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Faith WoodWhat does the body politic learn from a political leader’s body language?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s town hall tour of the nation offered a tremendous opportunity to study how he interacts with average Canadians – and to try to understand the subliminal messages his body language and speech patterns sent to us all.

Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

So I combed through media videos and those from audience members who posted to YouTube to come up with some basic observations about how Trudeau made us feel.

Angelou’s quote speaks volumes to the communication preferences of Trudeau, who appears to have a dominant representational style that leans on kinesthetic (or tactile) and then visual processing styles.

There are four common ways to process information: visual, auditory, kinesthetic and auditory digital. They’re also referred to as modalities or representational systems (rep systems). They are how we digest the world through our five senses and how we typically communicate them back to the world. When information reaches our brains, it’s given meaning and forms a subjective experience of the world: our perception.

Although we use all of the representational systems, each of us tends to have a preference, just like there are people who prefer certain types of food.

So when you spend time observing non-verbal and verbal cues within a speech, it’s important to consider the preferred representational styles.

Individuals with a strong kinesthetic style tend to value their experiences and less the experiences of others. They tend to get restless during long lectures and often pace in order to maintain engagement. They like to use their hands to communicate and they make decisions based on how something makes them feel. When they look down, they’re accessing a feeling or an emotion. Kinesthetic learners prefer to move around rather than be confined. They express emotions, and touch and hug more frequently than others.

A primarily kinesthetic individual wears clothes that appear casual and comfortable, yet still put together. With the jeans and button-down shirts adopted for this tour, the PM brought a whole new definition to business casual.

It may be that Trudeau wanted to project a more familial tone through his attire. The casual choices project a feeling of safety and comfort, particularly in auditoriums where he might expect controversy or stress.

When we encounter situations that help us feel good about ourselves and the decisions we’re making, we open up to them inside and out.

We see this when the crowds cheered or individuals told Trudeau that they’re big fans.

The prime minister needed to hear these accolades and responded with positive micro gestures – he sat taller, smiled broader and was more open. He was, after all, taking credit for all the good in the country.

In contrast, when we face unpleasant emotions, we contract: muscles clench, breath is held and the body tenses. We arm ourselves to resist.

In the clips of the prime minister in Western Canada, there are many moments where he’s unable to hide his objections to argumentative behaviours (or in his words, disrespect). In fact, when he speaks of poor respect, his eyebrows furrow, and his voice deepens and grows louder. Using a stool provided and a glass of water, Trudeau used gestures that blocked out protestors.

For someone who claims to want to hear from the public, he appeared reluctant to face those he granted a moment on the microphone. He frequently turned his head or shifted his body away from the speaker. Even the shoulder furthest from the speaker appeared to drop towards a perceived exit.

It’s important to note that Trudeau truly believes in his own perceptions. Whether you agree with his politics or not, he does.

But perhaps being liked by the populace is a bit more important to him than making the tough decisions – perhaps this is why you can feel a sense of apology when speakers confronted him on high-conflict issues such as pipelines and climate change.

These are instances when the body politic is looking for a little bit more from a political leader than just body language.

Troy Media columnist Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications. 

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