Do Your Gestures Belie Your Words?

My “Get to the Point!” columns talk about writing and speaking. But you communicate another way, too — through body language. Studies show that your gestures may speak more loudly than your words and can even contradict them.

You may have learned to closely observe a witness giving a statement or in deposition. You may have even taken a CLE class on the subject. But what about your own non-verbal signals?

Client Meetings

The prospective client shows up for the initial consultation. You need to send a clear message to communicate competence and interest and to encourage trust.

Smiling communicates that you are the client’s ally. Make eye contact, but don’t stare so much you create discomfort. Nodding as the client tells the story shows you are absorbing the message. Taking notes communicates interest. One lawyer says he literally rolls up his sleeves during the client intake interview to show he is ready to do serious work.

Looking at the clock or fiddling with a pen or desk ornament signals impatience. Leaning back with hands behind your head or with arms crossed over your chest can communicate closure to the client’s message or condescension.

Conference Room Conduct

Whether it’s a law firm meeting or a sit-down with opposing counsel, you want to convey your attention and make your own points persuasively.

  • If you are seated on a couch, avoid crossing your legs. This sends the same closed mind signal as crossed arms.

  • Stay alert. Some people tilt their head to one side to communicate they are listening. Suppress that yawn.

  • Mirroring is a technique to convey your solidarity with the speaker. Match your own body language to the speaker’s.

  • Do not shake your head or raise a skeptical eyebrow when you hear an idea you disagree with. This can prematurely set off an argument before you have stated your position and makes your listener defensive. Keep your facial expression neutral. On the other hand, nodding is okay.

  • When you do speak, do not point or shake your finger. When gesturing, even to point to something, use an open hand which appears less confrontational.

  • You won’t win an argument through a display of anger. Compressed lips, bulging eyes or clenched fists convey your susceptibility to the other person’s argument and your own loss of control.

  • Be aware of head movements in general. Television news programs show a surprisingly large number of commentators moving their heads in a way that contradicts their speech.

In-Person Networking

Working the room at an event requires you to approach strangers. They form an impression of you before you say a word. The goal is to look confident and trustworthy.

Don’t frown as you approach someone. Stand straight: no slouching, no fidgeting. Toes should point straight ahead. Standing straight doesn’t mean you are at attention; you want to appear relaxed. After shaking hands and exchanging business cards, if your hands are empty keep them at your side, not crossed or in your pockets.

Lean in to conversations, but don’t get so close that your movement could be interpreted as aggressive. If you are at a banquet table, keep your elbows in your lap when not eating, not on the table.

Sometimes it becomes clear that a conversation will not be fruitful. Don’t roll your eyes or shake your head before you politely excuse yourself to speak with someone else. Be careful, this behavior can be unconscious. Besides, despite indications to the contrary, this person could turn out to be a valuable resource one day.


As a professional neutral, a judge will try to overlook your disrespectful body language so as not to prejudice the client. That doesn’t mean you want to antagonize the person in control of your case’s outcome.

A silly grin is inappropriate, but a pleasant expression is a good way to start. Proper preparation is critical. If you are searching your briefcase or fumbling through papers when it is your time for argument, you start with a strike against you.

The same head movement rules for the conference room pertain to your court appearance. Don’t demonstrate disdain for the judge’s statements. When it is your time, lay out your position respectfully.

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