How to Read People’s Body Language – A hands on approach

By January 15, 2016June 15th, 2021No Comments

When it comes to understanding body language, you need to examine all parts of the body in context, looking for clusters of behavior and ideally only once you’ve understood someone’s baseline behaviors. One particular part of the body that is often overlooked, is the hands.

The hands can tell you so much, about a person and how they are feeling and even what their intentions might be. At the Body Language Academy by Joe Navarro this is an area that we as body language experts spend time examining in some detail. You would be amazed at what you can actually understand through observing the hands.

Body Language and the Hands

Our hands are an amazing part of our body. They can do so much – from intricate work through to more muscular actions. They help us in the work we do every day , but they are also very important in the way we communicate. Like all parts of our body, they reflect the emotions we are feeling and sometimes even our intentions.

In one of the biggest espionage cases in the United States history, then-FBI Special Agent Joe Navarro was able to first identify a suspect through a shaky hand holding a cigarette (Three Minutes to Doomsday). This was enough to open up an investigation that would eventually uncover some of the biggest compromises to US National Security during the Cold War.

What do your hands tell you?

Just think about it, what are your hands doing right now? Are they by your side? Are they in your lap? Are they resting against your face? Are they playing with your ring or some other item of clothing or hair? Whatever they’re doing it is transmitting a message that others can read. This also includes how others read your handshake. We all have idiosyncratic behaviours dash those behaviours that we do all the time without even thinking about it which help pacify us in everyday situations? When we are stressed or anxious, however, these pacifying behaviours will often increase in intensity or we will adopt new pacifying behaviours that are not part of our normal behavior.

For example, I once saw my eldest daughter get so nervous about an upcoming University exam, that she began pulling the skin on her neck out repeatedly, which was a sign of high stress. This is not behaviour she normally exhibits but is reserved for those times when she is highly anxious. When I see this behaviour, I know things are serious. So, what behaviours do you do when you are highly stressed? And do you notice the body language behaviours of others change when I become anxious or in situations of discomfort?

Using the hands to help you read someone’s body language

So let’s focus in on the hands specifically. What can the hands tell you? When watching someone else and what they are doing with their hands you will see signs of comfort and discomfort, confidence and lack of confidence.

For example, have you ever seen someone standing or sitting adopting the hand steeple position? This body language position is formed when the fingers and thumbs come together just touching, as if you were holding a ball between your two hands. This is body language of high confidence. This position says that you’re comfortable and confident it is a great way to show others that you are in control.

You’ll see many politicians another influential people adopt this hand position. The ex-German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is very well known for holding this position – often upside down almost forming a diamond shape with her hands. Alternatively, have you ever seen someone with their fingers interlaced wrapping them backwards and forwards? This is a classic sign of discomfort and nervousness. You might see this behaviour as someone is waiting for an interview or is very anxious about some other events or circumstances. The more vigorous finger movement, the more anxious they’re likely to be.

Hiding the hands – never a good idea

When your hands are in the open people will fall feel more comfortable when interacting with you. If someone can’t see your hands – perhaps you are sitting and having them in your lap below the level of the table – then you will appear less trustworthy.

Because our hands show so much, including potentially concealing a weapon or tensing up for possible violent action, our brain is hardwired to focus on this area of the body and to be concerned if we can’t see the hands. Now all of this may happen subconsciously, but it will mean that if your hands are hidden people will be less comfortable in your presence.

What can the thumbs tell us?

Even the thumbs can potentially tell us how someone is feeling. Are the thumbs hidden or in plain view? When someone has their hands in their front pockets, happy thumbs sticking out? If they are, then this is usually a good sign that they are feeling confident. Alternatively, if someone is walking around with just their thumbs stuck in their pockets with a finger sticking out, this can be a good sign that someone is feeling less confident?

Just try this behave yourself dash try standing up and putting your hands in your pockets with your thumbs sticking out. How does it feel? Then try just sticking your thumbs in your pocket. I can almost guarantee that you will feel less confident doing this body position. Again, don’t forget to check everything against a person’s normal baseline and the context.

Using your hands for effective presentations

Just as it is important to make sure your hands are not hidden , when presenting in front of others it’s important to appear natural and flowing with your hand movements. Successful speakers use powerful hand gestures. Just watch a Ted talk if you want to know what this looks like.

Hand gestures should help add to what you are telling an audience. That can be used as illustrators dash to emphasise an important point. They can also be used to demonstrate that you have confidence what you are saying. They can also help to get an audience involved dash but remember never to point always to use an open palm if you are indicating to someone or something during a presentation.

If you want to offend someone, just point at them and see the effect that this will have. Also remember not to wave around your arms and hands or to make too many sudden movements. Your hands should remain in a small space in front of you as you talk to an audience or make a presentation. Effectively using your hands to help get across what you’re trying to say can make all the difference.


We all use our hands every day to communicate with others. Not everyone however is aware of just how much our hands are giving away – if you understand the importance of hands as a tool of communication, then you will be in a much better position to understand what someone is really trying to say or what they are really thinking about a topic or issue.

Learn to understand how you come across to others through the use of your own hand gestures and recognise the hand gestures and behaviours of others. Stand in front of a mirror and watch how you come across dash how do you use your hands. Are they adding to what you say or are they a distraction? Are they showing comfort or discomfort? They may be a small part of our body, but they can tell others and ourselves so much.

About the author

David Stephens is the Program Manager and Senior Mentor at the Body Language Academy by Joe Navarro. He is a world-leading body language expert and mentors students and organizations from around the world to help them better understand and apply the principles of nonverbal communication and decision making in everyday life.


Navarro, Joe, 2017, Three Minutes to Doomsday, Bantam Press