Conversational body language: Learning how to adapt

Have you ever wondered if you are getting your point across during a conversation? If the person you are talking to is genuinely paying attention to you, or even interested at all in what you’re saying? Maybe you’ve wondered, ‘how is what I’m saying being perceived?’ Thankfully, there are fairly sure ways of figuring these things out.

Knowing how to read the person/people, you are conversating with is so important. If you know how to read their interest level in you and what you are saying, you can not only keep people engaged, but learn to divert from topics that they want to avoid, without them even having to let you know verbally.

Learn how to master the science of body language and your people skills will go through the roof.

Your Signals

Before going into reading others, it is important to check our own body language. Here are a few guidelines to follow when conversating with another.

Don’t impede their exit. People never want to feel confined or ‘imprisoned’ in a conversation either verbally or physically. When you are conversating with someone, be sure to allow a physical exit from the conversation.

Most people box others in without realizing it- just be aware of this when you are conversating with people. leave space and don’t box them into a wall, a corner, or space where they can’t make an exit. If there is room for escape, a person will be more at ease and will be far more likely to stay in a conversation.

this concept applies to verbal communication as well. Talk a person’s ear off and that may be the last conversation you ever have together. listen, and look for signs that they want to say something. Don’t cut them off, let them say their piece and you just might make a friend.

Establish a Baseline 

When interrogators question suspects, their first step in the process is to establish a baseline. They must find out when a person is being real and when they are acting fake. The best way to accomplish this is to establish some sort of connection with the suspect, getting them to act as loose as possible up front. This provides a reference point for normal (or as normal as possible) behavior. If the suspect begins to tighten up later on, they will be able to notice it and deception will be easier to spot.

So how does this relate to conversational body language? Because the first rule of reading people is simple:  just pay attention.

I would hope that you aren’t interrogating your friends, but establishing a baseline in normal conversation is very important. When you are talking to someone you have never met before, doing this can be challenging, but not impossible. Start the conversation by finding common ground, a connection, something you can both relate to.  Do your best to put the person at ease.

After you have an idea of how they act when they are comfortable, you will have a better chance of knowing when you are either keeping their interest, losing their interest or if you are evoking some sort of emotional response from the person during the conversation. During this baseline conversation, try to decipher whether the person is an introvert or an extrovert for reasons explained later.

Facial Expressions 

Dr. Paul Ekman has done extensive research (showcased on the popular TV show Lie To Me) on the universal expressions of the face. He concluded that six emotions reveal themselves with the same facial expressions no matter where in the world a person lives. These emotions are fear, sadness, anger, disgust, surprise, and happiness.

Dr. Ekman has compiled a list of books and training materials so that people can learn how to recognize these facial expressions, as well as the mixtures of these expressions when they appear. He trains people to detect other emotions as well, but the six mentioned above are the only ones that are universal.

During his research, Dr. Ekman also discovered microexpressions, which are split-second involuntary facial expressions that reveal what a person is truly feeling. With a combination of knowing the facial appearances of the above emotions, and knowing how to catch them in a split-second expression, reading people becomes a lot easier.

Imagine being able to catch that microexpression of disgust when you crack a joke on your first date, (oops guess she didn’t like that one) or being able to see through facades. All this and more is possible with some training, and it is well worth the effort.


stop guessing and start learning how to decipher conversations through facial awareness.

Signs of Anger/Apprehension

knowing how to tell if we are pushing buttons is so important when it comes to conversational body language. The truth is, talking to new people can be sort of unpredictable at times because we just don’t know what the person’s belief systems are.

Hopefully, we can learn some of the basics about a person during the baseline establishing process, but that information will definitely be limited. We must be able to detect anger and apprehension in order to know if we must re-direct the conversation to avoid unnecessarily stepping on toes.

Anger reveals itself on the face when the eyebrows come down to a point. Feelings of disgust, revealed when the upper lips go into a ‘snarl,’ often accompany anger, as shown in the video above.

When angered, people also tend to go into standoff mode, either standing perpendicular to the other party or looking sideways at the other person. These signals are signs of distrust and serve as a warning that what you are saying is either not being believed, not being acknowledged, or is really striking a nerve.

To identify anger, in addition to observing the face, look also for signs such as a clenched jaw, clenched fists, redness of the face, a tense body, and more rapid breathing. In the process of becoming angry, the body is essentially preparing itself for combat, as adrenaline shoots through the body.

The above signals will not be extreme in most circumstances unless a person is seriously offended, but nevertheless, the emotion of anger usually finds a way to leak out. Just pay attention, and if you see it, know that you may have reached a point of contention with that person.

In the video below you will see a beautiful example of anger/apprehension during an interview with Lenny Kravitz and his now ex-wife Lisa Bonet. She is clearly apprehensive towards the interviewer the whole time as he goes out of bounds on topics that were none of his, or any man’s business. But in addition to her apprehension, her anger also shows itself in a microexpression at the 00:31 second mark.


The interviewer was more than likely clueless, possibly even trying to appease the couple, but he didn’t know how to read his audience. This is why it is vital to know how to read body language.

Signs of Exhaustion 

How can you tell if someone is becoming too tired to talk to you? if you have been able to pick up on the fact that the person is introverted, know that you may not have all day to capture their attention. Introverts are exhausted by, not energized by people (unlike extroverts)… it’s good to remain aware of this when you’re talking to new people.

Some physical signs of exhaustion to look for during a conversation are red eyes, a droopy posture, and facial contempt (a half smile). The signs should be obvious, but a very polite person will try to hide them, even though they may just want a nap.

listen for verbal exit signs as well. words/phrases such as “welp,!” “Well then,” “I’m glad we could catch up,” could mean they are reaching their limit. Another sign is a pronounced exhale during a pause in the conversation. If deliberate, these usually mean… “get me outta here!” So listen for that as well.

Signs of Impatience

when a person is becoming impatient, you will see their whole body become very fidgety. The body is not very good at hiding this type of energy. When a person is impatient, they are literally in the mode of trying to find a way out, ASAP, and in doing so you will see them become visibly quite uncomfortable.

The most obvious tell that a person is becoming impatient or disinterested is when they begin tapping. Hand and foot tapping is the most common manifestation of this jittery energy; you may also notice the shoulders moving a lot when someone is either ready to end either a conversation or a topic.

people also, in general, point their feet and or bodies towards the location where they wish to be. If someone is more or less facing you, that is a good sign, you probably have their attention. If they are not, however, they may be looking to leave.


Know that the signs of impatience and the signs of nervousness can be very similar, so don’t worry too much about these signals at the beginning of a conversation, instead, look for them after you’ve been conversating for a while. Some tells of nervousness are tapping, fidgeting, and finger/hand rubbing. It is extremely difficult for the body to hold back signs of nervousness.

The main difference between nervousness and impatience is the level of annoyance in the face. People who are impatient to leave usually become somewhat visibly annoyed, unlike the nervous individual who is engaged, but shy or socially awkward.

Vocally, when people are nervous, they tend to have voice ‘flails’ at times, which reveal their hidden jitters. However, these ‘flails’ can also show up when a person is speaking about a topic they are extremely passionate about such as an idealistic value or a loved one.

take a look, if you wish, at this Conan o Brien interview of Aubrey Plaza, a very introverted actress who’s nervous energy leaks through during this whole segment. She is a very talented actress who is used to interviews and setting like these, but it is obvious that due to her personality, she still feels some amount of pressure, and discomfort due to the stereotypical expectations of an interview such as this one.

Her nervous energy is revealed by her non-stop finger rubbing. You will also hear voice inflections/’flails’ at the 00:37-second mark on the word “I,” at the 00:40 second mark on the word “people,” and at the 1:42 minute mark on the word “some.”


Signs of Discomfort

People are as open to you inwardly as their bodies suggest outwardly. People put up physical barriers during a conversation if they become uncomfortable for any reason. While standing, you may notice people crossing their arms or positioning themselves behind some sort of table or chair if they are uncomfortable for any reason. Likewise, while seated, people often barricade themselves by crossing their legs, crossing their arms, and or resting both hands on their crotch.

Click here to see signs of discomfort in a 2012 interview of the late Amy Winehouse. You will see that she begins the interview closed off to the interviewer; legs crossed, hands over her mid-section. But as it progresses, she becomes more comfortable and relaxed. This is a result of her increased trust and comfortability over the course of the interview. If you notice people beginning to relax like this during a conversation, you are doing something right.

In Conclusion

Pay attention to your audience; and just like with anything else, practice makes perfect. If you see a lot of negative signals, don’t worry. Simply adjust the conversation and be considerate of your audience. There is beauty in knowing how to direct the flow of a conversation so that the person you are conversating with is comfortable. Look for these signs, study them, and enjoy conversations without the stress of having to wonder how they’re going.



Ryan Mekkes is the editor and founder of Commyounicate Magazine. He is an avid martial artist, a musician, and a fitness enthusiast, certified through ACE as a personal trainer.