Non-verbal actions can tell different - and more genuine - messages than words, discovers Karen Hainsworth

Words convey the messages that we want others to hear, but our bodies may tell a different story. Whether we express our burdens to our colleagues with a hunched back and downcast eyes, or our enthusiasm for life with a spring in our step, our bodies are constantly sending out messages. And understanding these clues that we unavoidably offer each each other is an essential part of effective communication.

"People vary enormously in their ability to detect non-verbal cues," says Dr Peter Bull, psychologist at University of York and author of Communication under the Microscope: the Theory and Practice of Microanalysis (Psychology Press). "Those who tend to be good at detecting emotions and getting the timing spot on when broaching tricky subjects are usually picking up others' moods through these non-verbal clues," he says. "But it's important to be emotionally intelligent when dealing with the real messages that are coming through. There's little point in being a skilled decoder of subtle signals if your colleagues' more genuine emotions overwhelm you with anxiety, anger or irritation."

The ability to manipulate your own body language is suggested as an essential skill when it comes to making a good impression. "If you're aiming to communicate interest and enthusiasm at an interview, for example, confident body language can help to convey a message that is consistent," says Bull. "General facial cues suggesting alertness, while showing that you are listening, can help. And your tone of voice should be lively and interested."

Though we can portray a false emotion to a certain extent, few can fool a skilled observer, who is likely to detect the micro-expressions that we constantly leak. We may smile when we are miserable, but a body-language expert will know we're faking it. Genuine smiles use the tiny muscles around the eyes, but a false smile involves only the mouth.

It's not that difficult to modify grosser signals, however. And we can make a good start by developing a level of self-awareness. "It's important to listen to what our own bodies are doing," says Dr Betty Rudd, the chartered counselling psychologist. "We might not recognise what we're feeling, but if we note our crossed arms and tense posture suddenly, we recognise that we're defensive and anxious. And so we might be saying the right words to someone but our body is saying 'go away'."

If you want to give the impression of confidence at work, first recognise how much space you are taking up. "Think about letting go of the tension in your muscles; allow the floor or the chair to take their weight," says Rudd. "Think of your back spreading out and widening and lengthening." And she suggests looking at the person you are dealing with directly, rather than constantly averting your gaze. "These little things can make a huge impact and you will feel more grounded and secure," she says.

But most of us are so busy doing our jobs that we fail to take any notice what our bodies are doing. Rudd says: "Become aware of how you are sitting or standing. If someone was looking at you, what would they think you were feeling? You can change your posture and the message you are giving by setting yourself little reminders. For example, you might say to yourself, 'Every time I see a bus, I'm going to stop and look at my body and note what I am thinking and question whether this is how I want to be'."

Once you become aware of these subtle signs, you increase your power to communicate effectively. When your body is saying the same thing as your words, it shows congruence and that has enormous impact. But people will often use incongruence to get less comfortable information across. "They may say something that makes them sound quite interested in you, but their body language suggests they are not," says Bull. "They may feel they cannot come out and say, 'I'm not interested', so what they do is say it through a luke-warm, non-verbal style."

Decoding the real message can be a tricky business and becomes even more complicated when different cultures begin to mix. But whether that's the culture of a country or company, you can avoid putting your foot in it by watching others closely and observing the subtleties of non-verbal cues, while noting the unspoken messages that weave between the words.