top of page

11 Nonverbal Cues Every Professional Should Learn To Read

Expert Panel, Forbes Coaches Council

Forbes Source:

When you hear the word “communication,” you likely think of verbal messages, whether in-person, over the phone or via email and messaging platforms. But nonverbal forms of communication are just as important to understand, especially in the workplace.

People use nonverbal cues every day to signal their emotions and reactions. In the business world, it’s crucial to be aware of these nonverbal communications to ensure you and your colleagues understand each other. That’s why we asked the experts of Forbes Coaches Council to share some common nonverbal cues all professionals should learn to read. Here are their best responses.


1. Wandering Eyes

Body language starts with the eyes. Watch the eyes of who you are talking to. Looking away at phones or watches tells you they are distracted. That's normal today. Don't let it bother you. Notice it and find out what will get their eyes off their distractions. The best way to do that without being too aggressive is to ask questions about them, their needs and how you might be able to help. - John M. O'Connor, Career Pro Inc.

2. Posture

Look across the table. Is the other person leaning in, making frequent eye contact or nodding their head? If so, you're on the right track. If the person starts to lean back or increase the space between the two of you, this may be a sign of disengagement. Crossing the arms, looking down, fidgeting or increased rigidity all say that you may be losing your connection. Use these cues and reconnect. - Kathleen Woodhouse, Nova Leadership

3. Receptivity

Even though you are in a work setting, every day there are many things going on in someone's life. When you approach the person for a discussion, you need to read their receptivity. Are they open and ready to talk or are they shutting down, glancing away? Unless it is urgent, and you let the person know you need to talk then, it may be best to pick another time to begin a significant discussion. - Stephen Ford, Fitzgerald, Stevens & Ford, Inc.

4. Micro-Messages

Micro-messages are subtle, unconscious nonverbals that we project. When your colleague quickly checks their watch, they're signalling they're in a rush and need to cut the conversation short. We're all guilty of sharing information at a time of our choosing and not the recipient’s. Being mindful of cues that the other person is in a rush and unable to talk is crucial and goes unnoticed at work.- Ali Merchant, Ali Merchant

5. Closed Body Language

A closed body may mean a closed mind (e.g. folded arms and legs and a body angled away from someone). When you see this, model a more open posture. Uncross your legs and arms. Lean forward in your chair. Make good eye contact. Smile. It is the universal language of connection. Soften your tone of voice. Show interest by asking questions and listening to them. Make them feel safe. Invite them in. - Gary Bradt, Bradt Leadership, Inc.

6. 'End Of Meeting' Signals

Meetings have cycles. We blow opportunities by staying too long, overselling, missing the perfect time to close and walk away. The cues are almost always obvious when we look back. Leaning in, reaching for a pen, nodding at everything we say. When those things all come together, get the agreement and close the meeting. Wait longer and the client will pull away and lose focus, and we lose the deal. - Erica McCurdy, McCurdy Solutions Group

7. Big Sighs

Eyes tell a story about a person—their interest level, degree of focus and enthusiasm. But when you're working or in a meeting, be aware of the big sighs. Deep exhales can be heard around the room. Whether you mean it or not, sighing projects a feeling of frustration, stress, disinterest and an inability to remain calm. If it's a habit, be aware of how you come across to others. - Joanne Markow, GreenMason

8. Signs Of Anger

Anger arises in defense of something sacred, i.e., a dishonored value. Get to the root cause and you’re likely to find an inspiring and positive source of game-changing passion. Nonverbal clues like clenching teeth, crossing arms, intense eye contact and deep breathing are cues to get compassionately curious so you can uncover the issue, shift the energy and create a new opportunity for growth. - Cynthia Scherer, CPC, ELI-MP, Scherer Excellence Consulting

9. Verbal Pace And Tone

One study indicated that 93 percent of communication is nonverbal. Yet most people, particularly when on conference calls, are doing something else. They wrongfully believe they can listen in while answering a few emails and still be "present" on the call. They then miss almost all the nonverbal cues like who feels the freedom to talk over whom, or who used a "pushed positive" tone to cover uncertainty. - Dr. Joel M. Rothaizer, MCC, Clear Impact Consulting Group

10. Cultural Body Language

No matter what nonverbal cue you are reading, always seek to clarify what you are observing. Just like verbal and written communication, we all make assumptions on our own beliefs and cultural practices. In today's diverse work environment, it is easy to misread another person's body language when we judge them through our personal cultural lens. When in doubt, ask. Open yourself to learning more. - Lynda Reid, EdD, PCC, Kusala LLC

11. Individual-Specific Cues

What looks like disinterest or disengagement for one person is different for another. It is important to learn to pick up cues but check them out before assuming you know what is happening. There are people who have a relatively expressionless persona and you can think they are not interested and they might be, for example. Checking a watch is not necessarily a sign of boredom. - Janet Zaretsky, Empowered Women Enterprisess, LLC dba Janet Zaretsky

Article: ©2019 Forbes Media LLC. All Rights Reserved.


bottom of page