How to read non-verbal cues

communicationIf you take some time to research non-verbal communication, you’ll soon come across the research of Dr Albert Mehrabian, author of ‘Silent Messages’. Mehrabian conducted several well-known studies on the topic and found that only 7% of any message is conveyed through words. He concluded that 38% of a message is conveyed through various vocal elements and 55% through non-verbal methods.

This information is very interesting to skilled communicators. However, these very specific numbers simply can’t apply to everyone. Some people use their movements and postures heavily during communication. Other people rely more on the words they speak.

But what is interesting to know is that just about everyone provides a great deal of non-verbal cues. Being able to decipher this unspoken language gives you extremely useful insights. Imagine being able to tell whether your manager or co-workers really have confidence in their proposals? Imagine being able to weed out an honest marketing pitch within minutes? Indeed, the benefits of becoming a non-verbal Jedi are plentiful!

And the good news is that it’s not hard to do. Follow our nlp-based guide to some common non-verbal cues. Everyone is different โ€“ some people give more away than others and the cues are not foolproof. But, with just a little practice, you’ll gain access to a world of communication that doesn’t use any spoken language.

Non-verbal Communication Cues โ€“ A Quick Guide


  • Inability to maintain eye contact can mean a person is bored, uninterested or deceitful.
  • Looking down and to the side can indicate a person is lying.
  • Looking straight down can mean a person feels intimidated.
  • Dilated pupils show a person is responding positively to you.
  • Blinking often can mean a person is feeling stressed.
  • Looking upwards and to the right may indicate deceit.
  • Looking upwards and to the left may indicate honesty.
  • Glancing at the door may mean a person is eager to leave the room.


  • Covering the mouth or touching the lips may indicate a person is lying.
  • A genuine smile (uses the eyes and mouth) means a person feels relaxed.
  • A fake smile (uses only the mouth) means a person is only pretending to feel relaxed.
  • A half smile (uses only one side of the mouth and may also be fleeting) indicates sarcasm or disapproval.
  • Pursed lips may indicate displeasure.


  • Incongruence between words and head movements may indicate a person isn’t being honest. For example, if you ask a person if they are confident in the success of a strategy, watch their head carefully. If they say ‘yes’ but shake their head, they may not truly have the confidence they speak!
  • Nodding slowly whilst someone is speaking may show interest.
  • Nodding quickly whilst someone is speaking may show impatience for them to finish.
  • Head tilting to one side may show interest in a topic.
  • Head tilting backwards usually indicates mistrust or suspicion.
  • People tend to look more at the people they agree with โ€“ check this behaviour out in meetings!

Physical Proximity

  • Standing close to another person generally shows a person feels positive and comfortable with that individual.
  • Keeping distance and, particularly, backing away slightly when the other person moves closer, may show a person feels dislike or mistrust for the individual.

Mirroring Behaviours

  • Mirroring involves a person copying the movements of another. This may include gestures like lacing their fingers together or taking a sip of coffee. If someone mirrors you, they are trying to establish rapport or win your approval.


  • Feet usually point where someone really wants to go. If they point at the exit, the person may be keen to leave. If they point at someone other than the person they are speaking to, they may be eager to leave this conversation and speak to that other person.


  • Hands in pockets can show deception or nervousness, as can hands on the head.
  • Unconscious pointing can indicate where a person’s interest or affinity truly lies. Watch for this in group interactions.
  • Supporting the head in both hands can mean a person is bored. Supporting the head in one hand can mean the opposite.


  • Crossed arms, or arms placed across the body, may indicate defensiveness or nervousness.
  • Hands on hips can show an attempt to dominate a conversation.


All of the non-verbal cues listed above can be displayed alone. However, the most positive indicators are shown when people show a group of cues in rapid succession. Watch for groups of non-verbal cues that disagree with a person’s words โ€“ this generally indicates their true thoughts on a subject.

Learning to read non-verbal cues can be fun as well as insightful. Why not use our Quick Guide during your next meeting? Your observations may surprise you!

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