10 Ways Your Body Language Can Send the Wrong Message


Body language in the civilian working world is just as important as it was in the military. 

In the military, body language sends definitive messages of respect, authority, rank, and compliance. In the civilian world, the subtleties of body language account for much of how information is communicated (or miscommunicated!).

Studies have shown that non-verbal communication (body language, tone, and posturing) accounts for a huge part of how information is received. For instance, if a mother reprimands her toddler and smiles or giggles as she does it, the child notes the joy and disregards her stern words.

As a personal branding expert, body language is one of my favorite topics! There are so many tips to being more effective in building influence and communicating with confidence by integrating specific body language techniques. In my presentations to veterans about reputation management and how your behavior reinforces how you are perceived, I highlight these ten mistakes most people make, which often send the wrong message to your target audience:


  1. Eye Contact: When you don’t look someone in the eyes, it comes across as being arrogant, untrustworthy, disingenuous, or standoffish. Look people in the eyes when you speak to them. It makes them feel validated and seen (literally).
  2. Eye Contact: Creepy staring implies threatening posture. While its good to hold eye contact while speaking, if you go so far as to stare and fixate your eye contact, it makes people uncomfortable and insecure.
  3. Handshake: Gripping someone’s hands in a bone crushing fashion implies over aggressiveness, insecurity, and power. Instead, strive for a confident and approachable handshake that does not hurt the other person.
  4. Handshake: Shaking hands with what feels like a wet, limp fish communicates a lack of confidence and fear. Your handshake should be friendly and assertive, not weak and unsure.
  5. Head motion: Nodding aggressively when someone is talking to you indicates you are impatient and want him or her to finish speaking quickly. This makes other people feel invalidated and rushed. Instead, nod your head to indicate agreement and interest in what the other person is telling you.
  6. Head motion: Shaking your head side to side when saying “yes” indicates disagreement and contradicts what your words are saying.  Your head motions should be consistent with your words. When you are in agreement, nodding up and down in approval is expected.
  7. Hand gestures: Fiddling with jewelry or keys suggests you are anxious or unsure, projecting lack of confidence in your words. Keep your hand motions consistent with your words. Instead of playing with your hair, jewelry, keys, or pen, keep your hands on a notebook or by your side to focus on your message and not distract.
  8. Hand gestures: If you touch other people too much when you talk to them, you could be infringing on their personal space, making them feel uncomfortable and even threatened. Too much physical contact in a professional setting can communicate neediness or an overly assertive personality. It is fine to touch someones arm or shoulder if the conversation fits the gesture. Be responsive if they are uncomfortable with the move, and resist touching them again as you build your conversation.
  9. Posture: Sitting too erect and “at attention” can put someone off and make them feel uncomfortable. It projects a formality that is appropriate in the military but not as much in civilian life. Your posture should communicate confidence and approachability to new people and situations.
  10. Posture: Standing with your weight on your back foot and your hands in pocket communicates an aggressive posture, as if you are ready to leap forward or attack at a moment’s notice. Put your body weight on both feet, equally, and relax your shoulders and hands. If you put one hand in your pocket, be sure to show the inside of your other palm as you speak. This indicates you have nothing to hide and are approachable.

While you might feel your body language is appropriate, always be mindful of the response you receive. If someone backs away from you or suddenly becomes defensive or closed off, you might have crossed the line. You can recover by simply changing the subject, stepping back one-step, or opening up your posture or hand gestures to indicate approachability.

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