One of the most important parts of a productive meeting is effective communication. Think back on your best meetings, and they were probably the ones where everyone present had a chance to freely share their thoughts and ideas. But a good conversation involves more than just your words. Nonverbal communication plays a significant role in how we convey ideas – even if we’re not aware of it sometimes. 

Learning to recognize – and correctly interpret – body language in meetings can help you gauge all your meeting attendees’ mood and have great conversations. Below is everything you need to know.

The impact of body language in meetings

Saying that body language makes up a huge part of everyday communication is a bit of an understatement. In fact, experts say that nonverbal cues make up between 70 and 93 percent of our communication. And yes, tone, inflection, and word choice are important, but body language can be a window into your real feelings. That’s because it’s something we can’t always control – and when your body language doesn’t match your words, people can often tell. 

In that way, you can also read the nonverbal communication cues of everyone at your meeting to get a solid read on their emotional states. Paying attention to how your team physically reacts can help you nip disagreements in the bud before they happen. It’s a shockingly simple way to keep your meetings civil and productive. 

Meetings worth showing up to

A well-run meeting can foster communication and collaboration by including an agenda the whole team can contribute to. Try using a tool like Fellow!

What are the five C’s of body language in meetings?

Rest easy: Reading body language doesn’t take a ton of training – if anything, your mind is already doing it. That’s because, long ago, we still needed to share information but we didn’t yet have language. As a result, most “discourse” was basically nonverbal cues. That’s why our brains are hardwired to interpret body language in specific ways – it’s in our very nature.

However, none of this evolution prepared us for working remotely and in offices, let alone the challenges of reading body language in virtual meetings. To read people the right way, you can lean on the five C’s of body language in meetings, which are detailed below. 

1Context

Before you try to read other people’s body language, think about the context all around you. Certain gestures and facial expressions can mean entirely different things depending on the situation. Excessive fidgeting in meeting rooms, for example, could tell you that someone is anxious or bored. If an employee is fidgety while they’re sitting down for lunch with a bunch of close team members, it could simply indicate an uncomfortable chair. (Go get them something comfier!)

Additionally, you might – with or without knowing it – change your mannerisms and word choice when you’re speaking with different people. Your team’s body language might be more formal with their manager than with their coworkers. Correctly reading body language in meetings starts with thinking about how your presence affects your team.

2Clusters

While one expression or hand gesture can mean a few different things, people often group multiple mannerisms together. You’re better off considering that whole group of expressions instead of just one body-language expression. For example, narrowed eyes could signify anger or confusion alone. But pair them with a furrowed brow and a tilted head, and you can be almost sure it’s confusion. Considering one’s entire set of gestures is how you properly read the room. 

3Congruence 

Words, tone of voice, and body language all interact in communication. Ideally, they align – but you can also understand someone clearly when they don’t. When there’s a gap between someone’s words and their body language, they might not be reacting honestly. A basic example is when someone says they agree with you but says it through gritted teeth. Would you believe that person, or would you worry that you’re walking right into some sort of conflict? That’s the power of body language.

This concept is often known as congruence, and it’s key to keep in mind during meetings. Everyone has their eyes on you, and they’ll likely catch on to any gaps between your words and your body language. That can needlessly stress your team out and make you less trustworthy in their eyes.

4Consistency 

There isn’t a skeleton key to your whole team’s body language. Everyone carries themself differently, and you’ll have to decode all these individual personalities as you communicate. That said, there’s an easy way to take out some of the guesswork. You can more easily read a team member’s body language in meetings by getting to know them literally anywhere else.

Everyone carries themselves a certain way when they’re feeling relaxed and honest. Their shoulders might relax, their voice might be calm but earnest. Think of these nonverbal cues in friendly conversation as a “behavioral baseline” that you can use to read how they truly feel during meetings. 

5Culture 

A person’s culture and background can heavily impact their body language, like having an accent expressed physically rather than verbally. For example, strong eye contact is a yes in much of the West and most Arab countries. But maintaining it past the initial greeting is frowned upon in places like Japan. 

One’s lifestyle can also affect their nonverbal communication. Someone who’s been in the military, for example, might have a more rigid posture. On the opposite end of things, desk workers might slouch since they’re constantly hunched over a keyboard and computer screen (can you relate?). Generally, the more you know about everyone in your meeting, the better you’ll interpret their nonverbal cues. 

How to use body language in meetings

While interpreting another person’s body language is important in meetings, learning how to control your own is just as important. When you run a meeting, everyone’s initial impression of how you’re feeling can set the tone for the rest of the event. Here are some ways you can control your body language and send the right message at your meetings. 

1Walk and stand upright 

People might judge you – consciously and subconsciously – based on things as simple as how you walk and sit. While that might sound like premature judgment, your posture does often demonstrate the energy you’re bringing into a meeting. If you’d like to put your best foot forward before getting started, try to walk and stand upright. Good posture and a steady pace can make you seem confident, and it’s just plain healthy too. 

2Keep track of your hands

How often have you seen people unsure of what to do with their hands while in front of an audience? And how many times have you had this problem yourself? You might not think about hand gestures before all eyes are on you, but you really should. They can affect how people respond to you.

Hands at or above your neck can come off aggressive or tense, which won’t help you move through your meeting agenda. You also shouldn’t hide your hands in your pockets because it can make you look like you’re hiding something. Instead, try using small gestures with your palms – you’ll come off more willing to engage with the rest of the group. 

3Notice your breathing

It can be nerve wracking to speak in front of a large group of people. Some of the most common advice you’ll hear on this front is to take several deep breaths before getting up in front of everyone. Slow, steady breaths before and during a meeting help lower your heart rate and reduce your stress levels. It’s how you can feel more comfortable and lead a better meeting.

4Nod often

Nodding is a quick, easy way to show that you’re listening to someone without interrupting their train of thought. Though it’s a small gesture, it can be a big part of the effective communication that leads to better employee productivity after the meeting. But be careful – pay close attention to how often you nod! Doing it too often (or barely at all) can make it seem like you aren’t actively listening to the speaker’s words. You might come off like you’re simply reacting to one’s words but not processing them.

5Cut down on negative body language

Just as there are positive nonverbal cues you should go for, there are negative ones you should avoid. These are often things that might annoy you when someone else does them – nail-biting, clicking pens, fidgeting, things like that. All these gestures can make you seem nervous, and how can you expect them to focus without feeling anxious if you come off frantic?

6Wear a smile 

A smile is great in almost any situation. It’s the quickest way to show openness, warmth, trust, and other positive emotions that make for great meetings. However, since a smile is such a common expression, people can usually tell when a smile isn’t genuine. That’s important – you never want to come off dishonest. A real smile doesn’t happen in a vacuum – people can tell when the rest of your face actually lines up with it.

Aspects of body language

Body language can sound like a five-headed beast when you read about all the ways that people can interpret it. You might wonder if body language is so complicated that you’ll never truly understand your team members’ nonverbal cues or control your own. But all that worrying is unfounded. In reality, you can divide body language into just four categories. Understanding each one can help you hone in on them in your meetings.

1Eye contact

At its core, eye contact typically demonstrates attentiveness. It shows people that you’re focused on what they’re saying. In a meeting, it can help people realize when it’s their turn to speak. This way, they don’t just jump in and interrupt someone else – a big non-starter for good meetings. Beyond that, eye contact can build a quick connection between two people and especially clearly communicate something to someone else without any words.

2Gestures

Gestures are a bit more complicated. They can be broken down into three categories: emblems, illustrators, and adaptors.

  1. Emblems are small gestures tied to a large message. For example, in the West, raising and parting your index and middle fingers while keeping the others closed represents a peace sign. (And it also means bunny ears if you’re taking a picture.)
  2. Illustrators support a spoken message. A great example is a thumbs-up when you’re telling someone that everything is okay.
  3. Adaptors are subconscious gestures that most people don’t realize they’re doing. They’re things people might do when they’re bored or nervous, such as clicking a pen, tapping their feet, or twirling their hair. 

3Facial expressions

The saying goes that the eyes are the window to the soul, but the face might be a better window. Facial expressions can clearly show you what a person is feeling. It might be the most important aspect of body language – you often don’t need to see the rest of the person’s body to get it. Plus, it’s often easier to control body language than to keep emotions off your face. You can sit upright, but you can’t stop your cheeks from getting a bit red when you’re angry. Facial expressions are as clear-cut as they come.

4Posture 

There are four key postures: Sitting, standing, squatting and lying down. Each of these also has numerous “sub-postures” that can represent someone’s feelings. For example, standing or sitting with arms crossed often means closing yourself off from the conversation. Standing or sitting with slumped shoulders can indicate low energy. It’s also something you’ll rarely see if you hold great meetings.

Mind your mannerisms for successful meetings

Reading people isn’t easy, even on the best of days. And in the workplace, most team members hide certain parts of themselves that you’ll never see. At the end of the day, though, humans are social creatures built to communicate, so body language is your friend. If you pay attention to the right things and master your own body language, you can avoid conflicts and tension in meetings.

Fellow can further help you hold great meetings – collaborating on meeting agendas, notes, and action items has never been so seamless. It helps with all your online communication, just like body language helps you in-person.