Our body language says a great deal about what we’re feeling and thinking. It also helps us evaluate other people. We’re constantly responding to people’s body language subconsciously, so it helps to understand the basics of this fascinating science.
What are we really saying?
You receive an email from a colleague in response to some suggestions you made about a legal matter. It says, simply:
‘Thanks for your input. You’ve raised some interesting points. Let’s speak soon.’
It’s difficult to know exactly how to take that message just by reading the words.
‘Input’ is a neutral word. It doesn’t signify whether your suggestions were well or badly received.
‘Interesting’ could be a euphemism for anything from ‘problematic’ to ‘exciting.’
And depending on what you conclude from this, ‘Let’s speak soon’ could mean ‘This isn’t great – we need to talk’ or ‘I like it. Tell me more.’
Had your colleague spoken these words in a face-to-face situation, you’d have a much clearer idea about what they were thinking.
Because of body language.
Body language is the term for all the non-verbal signals we transmit. It’s an inexact science, so nobody really knows exactly how much of our communication it accounts for. However, most studies agree that it’s at least 50%, with some claiming up to 90%.
What makes body language so powerful is that it can either:
- Send information that runs contrary to what you’re saying; or
- Reinforce what you’re saying, making it more convincing than just pure words.
While seasoned experts can consciously manage their body language, for most people most of the time, it’s involuntary.
On the receiving end, you don’t need to be a psychologist to detect blatant discrepancies between body language and spoken language in day-to-day interactions. Most of us get a sincerity warning signal if a person’s verbal and non-verbal communications are out of kilter.
That said, we also both project and interpret more subtle forms of body language at a subconscious level. In business, this has an enormous effect on our ability to communicate, persuade and lead.
Forms of body language
Most of us have developed the intuition to understand and respond to facial expressions without conscious thought. How we see people respond to us often determines what we say next and how we say it.
Here then, are some of the not so obvious ways to boost the power of your communication and understand the people you meet.
The handshake is often the first opportunity to introduce yourself to another person through body language. It’s also the way we demonstrate agreement at the end of a negotiation. Be ready for a handshake by keeping your right hand free. Then, when shaking hands, establish palm to palm contact, look the other person in the eye and smile.
A firm handshake with eye contact tells the other person you’re confident and assertive. A limp handshake, followed by looking down, suggests submissiveness. You don’t have to be a bonecrusher or a starer. Just keep it business-like and hold it long enough to say ‘It’s good to meet you.’
Eye contact is probably the most powerful element of body language. We have no control of over the way our pupils grow (dilate) or shrink (contract) so our eyes tell the truth, whether we like it or not. When we like the subject we’re talking about – or the person we’re talking to – our pupils dilate. When things are not so interesting, they contract.
The secret to using eye contact to good effect is to look, but not stare. Maintain regular eye contact without getting too persistent. Staring can be aggressive and threatening, while avoiding eye contact is widely regarded as a sign of dishonesty.
There are two main types of sitting posture that indicate how someone is feeling:
- Open, where a person sits facing you with their hands apart, perhaps resting on the chair arms. This posture suggests the person is interested and open to ideas and suggestions. They’re in listening mode; and
- Closed, where the person may sit at a slight angle to you with their legs crossed and arms folded. This person’s body language may suggest they’re uncomfortable or uninterested. It could also mean they’re not confident.
Sitting with legs stretched out to occupy as much space as possible could be a sign of someone seeking to establish dominance.
So too can standing and walking around. However this tactic is good for speaking, both to a roomful of people and over the phone as it allow us to move freely and vary the tone and dynamism in our voice.
Used extensively in sales training, mirroring is a great way to build a rapport with another person. It works by subtly adopting the other person’s body language, mannerisms and speech patterns without them realising it. It’s powerful because we relate to people who we see as being similar to ourselves. Similarities create harmony and help lower barriers between two individuals.
The key here is subtlety. Try mirroring just one element of body language at infrequent intervals to start with, then build slowly from there. If you come across as inauthentic, your efforts will be wasted.
Hand to head
Keep an eye out for hand-to-head gestures when someone is speaking with you. These can indicate that there may be more (or less) to what’s being said. Covering the mouth with a hand, touching the nose or rubbing an eye are all possible signs that you’re being lied to while face-scratching suggests a lack of conviction. If you see a person put their fingers in their mouth, it could be a cry for help. That person could be looking for guarantees or assurances from you.
We also have a range of hand to head gestures as listeners. Scratching our necks, for example, sends a subconscious message that we disagree with the person speaking. We convey interest in what’s being said when we rest a closed hand on our face, usually with the index finger pointing upwards. The boredom gesture, meanwhile, needs little introduction: it’s the classic elbow on table, whole hand supporting the head and the face that looks seconds away from falling asleep.
If we see people stroking their chins as we speak, it’s safe to assume they’re evaluating what we’re saying and, possibly, making decisions on the strength of it.
One last thought
While body language can be very telling, be careful not to draw too many conclusions about a person until you know them well. Some people may, for example, naturally scratch their neck as you speak, yet agree entirely with what you’re saying. What may tell us more are variations in a person’s body language from their normal mannerisms.
Human body language has fascinated psychologists for thousands of years – and continues to do so. And for good reason: our body language shapes the way people see us. From the way we shake hands and make eye contact to how we manage our posture and gesticulate, we’re constantly sending out messages about what we’re thinking and feeling. For this reason we have to be good at both reading the body language of others and aligning our own to what we say.