Let's say you're in a conversation and you notice that your partner has crossed their arms, leaned away from you, and is repeatedly rubbing their face. That's definitely uncomfortable body language. But why is your partner uncomfortable?

Well, they might be uncomfortable because they don't like the conversation topic.

Or they might be uncomfortable because you have food in your teeth and they're not sure if they should tell you.

Or perhaps something is wrong that has nothing to do with you, like an upset stomach.

If you only look at their body language, you won't have enough information to identify the source of their discomfort. Body language will tell you that someone is comfortable or uncomfortable, but it can't tell you why.

That's why you look at the context.

What Is Context?

Looking at context means being aware of three things.

  • The conversation itself. Did something in the conversation cause your partner to become more or less comfortable? For instance, if your partner's language changed when you asked a specific question, perhaps there is something about that question that made them uncomfortable.
  • The environment the conversation takes place in. Conversations don't occur in a vacuum (unless you are an astronaut.) Look around the room to see what your partner might be reacting to. An argument at a nearby table, an overtly crowded room, or an ex-girlfriend who just entered the party could all be reasons why your partner suddenly became uncomfortable.
  • Your partner's recent experiences. Your partner's day did not begin when you started talking with them, and the experiences they had prior to your conversation might still be affecting them. For example, if your partner had a rough day at work, they might give off discomfort signals because they are still thinking about their stressful day.

Applying Context

Take the time to look at context and you will normally identify a few potential causes for your partner's discomfort. Try to remove the discomfort caused by the context, and see if your partner becomes comfortable.

For instance, let's say their body language signaled discomfort when you introduced a controversial topic. Change the topic and see if their body language relaxes. Is there a bad smell in the room? Suggest changing rooms and seeing if they light up.

And remember that if you can't deduce the source of their discomfort, it's usually ok to just ask them what's wrong. You don't need to be Sherlock Holmes; it's enough that you made an honest effort to look at the context.

After all, even if you don't know the source of their discomfort, you can still try to make them more comfortable. Offer to fix them their favorite drink, or pick a fun topic to talk about instead of a serious one. It's preferable to know the specific source of their discomfort, but simply being aware that they are uncomfortable goes a long way.

I know that context can seem overwhelming at first. And in honesty, it will take some practice before you become comfortable with both looking at context and also focusing on the conversation. But I think as you practice, you will find that looking at context is very simple.

In a nutshell, the purpose of looking at context is to find clues that help you make your partner more comfortable. When body language tells you someone is uncomfortable, you look at context to find out why they are uncomfortable, then use that information to help you remove the source of discomfort. Practice looking at context until it becomes natural, and you will have a powerful tool to add to your social skills repertoire.

Of course, body language is not just about your partner's body language, or even your partner's body language and the context. Your body language plays a role, too, and that's what we'll discuss next.