validating signals such as nodding, leaning in and saying affirmative words.
  2. Selective Mirroring. What reads as powerful in one company’s culture can read as pompous in another. When entering a new setting, whether it’s a presentation or an important meeting at a new company, identify who holds the most power. Mirror that person’s gestures, pacing and energy level. Just as you would adjust your word choice based on who you were speaking to (such as an adult versus a child), this technique allows you to display maximum power within the specific circumstance.