Body Language

by Mary-Louise Angoujard

Head and face

Have you ever considered how much of your mental attitude is communicated by the simple fact of your head position? Do you take the trouble to communicate fully with your face?

Head positioning

There are limited ways the head can move on its axis: forward and backward, chin up and down, leaning right or left, and rotating right and left (and combinations of the three) – and all indicate certain thought processes or reactions.

Keeping your head position generally straight (although not rigid), rather than leaning it sharply to the right or left, indicates greater confidence and authority.

A slight lifting of the chin can indicate interest, however tilting the head up and back (literally ‘looking down your nose’!) is a superior or distant head position.

Moving both the body and the head back quickly usually indicates a stepping back from what is being said – it’s the same reaction you would have if you suddenly saw or smelled something quite unpleasant!

Chin down

A chin down head position indicates either submission or displeasure. Imagine a 5-year-old who has been told ‘No’: both the face and the head go right down, either in submission or – more usually – in displeasure. This is a more negative, less confident head position.

Now imagine you are going to a senior manager to discuss some project or a particular difficulty. If you approach the matter with your head down or tilted towards the person, this will communicate submission, inferiority or a lack of confidence. Conversely, speaking with the head tilted back (chin pointing slightly up) will tend to communicate superiority, distance, aggression or defensiveness – equally negative emotions.

Neutral

A neutral head position – relaxed but upright (with the chin parallel to the floor) – is the most positive head position in this instance, because it signals a straightforward, matter-of-fact attitude, indicating that you can still be courteous and respectful to the senior manager while talking about the issues at hand.

Tip

If you notice someone in a meeting with their head down, but ‘looking out from under their eyebrows’, this person may not be entirely happy either with what is being said or with a given situation. It is best to check by asking for the person’s input and letting them have their say.

Leaning

When in a social situation, the leaning head position, in which the head is leaning sharply to the side, gives the impression of softness, of letting yourself go towards the other person. It’s a common listening position, but in business this head position strongly detracts from your authority, so be aware of this.

Facial expression

There are about 300 muscles in the face, and our faces have the potential to make thousands of expressions as a result of different combinations of movement of these muscles! Many facial expressions are completely subconscious and so fleeting that they are hardly visible to the naked eye. So we communicate a great deal (both consciously and subconsciously) via our facial expressions – which tend to reflect our thoughts more than we think, in subtle ways.

Some people are better at showing expression than others. Are you a particularly analytical person? If so, there is a chance that you sometimes neglect to engage with others in this way.

Communication works best when we really engage with others, letting our faces reflect appropriate animation and expressions, both while speaking and listening.

If you are delivering good news or talking about something positive, tell your face! Delivering good news with a facial expression that closely resembles a bulldog chewing on a wasp not only lacks impact, it also makes you look less believable and therefore detracts from your authority and credibility. (Lack of facial expression also detracts from rapport with others, since they respond to your facial expressions in communication – and if there aren’t any, then there’s nothing to which they can respond.)

Tip

Most people smile much less often than they think, yet smiling is important for building rapport and helping others to feel comfortable with us.

This does not mean you should be grinning like the legendary Cheshire cat – it just means that authenticity demands that your face, your body language and your words should all be congruent.

Other important aspects of facial expression include movement around the eyes, eyebrows and forehead and about the chin and mouth. (We all know how a smile that doesn’t reach the eyes can be chilling...)

This does not mean that every emotion should be allowed to come through, of course! Courtesy and maturity are important. You aren’t going to wrinkle your nose in distaste when someone offers you a dish you don’t like at a dinner party, for example! And it’s usually not politic or career-enhancing to show overt displeasure when your boss gives you some task that you have been hoping to avoid. In many cases, demonstrating respect and courtesy with a pleasant, more neutral expression is desirable.

But let your face reflect appropriate animation and expressions while speaking, and show a response to others when listening – as this creates more rapport and helps promote true engagement and connection with others in communication.