Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Dispatches: Body language tips for public educators

Jennifer Grigg   

Features Dispatches editors pick

Photo: Yuliia/Adobe stock

If you’re interacting with people on a regular basis, knowing how to leverage the power of your body language, even during Zoom calls, can make a huge difference in your interactions.

You’ve likely heard the saying “actions speak louder than words”, but did you know that your body language is 12 to 13 times more powerful than what you say. You likely know how it feels when you get a weird vibe from someone and it’s often before they’ve even spoken. If they’ve said something that didn’t jive, you’ve likely picked up on something incongruent about what they’ve said and what their body language conveys. You don’t have to be a skilled body language reader to know something’s up. You do it subconsciously because it’s hardwired as a survival mechanism.

Now, think about how much more insight you’ll have if you know what to look for.

Having an awareness of body language/nonverbal behaviour is a surefire way to improve your communication, presence, confidence and charisma. It’s backed by reliable science (research, studies and experiments show body movement are controlled by your limbic brain and bypass the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for thought processing), is universal across cultures (though there are some gestures that mean different things in various cultures, many are consistent across different cultures), genders (i.e. when someone presses their lips together, it means the same thing regardless of gender) and even sighted and non-sighted individuals alike (a study of sighted and non-sighted Olympic athletes showed that both display universal signs of pride and defeat). Let’s take a look at three tips for upping your connection factor.


Tip #1: Arms
Our arms are protectors of our torsos and our head. For example, when someone startles you, your arms automatically come in tight to your torso or if someone yells, “heads up”, you’ll put your hands over your head because, designed to assist with our survival, these responses reveal true sentiments or intentions. Someone who is uncomfortable or insecure will hold their arms close to their body while someone who is comfortable and confident will sit with their arms away from their body, draped over the back of a chair or resting on a table.

What to do: When approaching a stranger for the first time, demonstrate warmth by leaving your arms relaxed and open.

Why: Conveys a relaxed and approachable demeanour.

Tip #2: Hands
Your hands are directed—consciously or subconsciously—by your brain. Our brains are hardwired to engage our hands in accurately communicating our thoughts and emotions. Learning to use your hands to enhance your communication can make you more charismatic and your presentations more engaging.

What to do: Keep your palms open and up when speaking with someone in a natural and comfortable way.

Why: This sends a message to the other person’s limbic system saying, “I mean no harm” and “there is nothing hidden here”. This can be especially helpful in cases where people seem reluctant to approach or engage with someone in uniform.

Tip #3: Thumbs
It’s no secret that a thumbs up signals high confidence and thumbs down signals low confidence. The same is true for other thumb related behaviours. Watching people’s thumbs, the direction they’re in and whether they’re visible or not gives you a lot of insight into how confident they are feeling. Hands ideally should be kept visible but if they’re in a coat pocket with thumbs sticking out, this is actually a high confidence behaviour. Grasping bunker straps with thumbs pointed up or clasping fingers with thumbs pointed up also portray confidence.

What to do: Remember to give a thumbs up and don’t stand around with your thumbs (or hands)  in your pockets while doing public education events.

Why: Thumbs in pockets with fingers hanging out signals low confidence and conveys the message, “I am unsure of myself”. Hidden hands create doubt in the minds of others.

Bonus Tip: Here’s one that combines all three: arms akimbo. (Remember the Kim Mitchell album Akimbo Alogo? I’m showing my age, aren’t I?). I don’t know what akimbo alogo means, but arms akimbo is when you place your hands on your hips and your elbows out to the sides.  It’s a behaviour used to convey authority or assert dominance. It’s also an effective way for someone to show that you’re standing your ground and unwilling to be bullied. The interesting thing about arms akimbo is that it makes a huge difference which direction your thumbs are facing in. Thumbs forward (and down) is far different from the dominant position mentioned above and signifies a more inquisitive, subdued authority position. Try it for yourself and see how it feels.

In fact, try all of these tips and pay attention to the way it changes the way you feel and/or how it influences people around you. Experiment with it in meetings and see what kind of results you get. These tips will work for anyone interested in improving their interpersonal skills. 

Jennifer Grigg has been a dispatcher, volunteer firefighter, FPO inspector and instructor. She is now a resilience and empowerment coach and certified body language trainer. Contact Jennifer at or 

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