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The role of body language in communication if you have a visible difference

Visible difference can make interaction hard. Actively working to improve the role of body language in communication can make a big difference.

There is much more to communication than just what we say. The role of body language in communication is hugely important, giving people extra information about who we are and what we are thinking and feeling.

If you find communication difficult because your visible difference makes you feel shy or anxious, actively working to improve your body language can make a big difference.

On this page, we look at how you can do to improve your use of body language.

What is the role of body language in communication?

When we speak, meaning doesn’t just come from the words we use, but from our tone of voice and the way we use our bodies. All of this gives important context to the person we are speaking to. The importance of body language in communication can’t be overstated – it is just as important as the words you use.

From birth, we naturally look at how people are acting to give us information. Without even knowing it, most of us constantly watch other people’s expressions and take in body language, using these cues to make assessments about what they are thinking, feeling or doing.

Body language includes:

  • Posture
  • Facial expression
  • Eye contact
  • The tone and pace of voice
  • Non-verbal sounds or short “filler” words like “hmm”, “yes”, “uh-huh”
  • Personal style, clothes and hair

Improving your body language

Make eye contact

Most people naturally look at the eyes to understand someone better, to sense their mood and to engage someone’s attention. Although you may feel shy or apprehensive, not looking someone in the eye during a conversation may leave them thinking you are not listening or are uninterested in what they have to say. Although you’re avoiding eye contact because you are worried or shy, it can make you seem unfriendly or aloof.

If you find making eye contact difficult, you can use these tips to get better at it:

  • Practise lifting your head and looking around you.
  • Practise gradually building up eye contact talking to people you know.
  • Progressively try practising with people who are less familiar – look away and then look back if you need to.
  • If you feel anxious, try looking at the bridge of the person’s nose, this can look like making eye contact.

Looking at the bridge of the person’s nose – this is an excellent tip and one that I use all the time (on a daily basis). I deal a lot with students and external visitors to an organisation – and when I am meeting and greeting, this tip works every time!


Facial expressions and bodily gestures

Our faces often reflect our true feelings. However, it is possible to hide our emotions and use our facial expressions to project the feelings what we want people to see. This can help put others at ease by giving the impression you are open, friendly and want to talk – even if you do not feel like it at a particular time.

Instinctively, we tend to do the following things with our faces and bodies when we feel a certain way:

  • If you are nervous, you might frown, look worried or look away.
  • If you are wary or uneasy, you might look guarded, defensive or cross your arms.
  • If you feel shy or unsure, you might cover your mouth or face with your hand or look at the ground.

Work on recognising these expressions – and the unique ways you tend to express different feelings. When you are next in a situation where you feel awkward or shy, make a conscious effort to look relaxed and friendly, by smiling, letting your arms hang casually by your sides if possible and nodding in response to what the other person is saying. This is not easy, but practice makes it easier.

Hold your head up and stand tall

If you bow your head or turn away, the other person may feel you are not engaged with the conversation or avoiding talking to them. It may look like you are distracted or thinking about other things, rather than focusing on the person in front of you.

However, if you lift your head up and look at them, this shows interest and confidence. Tipping your head to one side can show you are absorbed by the conversation and thinking about what the other person has said.

It is not just your face that is important. Communication involves your whole body and the way you stand tells other people something about you. If you stand with your shoulders bent over and your head down, you may seem inward-looking and unapproachable. On the other hand, if you stand with your head up and your shoulders back you will look welcoming, confident and assertive.

None of this is easy. Try different approaches and see how it affects your conversations. Do you find people are more engaged and easier to be around? Does it make conversation easier? Do you feel more confident?

Communication if your vision or expression is limited

Your visible difference may mean your eyes or facial expressions are more limited. For example, part or all of your face may be paralysed or your features could be shaped differently. Or maybe you may feel self-conscious about smiling because you know that your smile is uneven or imperceptible to others. Making eye contact can be challenging if you only have one eye or your eye movement is limited.

This doesn’t mean your body language is not important. You are adaptable and usually the person you are talking to will look for other visual cues to interpret the vibe.

Here are some suggestions of how you might get around any limitations you may have. You may not be able to do all of them, and that is fine. Just take away what works for you.

  • Try not to hide your mouth or face, or look down.
  • Stand tall with your head up, giving people the opportunity to see as many cues as possible.
  • Use your face and eyes to smile if you don’t have the full use of your mouth. A smile is far more than just the movement of the mouth – your eyes and the expression they show are equally as important.
  • Tip your head to the side to show interest and engagement with the other person.
  • Nod, use hand gestures and nonverbal sounds to acknowledge what the other person is saying.
  • Use the tone and pace of your voice to show your feeling.
  • Use eye contact – this will be equally valued by the other person, whether you are able to use both eyes or just one.
  • Gesture with your arms to express yourself, as far as possible.

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