Does this sound familiar? You’ve just asked your client how she enjoyed her service. She murmurs, “It was fine,” but you notice that she is not making eye contact with you. What is the message? Is she going to leave a poor review? What is really going on here?

Every day your clients and employees are speaking to you. Only part of what they are saying is in the words they use. Researchers believe that as much as 60%-90% of our communication with others is nonverbal. We all use body language and gestures to add meaning or give emphasis or encouragement. We send and receive wordless messages every day. In some cases our words say one thing and our body language tells a different story.

Human facial expressions in particular are full of cues. Even as a toddler you were already pretty skilled at reading facial expressions. Most babies can tell an angry face from a happy one. As we become adults, we get better at hiding or masking our true feelings. We can master false smiles, polite expressions, or pretend to show interest, but our body language gives us away.

Some people are simply more tuned in to reading these nonverbal messages. Still, anyone can improve her ability to read gestures, expressions, and more subtle clues like posture. Brushing up on your skills of observation and learning what these messages mean can enhance your communication with clients and staff.

This awareness can pay off — both in terms of client satisfaction and retention. An unhappy client is unlikely to complain; she just won’t come back and may even write a bad review. If you recognize her feelings before she goes out the door, you may be able to save a client and prevent a bad situation. Watching your client’s body language can also help you identify when the time is right to suggest an upgrade, a more adventurous nail color, or a retail product. The result is a happy client who thinks you can read her mind.

A good way to sharpen your skills is to take some time each day to focus on a specific type of observation. One day try to focus on really watching for head movements, the next day watch more closely for gestures.


The Eyes Have It

Eye movements and direction carry subtle meanings. Have you ever noticed how some people avoid eye contact in an uncomfortable situation? We have all seen the classic expression of rolling your eyes in disbelief. Here are some of the most common eye messages to watch for.

Eye Contact: Eye contact is one of the most powerful ways to send a nonverbal message. How long eye contact is maintained is the most significant signal to watch for. When a client or employee fails to make or maintain eye contact, it can mean several things. They may be uncomfortable with what you are asking, they may not agree with you, or they may be shy. It can also be a sign of deceit.

Failure to make eye contact is bad for business — both for clients and employees. We all want to be noticed and acknowledged. A lack of eye contact can make us feel ignored. In the example of the client who looks away when asked about her service, the avoidance of eye contact is a signal that she may not be satisfied. This is your cue to ask for more information.

Looking Up: This tells you that the person is weighing both the emotional and logical side of something. If she is considering making an appointment or buying a retail item, jump in and offer encouragement.

Blinking: Many studies have noted that blinking rates go up when people are under stress or being deceitful. Assuming they are not just suffering from allergies, try to reduce their stress level.

Squinting: Narrowing the eyes or squinting indicates distress, disagreement or even anger. Watch for this reaction after you have said something. The person may not agree with you. If this is accompanied by a shake of the head, it is confirmed. Clarify for them what you mean and ask for their opinion.

Shut Eyes: If someone covers their eyes, looks downward, or literally shuts you out by rubbing her eyes, it can indicate that she does not want to confront the situation or is not happy about it.

Example: You ask your receptionist if she can cover for another employee on Saturday morning. She rubs her eyes and glances down at the desk. While her words are saying yes, her eyes are telling you she is not happy about the situation.


Body Movements

The guest who is tapping her toes or the employee who constantly shifts from foot to foot is using body movements that scream nervousness, agitation, or boredom. Pay attention to this behavior in employees and clients. The body movements are a distraction to active listening. An employee or client who is tuning you out is not ready to communicate fully with you.


Comfort Zones

Different situations and cultural customs influence how close we can stand to someone and feel comfortable. We stand farther apart from others while waiting in a line at the grocery store and sidle up closer to friends and family. For most Americans, the proximity limits are one foot for lovers, one-and-a-half to four feet apart for family and friends, and four to 12 feet apart with strangers.

Clients and employees generally observe these social rules of distance and communicate in a “respectful space” of about three to five feet. Invading someone’s comfort zone can signal a threat or desire to confront them. You might see this if you are handling a client complaint or dealing with an unhappy employee. To defuse these sticky situations, just take a few steps back. If you can take the client or employee to another location, it may prevent others from getting upset or unnecessarily involved.

Head Movements and Gestures

Head movements are often spontaneous, so they are harder to hide. Watch for even the slightest of head movements to reveal the true message.

Head tilted: This signals “I’m not sure” or “What do you mean?” Take this as a cue to clarify what you have said.

Head shaking: A slow and often very slight shake of the head from side to side signals “I am not buying what you are saying.” This is a signal of disbelief. Ask, “Do you agree?” to gain more information.

Head nodding up and down: During casual conversations we often nod our head in agreement. With both clients and employees this is a good sign — you are in sync.

Hand Stroking Chin: “I am considering it.” If you see this gesture, it is time to propose a service upgrade or close the retail sale. The person is thinking about what you are suggesting — ask for a commitment.

Rubbing the Nose: Liar, liar, pants on fire! Rubbing the side of the nose with a finger is often interpreted to mean the individual is not telling the truth — or is at least holding back information. Try to get more information.


Crossed Arms

When people cross their arms they set up an immediate barrier. They want to close themselves off to you or the situation. Although some people just cross their arms as a habit, it may indicate the person is nervous, self-conscious, or feels threatened. If their arms are crossed while their feet are wide apart, this is a position of toughness or authority. Try to make this person feel more at ease and relaxed by speaking softly. Try not to cross your arms in response. If they drop their arms, it is a signal that they may be willing to listen to you.


Want to Learn More?

> Understanding Body Language:

> Simply Body Language:

>Changing Minds:


Patti Biro is the owner and founder of Patti Biro and Associates (, a consulting firm specializing in planning and providing innovative coaching and education in the spa and wellness industry.



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