Body language basics for nonprofit professionals


CatapultaIn this field, we deal with people a lot. In fact, over 80% of my work is attending meetings. (Of the remainder, 20% is spent emailing and 10% is spent cowering under my desk, rocking and shaking, staring at our budget, wondering why it wouldn’t balance). Considering that at least half of our communication is nonverbal, it is shocking how little we pay attention to body language. But body language is awesome, and learning even the basics will give you a leg up—ha! Body language joke!—at the next site visit or presentation or board meeting.

So today I am going to delve into some of the signals that I have been studying. It is good for you to learn a few of them so you can better interpret people’s moods and emotions, and also for you to be cognizant of your own body language so you can better communicate.

But before we do that, some things to keep in mind. First, I am not an expert, and anything that I say could be completely wrong. (I have to put that disclaimer in after what happened when I posted “Bungee jumping basics for nonprofit professionals” last year). Second, body language signals must be interpreted in clusters. A single signal may not mean anything, unless it’s something obvious, like someone flipping you the middle finger (worst site visit I’ve ever had). Third, body language must be interpreted in context. For instance, someone whom you just laid off may have a weaker handshake than someone whom you didn’t just fire. Fourth, culture must be taken into consideration. For example, in Vietnamese culture, pointing the bottom of your feet at anyone is very disrespectful, so if you and I are meeting and you happen to point your feet at me, I will cut you.

We are going to focus on American body language. Now, there is a whole bunch of stuff on this topic, literally thousands of signals and combinations of them. I’m going to focus on a few key concepts that I like to pay attention to whenever I meet with a funder or lead a workshop or something.

Arms and Hands:

  • Crossed arms indicate defensiveness or reservation. If someone’s arms are crossed, they’re not likely to be receptive to your ideas. Now is not a good time to ask them for money or to support your 501c3 The Musical idea.
  • Hands in pockets mean people are bored or not in the mood to participate. Give them a business card or some coffee or do some other activity to force them to take their hands out of their pockets. Or do a fun icebreaker with animal sounds. People who are not in the mood to be engaged love icebreakers that involve animal sounds.
  • Hand in pockets with thumbs out. This is known as the “Superiority Stance.” For some reason, this person is feeling particularly glib, or above the situation or above you. Try to avoid doing this, because it unconsciously makes you seem like arrogant and aloof. Whenever I see someone standing in this position, I like to say, “I notice that you are assuming the Superiority Stance. Do you think you’re too good for this place? Should I send for a carriage to take you back to your palace, Your Majesty?” This may explain why we haven’t been getting a lot of donations lately…
  • Thumbs in pockets with fingers out. This is known as the Cowboy Stance, probably because cowboys like to stand around like that. The fingers kind of frame the groin area suggestively, and it looks ridiculous and makes everyone uncomfortable. It conveys confidence, arrogance, machismo, and a strange sort of existential loneliness. Don’t invite this person to be a board member. Unless they’re an actual cowboy, since who wouldn’t want a cowboy on their board?
  • Covering groin area with hands, usually clasped, or a notebook. This indicates nervousness, though mainly in dudes, since you are unconsciously creating a barrier to protect a vulnerable area. If you do this a lot, knock it off. It looks as ridiculous as the Cowboy Stance.
  • Both hands behind the head conveys being relaxed and in control. This is only appropriate for you to do if you have a good relationship with whomever you’re meeting with. Otherwise, you just seem like a jerk, especially when combined with the Figure 4 position, described below.


  • Figure 4 Position is when you’re sitting and you have the ankle of one leg on the knee of the other leg, making it look like the number 4. This indicates competitiveness and stubbornness, especially if the hands are also clasping the ankle. This person is ready to argue and not likely to change his mind. Combine Figure 4 with the hands behind the head and leaning back and you have what body language experts call “The Douchebag Position.”
  • Crossed legs indicate reservation or cautiousness, though it could be because of any number of factors. Also, where the upper knee points may also be significant, as we tend to point our body toward things that interest us. This is good to observe in the beginning of a meeting. For instance, if their upper knee is pointed toward you, that’s a possible sign that this person may like you. After 30 minutes or so, though, people cross or uncross their legs mainly for circulation and maybe to avoid having to pee.
  • Feet pointed at people or things when standing. Watch how people are standing at a reception. One of their feet is usually a couple of inches farther away from their body. This foot usually points to whatever most interest them. If it’s pointed toward you, it means they’re interested in what you’re saying. If it’s pointed toward someone else, it means they probably want you to finish talking so they can go talk to that person. My feet, I notice, tend to point to wherever the food/wine is located.
  • Ankle lock. This is when someone sits with their knees not crossed, but ankles are. This indicates defensiveness and lack of receptiveness. Also not a good time to ask someone for money or to join your board.
  • Open legs while standing indicate confidence and readiness or action. This is good to use when you’re giving a speech. But don’t overdo it. A foot apart conveys confidence. More than that can seem aggressive, or worse, silly.


  • Head nodding rapidly means this person wants you to hurry up saying whatever you’re saying. A pattern of steady or slow head nodding is usually good, as it means this person is listening and being attentive and maybe agreeing. Fast head nodding, though, usually indicates impatience, so try to wrap up that hilarious story about your trip to Europe and how you totally got drunk on Belgium beer and woke up hours later at a Haagen Dazs.
  • Widening eyes convey interest, so if someone’s eyes widen when you say something, maybe you should elaborate on that awesome idea about 501c3 The Musical and how it would have a singing unicorn and some elves.
  • Pencil/pen chewing is a nervous habit that indicates this person is unconsciously self-soothing, regressing back to childhood. It may be a sign of insecurity. It also indicates that you should never borrow writing utensils from this person.
  • Tight-lipped smile. This is not a good sign. It means the person probably disagreed with you or just unconsciously rejected your idea or proposal.


  • Objects as barriers: If you’re sitting with someone and they have a coffee cup right between you and them, that’s a signal that they’re unconsciously putting up a barrier, kind of like when they have their arms crossed. They won’t be as receptive to your ideas as long as the barrier is in place. Whenever I see that happening, I always try to figure out a way to move this object to the side, for instance saying “What a beautiful mug. What is that, ceramic?” Then I pick it up and move it.


One of the most important concepts to learn is Mirroring. Basically, people unconsciously copy one another’s body language, and it helps to build rapport. Everyone does it without realizing it, except psychopaths, who don’t usually mirror anyone at all. Learn to do this subtly. As people lean in, you should lean in. As they crossed their legs, you should try to mirror them. They’ll like you much better and they won’t even realize it, which is great for things like site visits. It is also good to use this technique to see how relatable another person is. Do something like leaning in or back and see if they copy you at least a couple times. If they don’t, they might be a psychopath.

All right, that was basic body language. We’ll elaborate more on this topic later. Remember, you must read the signals in combinations. If you’re meeting with someone and they have their arms crossed, it may not mean much. But if they have their arms crossed and their ankles locked, and their lips are tight, and they have a coffee mug right in the middle of the table, and they’re nodding rapidly as you talk and roll their eyes a lot…then you’re probably talking to my mother-in-law, ahahaha.