The Body Language of Disengagement—from Head to Toes

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD

Has this ever happened to you? You’re in a meeting, and it’s going well. You can tell because of the positive body language expressed by your colleague. Then, something happens—you’re not sure what—and everything changes.

In business communication, engagement and disengagement are the most important signals to monitor in the other person’s body language. Engagement behaviors indicate interest, receptivity, or agreement, while disengagement behaviors signal that a person is bored, angry, or defensive.

Here’s how it looks from head to toes:
When someone is disengaged, the amount of eye contact decreases, as we tend to look away from things that distress us and people we don’t like. Similarly, a colleague who is bored or restless may avoid eye contact by gazing past you, defocusing, or glancing around the room. And instead of opening wide, eyes that signal disengagement will narrow slightly. In fact, eye squints can be observed as people read contracts or proposals, and when they occur, it is almost always a sign of that the reader has seen something troubling or problematic.

Mouth: Disagreement also shows up in compressed or pursed lips, clenched jaw muscles, or a head turned slightly away, so eye contact becomes sidelong.

Torso: When you see people turn their shoulders and torso away from you, you’ve probably lost their interest. In fact, orienting away from someone in this manner almost always conveys detachment or disengagement, regardless of the words spoken. When people are engaged, they will face you directly, “pointing” at you with their torso. However, the instant they feel uncomfortable, they will turn away, giving you “the cold shoulder.” If someone is feeling defensive, you may see an attempt to shield the torso with a purse, briefcase, laptop, etc.

Legs: If someone is sitting with ankles crossed and legs stretched forward, he is probably feeling positively toward you. But when you see feet pulled away from you or wrapped in a tight ankle lock or pointed at the exit or wrapped around the legs of a chair, you would be wise to suspect withdrawal and disengagement.

Not that you’ve learned the most common body language signals of disengagement, here are six things you can do to remedy the situation:

  1. Think about the context in which the disengagement occurred: Did you alter your body language? Did you ask a question or touch on a particular issue that may have been a “hot spot”? Did someone else enter the room or join the conversation?
  2. Check your body position. Are you exhibiting any closed or disengaged behaviors that your counterpart may be mimicking or reacting to?
  3. Change your body posture into one of increased engagement—and see if he or she follows suit. Lean forward, smile, and put your hands on the table, palms up.
  4. Make them move. For example, if the person’s arms and legs are tightly crossed (a combination that frequently signals disengagement), lean forward and hand the person something—a brochure, report, or cup of coffee—to force him or her to open up.
  5. Change your “pitch.” Realize that what you are proposing isn’t being well received, and that it may be time to switch to “Plan B.”
  6. Bring the disengaged behavior to the other person’s attention: “It looks as if this may be a bad time for us to talk. Would you prefer to postpone this meeting until tomorrow?”

About the Author(s)

Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD is an executive coach, leadership consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is the author of The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work, The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt How You Lead, and most recently, The Truth About Lies in the Workplace: How to Spot Liars and What to Do About Them. For more information, contact [email protected] or visit: