EPISODE 9, Non-verbal: Watch peoples’ body language for essential insights


Before becoming a popular president, Bill Clinton met and shook hands with his idol, President Kennedy.

Meeting his hero and shaking his hand had an enormous impact on ambitious Clinton, and he talked about it for years.

He came to master the art of the handshake and is widely described as brilliant at using body language, especially eye contact.

He charms his contacts with his easy stance and gestures, his frequent smiles showing the sheer joy of performing. He seems to live for these moments in his professional life.

You may not want to emulate Clinton. Or make a big deal of presenting. Yet it’s worth recognising that you are your best visual aid.

So here’s a tricky, slightly intrusive question. Are you a dead fish? If you are, it could affect your success at work.

A dead fish is someone with a limp or feeble handshake. Shaking hands is a leftover from the stone age. You may not do it that often, but what about those high fives, so favoured in some workplaces? Will yours turn into a handshake, and if so, how?

Some handshakes are a disaster:

You won’t be surprised that your handshake conveys various messages about you as a person. How you shake suggests whether you are confident, pushy, fearful, happy, or even sad.

Scientific research confirms this, and there’s loads more of it on the quality of these movements and what they mean.

It can be a turnoff if someone reaches for your hand and experiences a dispiriting limp response. This risks you leaving behind an impression that you lack self-confidence. Without even knowing it, you may be conveying passive aggression.

Communication is vital to success at work, especially in business, so it’s worth the effort to navigate the obstacle course of getting to grips with body language basics.

Many successful people swear by this skill. This probably explains why YouTube overflows with endless advice on reading body language, from ex-secret service agents to self-proclaimed experts on body language offering tricks that will attract men!

So why would this silent language matter so much to you, and do you need to learn a whole batch of tricks?

It’s important because people think and respond visually. We’re built that way from birth. Even when you don’t consciously read other people’s body language, you do it instinctively. For instance, you almost always know when someone’s smile is genuine or just put on.

Helen Keller was one of the most inspiring people who read body language even though she was blind and deaf.

A handshake and an instinctual awareness of other people’s body language became her lifesaver. When you entered her room, even your gentle footsteps revealed to her something about you.

Though she could neither see nor hear, Helen could read her sighted visitors’ silent messages. She never learned to speak clearly, but she wrote this:

The hands of those I meet are dumbly eloquent to me. The touch of some hands is an impertinence. I have met people so empty of joy, that when I clasped their frosty fingertips, it seemed as if I were shaking hands with a northeast storm. Others there are, whose hands have sunbeams in them, so that their grasp warms my heart. It may be only the clinging touch of a child's hand; but there is as much potential sunshine in it for me as there is in a loving glance for others. A hearty handshake or a friendly letter gives me genuine pleasure.

What do you need to do to understand people’s nonverbal signals to express feelings and thoughts?

Nothing more than being observant, self-aware, and ready to show empathy.

The information you extract from correctly reading body language can help you adjust how you respond to other people. For example, it allows you to gauge how receptive an individual or a team is to your ideas or suggestions.

When you can accurately interpret body language, you become a more skilled communicator, which affects your long-term success potential.

Let’s zero in on some of the critical facts about non-verbal behaviour:

We’ll begin with context. This is a crucial part of making sense of body language. The body movements of others can mean different things, depending on the person and the situation.

For example, someone crossing their arms across their chest might be telling you that they’re frustrated. Or just uncomfortable.

Or they may be trying to convey confidence or a casual attitude.

Next, the more at home you feel with your work colleagues, clients, or customers the better you become at reading their signs.

Think of those people in your life that you like. Don’t you read their signs easily?

Another critical fact is that non-verbal messages can reinforce or contradict your spoken words. For instance, saying “I agree with you completely” while subtly shaking your head sends a confusing mixed message.

Finally, being alert to your body language can impact your productivity and reputation. For instance, when you fully engage with some issue, such as a team debate, you may lean forward to show interest, and others get it.

Let’s return to Bill Clinton so that I can share with you a couple of his most potent non-verbal secrets, apart from his relentless eye contact.

We’ve already touched on how he was inspired by shaking hands with his idol, President Kennedy. Not only did he never forget that experience, he went on to perfect the intimate, two-handed version.

Clinton adored using this silent message. You place your second hand over the hand of the other person doing the shaking. This added touch transmits extra physical warmth to subtly imply intimacy and convey sincere feelings towards the other person.

The second secret is the look-back smile. This is surprisingly easy to adopt and can have a significant impact. It is not a trick but an extension of caring about the person you have just been with.

After saying goodbye to someone, Clinton would walk away, pause, and look back at the other person and give them a friendly smile, even a wave.

Those on the receiving end report that it made them feel Clinton both enjoyed the recent encounter and wanted to be their friend. One entranced recipient said: “He made me feel as if he had flown across the Atlantic just to be with me.”

There’s no shortcut to understanding body language except to know that you are equipped with an inborn instinct to look out for it and use it to your advantage.

How much body language contributes to success at work remains for scientists to sort out. Meanwhile, trust your instinct and keep watching out for those silent signals.


  • To understand body language be observant and watch for the evidence

  • Use the nonverbal you detect to improve your communication abilities

  • Communicate with warmth, not a monotonous tone and dreary facial expression


Take the nonverbal seriously. It will help you respond more appropriately to people and that will build your chances of success at work.

This Podcast was from the theme Communicating for Success.

Next Monday I’ll be talking about you being a Lively Listener—becoming a terrific listener and watch your impact expand.

I hope you’ll join me!