Words alone are only part of any face-to-face communication. How we stand and sit punctuates the words we share. By being aware of your bodies signals, you can avoid sending unintended messages. And you can improve the message you want to send.

Don’t be Defensive

Defensive body language affects communication. It’s difficult enough to communicate verbally without sending mixed messages through defensive signals.

Defensiveness can be the result of fear; fear of making a mistake. The fear of saying the wrong thing. It can be due to a lack of self-esteem or inexperience. Many things can cause it, but the point is that a defensive posture isn’t always the direct cause of the other person in the conversation. The cause might be internal, not external.

What’s the Outcome of Defensive Body Language?

Defensive nonverbal language limits communication by putting all involved into a guarded state of mind. Rather than openly sharing thoughts people become wary when confronted with defensive body language. It’s more likely to lead to confrontation than to resolution.

Examples of Defensive Body Language

  • Barriers – Putting barriers between oneself and others in any conversation can be a sign of defensive behavior.
  • The barriers can be physical objects such as furniture (desks, chairs, cabinets, displays) or movable objects like holding packages or books in front on one’s midsection.
  • Crossed arms, crossed legs, clenched fists, and hidden hands are all protective barriers to communication.

How to Avoid Defensive Body Language

The opposite of defensive body language is open body language—do the opposite.

  • Uncross your arms, let your arms fall to your sides or clasp your hands in a relaxed manner.
  • Take your hands out of your pockets.
  • Uncross your legs and ankles.
  • If you raise your arms, do so with open palms.
  • Placing your hands in some variation of the steeple shows confidence.
  • Stand or sit straight. Good posture denotes openness and honesty.
  • Don’t invade body space, but it’s okay to lean in to show interest.
  • Hold your head up, don’t look down or askance.
  • Nod in agreement.

By being aware of defensive body behaviors and understanding open body language, you can avoid communication breakdowns that sometimes lead to confrontation. Does open body language improve every face-to-face communication? No, but it doesn’t cause poor communication the way defensive body language can.

If you’d like to read more, Psychology Today shares a series of posts on body language.