Social Awareness: How to Practice Empathy and Read Body Language to Understand How Your Team Feels

Emotional intelligence, as defined by social scientist and researcher, Daniel Goleman, is the ability to recognize, understand, and manage your own emotions, and it’s the ability to recognize, understand, and influence the emotions of others.

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is comprised of four components: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. They’re all important when it comes to mastering the art and science of leadership.

Great leaders seek to understand how their own emotions (self-awareness) and thoughts can impact those around them. They seek to understand how to control their own actions and reactions in certain situations, so they don’t negatively impact the moods, dispositions, and emotions of those around them (self-management). They also seek to understand how others around them—especially those they lead—think and feel, and they customize their messages to meet others where they are in order to connect, inspire, and influence behavior (social awareness). Finally, great leaders bring self-awareness, self-management, and social awareness together to effectively manage relationships with and among their teams.

Perhaps the one common thread which seems to be woven throughout each component is an ever-powerful leadership skill: empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Empathy isn’t about agreeing. It’s simply about understanding. And, a big part of understanding and perceiving how others are thinking and feeling is the ability to read emotional cues.

“People who read others well are trained to read the invisible. They’ve learned to utilize what I call their ‘super-senses;’ to look further than where you usually put your attention to access life-changing intuitive insights.”
—Judith Orloff, The Empath’s Survival Guide

How can you read body language to understand how your team feels?

These proven tactics will allow you to read body language to practice empathy. By using empathy, you can understand how your team members feel. When you understand how your team members feel, you can temper, customize, and strategically craft your messages and conversations so that you personally connect with your team and take them to the next level.

Eye movement

  • Looking at you directly or looking away indicates attention
  • Looking down signals discomfort
  • Pupil dilation is a sign of focus
  • Blinking rate gives away what is happening internally
  • Glancing at something indicates desire
  • Looking upward to the right (imagination) or left (recalling a memory) means different things

People’s mouths

  • Smiles (genuine, fake, and half) tell you everything
  • Watch for the initial grimace
  • Tight versus relaxed lips indicate their attitude
  • Covering the mouth or touching the lips while speaking is a red flag
  • Lip biting is a sign of worry, stress, or anxiousness

Head movement

  • How quickly they nod indicates patience
  • Tilting the head sideways (interest) or backward (suspicion) mean different things
  • Where their head is turned toward or facing indicates what or who interests them the most


  • People position their feet toward those they are interested in
  • Crossed legs indicate a need for privacy

Hand movements

  • Hands in their pockets could mean deception
  • Hands on their hips imply an attempt to exert dominance
  • Hands behind their back could suggest boredom or anxiousness
  • Unconsciously pointing in a person’s direction means an affinity towards them
  • Holding an object between themselves and the other person is a sign of discomfort
  • A clenched fist indicates controlled anger or frustration
  • Fidgeting or tapping fingers could mean they are bored or impatient


  • Arms crossed is a blocking gesture
  • Resting the elbow on a table to use one hand to support the head indicates listening; whereas using both hands to support the head with both elbows on the table implies boredom

Create harmony in our organization and connect with your teams by observing and understanding how other people feel in certain situations. When we practice empathy like this, we continue to move the organization forward in a positive direction, creating a positive atmosphere in the process.

Ultimately, empathy allows us to take appropriate action while taking others’ feelings and perspectives into account as we make decisions and lead forward. Remember, your goal as a leader is to seek to understand before you seek to be understood.

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