One time, during a radio interview entitled “What you’re saying without speaking,” I was asked to comment on the host’s body language. He was a very good sport about being critiqued in public, and he quickly understood that, in order to change your body language, you must first be aware of what your body is saying.
This isn’t as easy as you may think. Take Sara, for example . . .
Sara, a vice president at a utility company, complained that she was consistently overlooked for senior positions. “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” she told me. “I’m smart, enthusiastic and hard-working. I can’t figure out why people don’t warm up to me.”
Well, maybe she couldn’t figure it out, but if you saw her in action, you’d know exactly what her problem was.
During my session with Sara, her eyes darted around the room as if searching for the nearest exit, her hands made choppy gestures, and she drummed her fingers on the conference table. I’d been with the woman for only 20 minutes, and already l was just as jumpy as she made all her business colleagues feel when dealing with her.
Sarah perceived herself as projecting enthusiasm and energy. But the nonverbal cues she displayed were sending a loud and clear message of impatience and nervousness.
This is a common situation with body language. Often, your nonverbal signals don’t convey what you intended them to. You may be slouching because you’re tired, but people read it as a sign of disinterest. You may be more comfortable standing with your arms folded across your chest (or you may be cold), but others see you as resistant and unapproachable. And keeping your hands stiffly by your side or stuffed in your pockets can give the impression that you’re insecure – whether you are or not.
With nonverbal communication, it’s not how the sender feels that matters most, it is how the observer perceives how the sender feels. And those interpretations are often made deep in the subconscious mind, based on a primitive emotional reaction that hasn’t changed much since humans began interacting with one another.
So, the next time you’re preparing for a job interview, an important meeting or a big presentation, rehearse for it in front of a video camera. Then view the video, staying as objective as possible. (If you can hire a coach to help you, that’s even better.)
Just be kind to yourself. My clients are often stunned by their body language when they watch a video of themselves for the first time. After viewing his recording of a mock job interview, one incredulous client exclaimed, “Hell, I wouldn’t hire me!”
Remember, whether you are speaking to a business audience of 500, pitching a product/service to potential buyers, or presenting your idea at a team meeting, you are “on stage.” And whenever you are on stage, nonverbal signals are key. People will be judging you by your appearance and your body language. And they’ll do it quickly. Often, they will have come to a conclusion about you before you’ve even had a chance to dazzle them with any of your content.
I don’t mean that your words don’t matter. Obviously, if you want people to be convinced, emotionally touched or motivated to action, you will need to have relevant and meaningful content when you address them. But since body language sends its own set of messages, you’ll also need to gain the nonverbal advantage.
To gain that advantage when dealing with members of your team, you need to send signals of trust and respect. Here are some nonverbal behaviours that send positive messages:
When someone else is talking, face that person directly. Even a quarter turn away signals your lack of interest and makes the speaker shut down.
Remove barriers between you and the other person. Take away things that block your view. Move the phone or stacks of paper on your desk. Better still, come out from behind your desk.
Maintain positive eye contact. Remember that people will assume you are not listening (and not interested) if your eyes scan the room or if your gaze shifts to your Blackberry or computer screen.
Show your hands and use palm-up hand gestures when speaking. Hidden hands signal that you may have something to hide, and open palms send messages of candor and openness.
Synchronize your body language with the person you are dealing with. Subtly match their stance, arm positions and facial expressions. (You do unconsciously with your friends all the time.)
Use head nods. This signal encourages people to continue speaking and “says” that you appreciate their comments.
Making sure you understand the kind of signals your body is sending is important every time you are talking to someone. Our brains are programmed to read each other’s body language, and your colleagues, clients and customers will be watching yours to gain insight into your underlying motives and concerns.
Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence.